What is Fahrenheit 451 about?
There aren’t that many people who’ve obtained any level of ‘fame’ that I’d be that enthusiastic to meet – however if there were no line that separated the living from the departed, the list of those who reached notoriety would sky-rocket from two to ten. Ray Bradbury, one of the most prolific science fiction writers, has been holding that top spot since 2012 when a teacher that I greatly admired suggested I read one of his works because he thought I’d “…pull some actual value…” from him. The apprehension came as I’d never read a piece of science fiction literature that I liked, let alone tolerated – but I read one of his greatest achievements, Fahrenheit 451, and began to really understand a man I’d never met. Ironically, I first read a Bradbury novel the same year he died; but irony works funny like that – it’s like the author’s way of saying, “Now that I’m in a wooden box, you must read what I’ve written to obtain any semblance of who I was.”
“It was a pleasure to burn.” That first sentence totally annihilates all other first sentences. But wait, it gets so much better. The imagery and metaphor in the first paragraph are what book-reading space cadets like myself thrive off of – “…with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world…” is one of those lines – it’s a ripe and tasty line that’s seemingly plucked from the rare ‘novel tree’ every few decades. For example, words like “venomous,” “python”, “kerosene”, or “burn” infer that the book sitting before you is not coated in a thick, artificial shell of sunshine and rainbows.
Imagery is a tool that’s seemingly used throughout the novel. By looking at the book, we see it as an image of freedom and identity for our characters. Guy Montag, who never wanted to be in the reverse world of fire fighting, realizes that he must – this it’s part of the job for the fire department to set the fires rather than put them out. Books are illegal – a drug in the dystopian future. The image of a book now feels wrong and the idea of throwing them in a pile just to be set ablaze feels like home. It’s warped, truly. But it’s truly and feverishly written in a way only Bradbury knew how.
The novel is split into three parts and the first section – The Hearth & The Salamander – gives us a glimpse into the budding relationship and the wilting relationships that the protagonist, Guy Montag, must live through – forcibly or not. First, we are introduced to Clarisse McClellan, a new neighbor to Montag. When Clarisse asks, Guy presents a conservative view of his livelihood. Through this dialogue, we are given an image of crime and punishment through a warped Orwellian lens – it is prohibited for any firefighter to read any material before it is engulfed in flame. “Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes, then burn the ashes.”
Here we realize that it is much less a job and more a sorrowful sonnet written for a society that doesn’t understand the novelization of ideas.
By looking at the conflict(s) between freedom of thought and censorship, we can see the internal struggles, Guy Montag, faces while battling this new dystopian world as described in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Soon enough we meet Mildred, Guy’s wife who is painfully oblivious to the world around her – this is where Bradbury really begins to tell of the horrors put forth by submission in a world much less built for artists and poets are more for silence and severe abeyance.
Mildred becomes obsessed with immersing herself in the digital and is becoming less and less compatible with her husband with every new gadget that enters their home. In Part I, Mildred longs to have the fourth wall ripped down and replaced with a screen. By painting her desperate, Bradbury suggests that she requires a specific level of fantastical distraction and avoidance from her roles as a human being. The biggest issue here is presented when Mildred feels that the life she is choosing to live is normal and expected.
Bradbury begins to play into the ideas presented with societal escapism here. For example, when Guy meets up with a 17-year-old Clarisse after leaving Mildred back at home, he realizes that he longs for more freedom and less of what can be found within a screen – he is no longer in love with his wife.
Fahrenheit 451 reads like a novel about a fireman not fully understanding why reading is so bad, but it also reads like an instruction manual. Bradbury adds to a social commentary – focusing on structures of friends, life, and value. Burning books in the novel become the way of sheep – if a certain work offends a certain group, it shall not be enjoyed at all. Yet, we need books that can ignite passionate, interesting conversations; not to give out the ending, but Fahrenheit 451 zooms in on that idea of conversing over a tool – a book. We are told throughout the novel that slowing down the paces of our lives is far more beneficial than making any certifiably mad dashes or irrational decisions. For example, in Part I, we are introduced to the ‘stretched-out billboards’ that were created with the intention of the world’s wonder not fleeting by drivers on the highway. Of course, this is another concept brought forth by Bradbury, one that tests the narrow line between fantasy and felony. Something as simple as grass or a rose garden, houses, or cows are just blurs of their dominant colors – green, pink, white, and brown – and we realize that slowing down to catch glimpses of these actual objects and not concepts, is prohibited. We as humans are told all too often to slow down for enjoyment right before we are told to speed up again for dawdling.
The fruit-flavored wines of life are simple and all too often we remain oblivious to the simple rarities that have allowed our society to survive for years, and now we are deeming ourselves the grand Messiah at making an attempt to change the rules by replacing life’s simple pleasures with something blue-lit and digital.
There is no written code that states that every reader must infer the same things about what has been written; and in no way does Bradbury suggest that. He is merely expressing the desire that everyone should read and that if we don’t, there’s no real need to burn them. We are fortunate for the outlets that make these people much less rotting corpses that lay stagnant under the dirt and more so actual humans that live endlessly within pages that carry the scent of libraries and well-read, yellow-tinted paper.
- Amanda Vogel