Imagine a world in which television corporations control the news and the way in which people partake of information. A world where children kill one another in their schools and nothing is done to prevent it; where police chases are televised; in which people feel closer to characters in bland soap operas broadcast onto television screens the size of walls than to members of their own families; in which suicide attempts are treated as routine and time-consuming; where people who question the status quo are treated by the government as “undesirable elements”; and where a knowledge of literature, history, philosophy or ethics is condemned as being “difficult” and “elitist”.
It’d have to be a science fiction scenario, wouldn’t it? Because, let’s face it, that could never happen in our world. Could it?
When I first read Fahrenheit 451 in 1984 (see what I did there?), I was amazed at the writing, at the lyrical clarity of the words Bradbury put on the page, and by the excitement of the story. It was only a few years later that I realised it had introduced me to the concept of censorship and totalitarianism, and the possible damages that it can inflict upon a society. It also taught me that society needs to have dangerous ideas explored, tested before they are discarded or acted upon.
So let’s take a quick look at the story.
Guy Montag is a fireman whose job it is to burn books. The government decided long ago that too much learning was dangerous, promoting ideas society wasn’t able to deal with, so now anybody who owns books is seen as a dissident. When they are discovered their homes are destroyed and they are imprisoned. Most members of this society are only functionally literate, preferring to watch television which has taken the place of real activity, which in turn has become more violent by nature, faster, riskier, more “extreme” if you like.
At any rate, one day Montag meets his neighbour, a girl called Clarisse. She encourages him to look at the stars, smell flowers and have genuine conversations. She is seen as a dissident, with her entire family being monitored by the state. Montag falls under her spell because he himself has become a secret rebel: he has begun to amass an illicit library of books. He also discovers that his wife has tried to commit suicide and has no recollection of the attempt. Her dismissal of her inner turmoil and the complacent attitude shown to her by the medics assigned to revive her highlight the cruelty and banality of this society. Montag begins to question what he does and the world he lives in. These conflicts lead him to make decisions that he might not have dreamt of earlier, decisions that, combined with other events in the wider world, could lead to the complete transformation of his society.
Wisely, Bradbury ends Montag’s story at the beginning of this transformation: it is, after all, the story of Montag’s personal revolution. The details of Montag’s future are left to our imaginations. He eschews the epic rebellion that later writers would have devoted a trilogy or more to and the book is the better for it. Montag is not a conventional hero. He is physically brave and strong, but he wavers: his choices are made out of necessity and he is physically sickened by the transformation that he is undergoing, as any normal person would be. At the beginning of the novel he is a troubled individual, blindly accepting of what he has to do, despite the secret library he has been collecting. It is the actions of his wife, of Clarisse and of his boss that finally make his decisions for him. By the last page, he is still unsure of himself and of what he has to do, but he has become stronger, more assertive and more willing to take the risks that his old self would have rejected: he no longer exists in his world, he lives in it, takes part in it.
A recent re-read found it to be just as powerful as when I first read it over thirty years ago. We have a government that is angry at efforts by people to question it, we have a homogenised society that doesn’t like people to be “different”, we have news bulletins devoted to product launches while important events are shunted into the background, and we have a culture that celebrates and reifies the “new”, the “expensive” and the “startling.”
It speaks to me about problems in our society. When it was written it was heralded as a warning of what society could become. Like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible it can be read as a parable of the McCarthyism that was wreaking havoc through the intellectual circles of the time. Or you can look at it as an extension of the anti-intellectualism that swallowed so much common sense in academic circles a couple of decades ago (the sort of “literacy is a symptom of a decaying, patriarchal, caucasian society” guff that we joked darkly about, only to be replaced by the distrust of “experts” that has cropped up in recent years.) Bradbury himself denied that it was about censorship, rather that it was about what happens when people become more interested in mass media than in reading. Or to paraphrase Aldous Huxley, feeling rather than thinking.
But now, more than sixty years after its publication, it is even more timely. In a world that bears so many similarities to Bradbury’s dystopian vision it carries a story and a message that remains readable and relevant.
You can purchase a particularly handsome edition of Fahrenheit 451 from here: https://www.foliosociety.com/au/fahrenheit-451.html (I know it’s another Folio book – they’re just so pretty)