‘Stuff your eyes with wonder,’ he said, ‘live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic that any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that,’ he said, ‘shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.’
Ray Bradbury was a 20th-century novelist who wrote over 100 short stories and 200 poems and has made several important contributions to American literature. Both his most acclaimed pieces of work, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles belong to the same genre – dystopian science fiction. He wrote his first short story at the young age of 11. Horrified by the horrendous acts of Hitler in his teenage years, the author, Ray Bradbury, couldn’t imagine a hopeful future. That gave birth to the amazing novel – Fahrenheit 451 – which entraps the fear, anger, aggression, and fiery will of the writers writing in this genre.
So, what’s the story of Fahrenheit 451?
Do you know what happens at 451 degrees Fahrenheit? That is the temperature at which paper begins to burn.
Fahrenheit 451 is a novel depicting a world where books are burned in heating rooms; where books aren’t censured by conflicting opinions and words but with kerosene, fire, and enough hatred to drown the whole damn library in flames along with the librarian. The main character of the story is a fireman named Guy Montag. Firemen in Bradbury’s world aren’t the ones who save cats from trees or carry huge water tanks from place to place to save people from hot flames. These firemen burn books and sometimes people. Their only job is to search for books and libraries hidden away by supposed criminals and burn them to the ground. The government of this world has banned owning and reading books. The censorship acts are so strict that even a thing as small as ownership of a book can cost one’s life.
This lead character, Guy Montag, a fireman reeking of kerosene, meets and befriends a young girl from the neighborhood named Clarice. She is a wonderful, inquisitive girl whose suspicious disappearance makes him question the very meaning of his job. He suffers the pain of losing a dear one, and for the first time in his life, he experiences a human feeling. The thought of burning a person alive after that doesn’t let him sleep. All the horrors from his past actions come to haunt him as he stares at the roof, lying awake through the whole night. Every night he burns a book or a person, he starts feeling that the nozzle of the pipe vomits kerosene (like a python spitting fire) on all the things he associated with himself and formed his identity with. Montag felt his identity burn like paper.
Then follows the unforgivable sin. During his work one day, Montag steals a copy of a book for himself. He tries his best to hide it from his boss. He even pretends to fall sick so that he can get some alone time to read it. He goes as far as to spit out this newly settled hatred toward society in his heart right in front of his boss. This is the irony Bradbury wants us to observe. Even as a fireman, Montag cannot contain his curiosity when he is given a chance to read. Opening the book is an act of revolt against his past actions. He realizes that this act of rebellion doesn’t fear him anymore because nothing in his world has any meaning for him anymore.
So what remains to be seen is whether or not he will read the book. If he does, what will be the consequences of his actions? Will his fellow firemen find out his little secret?
Read the book and let us know how you found it in the comments below.
What’s the meaning?
Fahrenheit 451 pictures a dystopian world where reading or owning books is banned. It has evolved versions of TV that one can surround oneself with and get lost in its trivialities. There are mechanical hounds that have enhanced skills for searching for hidden books. The government does its best to control the information and general awareness of reality among people. The news sources are owned by the government, and they only show what is beneficial to them. The spiral of fake news is so rampant that finding the truth becomes as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack. Looking for the truth may endanger one’s life. These news channels antagonize anyone who rebels against the government, making them seem like a threat to the nation. If you think it echoes the current political sceneries around the globe, remember that Bradbury was way ahead of his time.
Bradbury also uses specific symbolism throughout the novel to showcase the parallels between the world of the protagonist and the world inhabited by us. The symbol of the fireman, a red salamander, represents the nights these firemen light up with their act of destruction. Fire is also used to represent the indomitable human spirit and inquisitive nature that spurs human thoughts. Burning books is a disgusting act, but it also relates to the suppression of originality and establishment of authority, favoring only some sections of society. He uses these symbols to help the readers have an immersive experience of the world he has crafted in the novel and help them picture characters and situations as vividly as possible.
Finally, the question that Bradbury really asks is, ‘Is there any meaning to any of our actions?’ Clarice makes Montag look for the meaning of his world. He finds that there is none. The coldness and the lack of empathy shown by the very same people with whom he has been living this entire time shock him to his core. This behavior shown by parents toward their children, doctors toward their patients, the government to its compatriots, and humans toward fellow humans makes him realize what his world lacks. He realizes that only books and knowledge can meaningfully contribute to society.
What do I think of Fahrenheit 451?
What remains really under-appreciated is how Bradbury handles the ability of the protagonist to identify himself. According to me, Montag burns down all the things he associated with his identity, literally, and forms a new one with his newly discovered ideals. This is to say, identity isn’t defined by the things we own or clothes we wear, or the job titles we hold, it is only defined by our ideals and our thoughts.
It is written in the form of a dystopian novel, one that is essentially an imagination of a future nobody wants to see coming to life. It is an important work in this genre. I also believe that Fahrenheit 451 is an excellent example of a futuristic science fiction novel because we see some of the best characters, world-building, and narratives that the real world could inhibit. There are characters, such as Montag and his ruthless boss, crafted from Bradbury’s own understanding of human nature. The narrative is paced sufficiently fast to keep up with the reader’s interest and cover every facet of the problems that this dystopian world can hold up. This world has mechanical dogs, multi-faced television, and a communication system – Shell – that one can just plug in the ear and yell at whomever one desires no matter the distance between. Sounds familiar? Fahrenheit 451 was way ahead of time when it was written.
French philosopher Michel Foucault argues in his study of the origins of the prison, ‘Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison,‘ that modern society is very much like a panopticon where morality and societal relations are often governed by surveillance and corrective methods. This way, the world is forced to move in a certain direction without anyone realizing that they are, in fact, living inside a prison. The government in this book serves as a classic example of an advanced panopticon, a jail where every criminal is secretly observed by the jailer. Montag slowly realizes the prison that surrounds his daily life and attempts to burn it down to the ground.
Why should you read Fahrenheit 451?
As mentioned earlier, Fahrenheit 451 makes you see the dangers of a totalitarian government, i.e. a government that controls the flow of information so heavily that one cannot tell the truth apart from a false lie. This isn’t the first book belonging to this genre; there have been several attempts at portraying a totalitarian world in English fiction ever before. George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are two of the most popular names in this genre. What is special about Fahrenheit 451, however, is that, in the end, it suggests there is a way of coming out of this dystopian world. This way can be pursued through knowledge, which, in turn, comes from reading books instead of burning them.
This book will give you a different perspective of looking at the world as it is today; it’ll help you understand why a certain sort of criticism is different from censorship, why the latter is more dangerous than the former, and why it is important to read books and keep updating our knowledge of this world. It will make you see that burning books isn’t a pleasure at all.