My introduction to Ray Bradbury was Dandelion Wine, long ago and far away. I was quite surprised to find out he was a science fiction writer when I stumbled across the present book, yet I found even at the tender age of 12 or 13, that many of the things he wrote about in Dandelion Wine--the importance of human connections and the individual’s exploration of the natural world—remain in Fahrenheit 451.
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Guy Montag is a fireman, but not in the sense that we’re familiar with. In the world of Fahrenheit 451, Houses are fireproof. Firemen are those who burn books with kerosene pumped in through hoses. It is illegal to own books.
At first blush, this seems like an argument against the censorship wrought by a heavy-handed police state. However, there’s something more complex going on here. The people have consented tacitly to be satisfied with non-controversial entertainment. Although they know on one level that this is hollow, for the most part they do little about it. Guy comes home to find that his wife has attempted suicide. He’s horrified, and seeks medical attention for her. Later, she has no memory of the incident. It would be silly of her to take all her sleeping pills. Why would she do something like that?
Guy has met a younger woman, a new neighbor, a peculiar free-thinking woman who has conversations with her family. “But what do you talk about?” he asks her, finding the idea of people having conversations…quaint. Her openness makes him feel the distance from his wife all the more sharply, though. They walk home together.
One day, the fire station gets a call and ends up burning about a thousand books. To Guy’s dismay, the owner, an elderly woman, will not leave her kerosene-soaked library. He and the other men in his company watch in horror as she pulls out a common kitchen match.
All this sets off a lot of soul-searching in Montag, which his chief understands. When he doesn’t show up for work the next day, he pays him a visit. He understands Montag is “sick,” and explains the true history of the firemen, not the one that’s posted at the fire station. With the advent of film, life got faster, people got used to accepting shorter, simpler books. And you had to be careful not to offend anyone. It’s the fireman’s job to keep society happy and tranquil so that people don’t get too riled up. He tells Guy:
”It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals."
At this point, the government is merely enforcing the will of the people. Firemen go through these periods of doubt, the chief explains. So when will Montag be back to work?
An interesting symbol is that of the phoenix, a mythological bird who dies and is reborn from its own ashes. Along with a salamander (a real animal, who was once believed to be impervious to fire), the phoenix is emblazoned on the uniforms and vehicles of the fireman. It’s also mentioned at the end, where there’s hope for a new civilization, born from the ashes of nuclear war, that will not repeat the mistakes of those who went before.
The significance of the title is that it’s the temperature at which paper burns.
Reading this again for the first time in many years, I realize I’ve forgotten the vivid, impressionistic imagery Bradbury uses. When Montag, undressing in the dark, kicks an empty pill bottle and realizes his sleeping wife has overdosed, this is how Bradbury describes his agony:
As he stood there the sky over the house screamed. There was a tremendous ripping sound as if two giant hands had torn ten thousand miles of black linen down the seam. Montag was cut in half. He felt his chest chopped down and split apart. The jet-bombs going over, going over, going over, one two, one two, one two, six of them, nine of them, twelve of them, one and one and one and another and another and another, did all the screaming for him. He opened his own mouth and let their shriek come down and out between his bared teeth. The house shook. The flare went out in his hand. The moonstones vanished. He felt his hand plunge toward the telephone.
For the two of you out there who have not read this classic, I urge you to read it as time permits. Some of the film adaptations have been good, but the book is even better.
---In memory of Ray Bradbury--
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