It was a pleasure to burn.
Back in school, I was lucky enough to have studied philosophy, where I was introduced to a number of profoundly impactful dystopian novels, such as 1984, Brave New World, and Animal Farm. In recent years, I often saw Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury mentioned alongside them. I finally got my hands on a copy and, you know when people say a book was ‘unputdownable’? Well, this was one of those; which wasn’t a problem, in part due to its modest size, but also due to the galloping speed at which the writing propels the story forward.
Our protagonist is Guy Montag, who holds the most important of jobs. In a world where books, reading, and any type of individual thought are deemed the ultimate threat to a ‘happy’, functioning society, Montag is one of the firemen charged with finding and burning these most dangerous of possessions. However, within the first couple of pages, a short-lived character, Clarisse, enters his world, only to upend it.
She and her family are depicted as ‘other’: walks with no purpose, house lights on after dark, loud, merry conversations audible from the street. In a world where people are encouraged to stay home between the walls of their ‘parlours’ (equivalent to a surround TV experience), their behaviour is suspicious and unsettling for those around them.
“You think too many things”, said Montag, uneasily.
In contrast, Montag’s wife Mildred strives to be the prototype obedient citizen – enthusiastically drowning in the cacophony of her parlour without truly following what’s going on, hearing only conversation that she is willing to engage with.
What’s notable in this story – all the novels mentioned above feature characters who become disillusioned with their worlds, and begin to rebel to some extent – is the speed, and openness, with which Montag begins to question his society, and his own state of mind.
Clarisse doesn’t fill him with her own opinions; rather, she stimulates and awakens in him deep- seated understanding of a past more meaningful life, and new yearnings for what could be. Once awakened, the thought possesses him, and very quickly the story escalates to a high speed race to freedom.
Bradbury’s grasp and use of the power of language is so masterful and effective – the loud, dramatic, colourful, frenetic language used to describe Montag and the firemen is placed in sharp contrast to the quietly vibrant, pale, contemplative language used to introduce us to Clarisse. The bulk of the novel is narrated at great volume and speed; capturing perfectly the swift, frantic crumbling of Montag’s world as he knew it.
There are some enthralling, stand-out passages; I particularly loved the passage where Montag’s boss Beatty explains to him the origin of the fireman role, in context of how things got to where they are by then.
“We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought.“
This can then be juxtaposed with an alternate passage where Faber, a character from Montag’s past who is to play a pivotal role in the unfolding of the story, gives his take on how and why things got to be this way.
“The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.“
The novel is populated with what could be seen as stereotypical characters in this world; yet, for each, we catch glimpses of their underlying humanity buried under the oppression of a bleak existence. Our introduction to Mildred implies that some part of her too is dissatisfied with such a dulled existence.
A world where books and individual thought are not allowed inevitably makes us consider personal and societal freedom, and what they mean to us. When I was younger, I understood freedom as quite a physical state: the ability to go where I wanted, do the things I wanted to, largely unimpeded. As the years have gone on, freedom as a state of mind has become much more meaningful. The books in Fahrenheit 451 represent more than the stories in them: they represent the assurance of transmission of knowledge, ideas, and generational discussions down through history; they represent the possibility of learning from past generations, and moving up the evolutionary spiral of human consciousness; they are a catalyst for individual thought, and intellectual probing; all of which are the enemy of a state wishing to keep its citizens passively placid.
I found this story absolutely captivating, the writing so compelling and immersive. There is always a particular poignancy when reading cult classics, written several decades back, that have turned out to be somehow prophetic. If this one is anything to go by, I’m looking forward to finding out what other novels Bradbury produced.
Fahrenheit 451 is available in Ireland from Dubray Books