Book Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Goodreads Description: Guy Montag is a fireman. In his world, where television rules and literature is on the brink of extinction, firemen start fires rather than put them out. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden.
Montag never questions the destruction and ruin his actions produce, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television 'family'. But then he meets an eccentric young neighbor, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people did not live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas in books instead of the mindless chatter of television.
When Mildred attempts suicide and Clarisse suddenly disappears, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known.
My Review: "We have everything we need to be happy but we aren't happy. Something is missing...
It is not books you need, it's some of the things that are in books. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us."
Guy Montag seems like a happy, fulfilled man as he leaves his work as a fireman one night. He loves his job, his wife, and any nagging feelings of wrongness are washed away in the cacophony of mass media. Until the night he meets Clarisse, a curious 17-year-old who questions the barrage of ads and enjoys unusual pastimes like walking and chatting with people. Clarisse lives in a way that is completely contrary to what Montag is used to: she stops to observe the morning dew, she looks out for the man in the moon, she plays with dandelions to see if Montag is in love-- all of this childish innocence is enough to shake Montag of his certainty in life. Why don't people talk to each other? What did fireman do before they burned books?
Is he happy?
The transformation for Montag comes swiftly after that-- nothing in his life is luxurious anymore, nothing is worth whistling over. In fact, everything is dark, save for the flickering glow from the television wall screens that dominate his wife's time-- dominate everyone's time-- and Montag walks like a ghost through his life. He sees his wife with new eyes-- a woman who constantly keeps her Seashells, thimble radios, pressed to her ears so she never has to think, stuck in the room with screens covering three walls showing mindless television where she can't even discern a plot. Within their home, the pair were as far apart as two people could be. Technology brought Montag and his wife, Mildred, closer to the world and yet opened an ocean of space between them that Montag couldn't hope to cross alone. Upon arriving home, Montag finds the answer to Clarisse's question in the form of his near-lifeless wife, having swallowed an entire bottle of pills in a suicide attempt.
They're not happy, he realizes. Maybe no one is. Yet Montag and Mildred had done everything right, hadn't they? They had everything they needed (save for maybe a screen on the fourth wall to complete their TV room), so why was everything so wrong? They didn't talk about sadness and emotion, or anything beyond the surface level, so why were so many people lining up to take their own lives?
Maybe the answer was in the books.
I feel like I could write books about this book. Maybe that's what truly makes a classic a classic-- whether the conversation continues past the last page. Despite being written approximately 60 years ago, Fahrenheit 451 feels so incredibly relevant in our modern society dominated by mass media entertainment and an anti-intellectual "fake news" rejection of facts. The thing that makes F451 truly terrifying, and incredibly real, is the idea that the government did not crack down on books and ban them, rather it was the people themselves who checked out from reading in favour of mass media that didn't challenge or inspire emotion. The majority chose to stop thinking and began to feel challenged, inferior to, even threatened by well-read individuals who questioned the status quo. The laws banning books came because the majority wanted them.
In Bradbury's dystopia, the reader doesn't feel the presence of the big bad as much as in other dystopian novels, such as 1984. The government oppression is felt through the work of the firemen, but as Montag is one of them, it's less a feeling of boogeymen hunting you down in the night and more like having an illusion shattered. It made the novel feel more personal; this is the story of a man's awakening, an intellectual "coming of age," framed within a dystopic setting. What makes Montag different from many other main characters of this type of sci-fi is that he generally didn't question the society he was born into until being triggered by Clarisse. Once he realizes that he's not happy, that something in his world is very wrong, he learns how to question things. But boy, is he awful at it-- he asks dangerous questions at work, lets phrases slip like 'once upon a time,' and just generally can't keep his secret books secret for the life of him. Montag stumbles into learning to think with all the grace of a toddler learning to walk, which grants him an innocence that reflects his level of intellectual development.
Aside from reminding me of the terrors of majority tyranny, F451 poignantly touches on the feeling of disconnect that is born out of a mass media society. When we perceive that our social needs are being met by technology, we stop reaching out to others, and then often don't understand why we're struck with feelings of emptiness, depression, and anger. We can see this displayed through Mildred in how she checks out from the rest of the world. Even sleeping, she feels she needs to have the Seashells blasting in her ears, possibly to escape something in herself or, as is implied by the narrative, that she's searching for connection and finds it through watching the television show "the family." She obviously doesn't get her needs met this way, as the reader first meets her during a suicide attempt.
Montag begins to realize how much distance lays between them by asking Mildred if she remembers how they met. The fact that neither can remember their first encounter could show how identity can be washed away when you allow yourself to stop engaging -- with the world as well as people around you. This is further supported when Montag eventually does remember how they met, and by then he's fully realized as his own thinking, feeling person. We can see after Mildred's suicide attempt that she doesn't have a great grasp on her emotions or inner world (or she's blatantly lying) when she denies attempting suicide, insisting "I wouldn't do that. Why would I do that?" I feel like that last question is especially important, as this is almost a legitimate question. Mildred has no idea why she would attempt suicide (they're happy, aren't they?) and yet she did. Her inability to put words to her emotions keeps her from truly knowing herself, as well as knowing anyone else. Montag also suffers from this inability to talk about his feelings or serious subjects, as we can see when he tries to talk to Mildred about the suicide attempt. At first he rolls over and agrees that the reason Mildred feels unwell is due to a party, and later even when he is able to say she attempted suicide, he gives her an easy out to avoid conflict ("Maybe you took two pills and then forgot and took two more...").
Mildred and Montag don't know how to talk to one another, because people simply don't talk anymore. And how can one get their social needs met by another living person if they don't know how to instigate it? But it's not just Montag and Mildred who can't communicate-- this distance can be felt everywhere. It's highlighted when the "men with machines" come to treat Mildred for her suicide attempt-- these men see "nine or ten cases [of suicide] a night," and Montag notes how cold and impersonal these men are in their work. "Nobody knows anyone," Montag thinks. That's certainly true in Bradbury's world. Bradbury's book would have us believe that mass media in itself is inherently harmful, but anyone living today would hardly deny the positives that mass media can achieve. However, relying on technology to replace human interaction and using it to consume rather than create could definitely lead someone to ending up like Mildred.
As for dystopians go, the ending is a rather positive note. I'm doing my best to avoid spoilers here, but comparing it against something like 1984, F451 doesn't leave you completely soul crushed and dots you with a bit of hope. It very much reads as a warning for what could come, but also shows ways that resistance can be achieved by individuals.
Books, therein lies the power. But books on shelves do nothing but collect dust. They're meaningless bindings of paper. You need to read them, internalize them, then burn them and actualize its message. Don't become so attached to the tome that it sits like a totem to an ideal you never try to make a reality.
TL;DR: 5/5 stars. Fucking read it, okay? Could you not tell from this gushing review that I love this? In fact if you don't read it, I'll punch you.