I was first introduced to Fahrenheit 451 in Bermuda, on holiday, when I was 16 years old. It was a very odd experience. Instead of reading the book, I saw it performed as a play. Imagine a small stage upon which amateur actors are prancing about in Bermuda shorts. If you have never seen this glorious item of clothing then you have lived a happier life than I. They are bizarre enough in everyday life, but when they are associated with the disturbing and dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451 they become frankly traumatising. To distract myself from the clothing debacle on stage, a man was snoring rather contentedly next to me which, unfortunately, was more entertaining than the performance and engrossed almost the entire audience (there were no more than 50 people in the room). So, in general then, not a good start. But here I am, 4 years later, with an entirely different perspective. I really loved it.
I have never really given science fiction a proper go, and after reading this I feel a little bit ashamed not to have taken it more seriously in the past. This book made me ridicule my own previously simplistic attitudes towards the genre, believing that it could offer me entertainment in the form of spaceships, robots and aliens but nothing really related to the actual world. There would be no moral or social commentaries, no real insight into an individual struggle or character transformation. These books could provide you with a quick escape from reality, but would fall short in revealing anything of value. Well, oops. Don’t I feel silly. Because this book did.
I chose to read this book as it seemed to neatly link to my previous post about the importance of reading and the power of books in connecting the individual to society. Upon reading the first few pages, this preconception was justified. Before the title page of my (beautiful) edition the title itself is explained; ‘Farenheit 451: the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns’. Immediately, all book lovers of the world will cringe and mumble obscenities under their breath. Burning books = not okay. Yet, this book is set in a time when burning them is accepted, encouraged and enjoyed.
The first page describes Montag, the protagonist, burning books and deriving a sick pleasure from the act. It is said that, ‘It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed’. Throughout the text, society encourages destruction, excessive consumption and inexplicable violence. We are told that children kill each other, that breaking windows and crashing cars are genuine acts of enjoyment, and that life must continuously be dominated by noise and spectacle. The world of the novel is inherently delusional, with characters believing themselves to be happy and powerful when in fact they are unconsciously rejecting their true identities. Mildred is the representative of the human condition in the novel. Willingly ignorant of herself and others and frightened of emerging from her societal shell lest she be forced to honestly perceive her life, Mildred is incapable of intimately connecting with another person. Her ‘family’ are found on her parlour walls, and she feels more affinity with their inane shouting than her husband’s progressively emotional and pleading discussions with her. Indeed, Mildred, and the majority of other characters have become more machine than human. The exceptions, Clarisse, Faber, and the homeless men Montag encounters at the end of the novel are those that prompt him to escape this horrific state of stasis. The main event that seems to trigger Montag’s rejection of society, and its practice of burning books, is the death of a woman when she sets her own home, and herself, alight in contempt of the societal constraint placed upon individual thought and autonomy. Montag states that up to this point he had felt no remorse in burning books as, ‘things couldn’t really be hurt’. When discussing the event with Mildred he says, ‘There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine’. This is the crux of the entire novel. Why are books important? What do they represent? It seems clear that books symbolise freedom and knowledge. To sit and read a book necessitates leisure time and thought. It prompts a consideration of the world around you whilst also enabling an escape from reality. Books can be a weapon against society and against dominant ideologies. Beatty thus states that a book is ‘a loaded gun in the house next door’ that needs to be burnt and destroyed. The reading of books is inherently connected to human consciousness with Beatty stating that to burn books is to ‘breach man’s mind’. To control the human mind is to have absolute power. With this power society has succeeded in replacing the experience of genuine happiness, peace and fulfillment with ignorance.
I could go on and on and on about this book, and I apologise for this posts lack of a coherent structure! I will end with this final thought…
The tagline for Fahrenheit 451, written in 1954, is that it is ‘ a novel of a strange and weird future’. Good grief, could our society become the one described in this book? Where individual thought is constrained and muted by the overwhelming media output? Where spectacle and image are more important and more appealing than substance? Where lies and deceit are more widespread than honesty and authenticity? Where people are replaced with machines and profit is valued above all?
Hmmm, food for thought indeed.
P.S For those of you that haven’t read this book, do it. Would be very interested in hearing anyone’s opinion on the text, especially if you would like to highlight any areas I didn’t focus on. (The Hound. I know, I know, it is pretty darn significant). Thank you!