Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451: Dystopian Anxiety and Robotic Hound Dogs

F451Hey, all you Hunger Games fans: Breaking News Alert! Dystopian literature came long before Katniss and Peeta were fighting against the Capitol and President Snow. In fact, way back in 1953, science-fiction-mystery-fantasy-horror writer Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, a chilling tale of a futuristic American society where books are outlawed. Firemen in Bradbury’s America protect society by burning any books that are found—protecting citizens from information, knowledge, empathy, and connection. The story centers around Guy Montag, a fireman struggling to find happiness in this censored and controlled world.

Lara: So, it turns out I made it through my formative years not having read this book. I know I have read some Bradbury . . . The Illustrated Man . . . but not this one. You’ve read it. Right?

Jennifer: Well, I think I’ve gone forty-five years thinking I’ve read it, but I’m not sure I really had.

But, yes, here is an early dystopian vision from 1953. Let’s get a handle on this dystopian thing. Here’s Wikipedia’s take on dystopia. Very basically, dystopian visions offer potential future societies that have often gone totally awry—and the inherent problems hark back to current societal evils. Fahrenheit 451 is one such literary vision. Two other famous literary endeavors are George Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1949) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (published in 1932). Then, kids might’ve read The Giver by Lois Lowry. Recently, we had The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006). And before the onslaught of The Hunger Games, we had Mad Max. And, Lara, you won’t like this because I know you unfairly hate it, but The Walking Dead is part of our dystopian-worship.

I think the interesting questions surrounding this and other dystopian works are: Why all this future anxiety? Why are we so freaked out when we ponder our fate? Then, we might ask if there is any truth in particular visions, and should we be doing something about it.

Lara: I can’t speak to many of the books you have listed because futuristic, dystopian lit really isn’t my thing . . . But I can tell you that I do see some truth in Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury has created this culture of disconnect. There’s no art or literature or examples through which people can ponder and question and ask why. There’s no curiosity—on any real level. I see some of that happening today. There’s a lot of superficiality in the contemporary world. There’s a lot of disconnect, despite technology that is supposed to connect us. And there’s infinite conflict. In our homes, our communities, and the world. This book covers a lot of that.

Jennifer: Well, the book is interesting in that it’s so ahead of its time, but also off, too. It’s off, because—in part—no one really knew where we’d land. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury had the amazing foresight to predict the wild big screen TVs with potential havoc—but he didn’t know about social media or smart phones. So, he was ahead of his time, but bound by it too.

I think he was very much off on one important thing: He’s off on human nature. That he conceives of the future human as doing away with love or connection seems off to me. That’s an undeniable, universal part of human nature. We need others; we love; we exist in relationships. I think we’ll never be headed in this direction. It comes from a false premise or belief about humanity. Despite our dehumanizing behaviors, humans can’t exist without love and relationships. Bradbury’s vision wouldn’t happen.

An example: the hound. Never gonna happen. Remember the dog in The Jetsons? Astro? Was he also a robot? The thing about humanity is that we will never give up our puppies.

The point: I think Bradbury was ahead of his time in many things, but off-the-mark in understanding some universals about human nature.

Lara: Actually, he doesn’t do away with it. That’s why he has Clarisse McClellan in the book. She’s the young and “crazy” girl who does question things. She tastes the falling rain on her lips, rubs a dandelion under chins to see if people are in love. And, her death, by those who fear her, is Montag’s catalyst to fight the system. She’s the reason he pulls books out of hiding and tracks down Professor Faber to help him understand the world before books and thinking were banned.

I loved Clarisse. She gets Montag thinking when she engages him about his work:

“Do you mind if I ask? How long you’ve worked at being a fireman?”

“Since I was twenty, ten years ago.”

“Do you ever read any of the books you burn?”

He laughed, “That’s against the law!”

“Oh. Of course.”

Clarisse was innocent yet thoughtful, and she encouraged Montag to question what he just patently and blindly believed. And, in the end, Montag fights for humanity—and wins.

Jennifer: Yes. I do think, though, that many dystopian visions fail to recognize that humans are humans. In this, Clarisse is an anomaly. She will never be an anomaly.

But maybe Bradbury’s point is that the Clarisses never die, really. In the end, Clarisse will triumph. I am interested in the logistics, however, of such cruel, Clarisse-hating societies. How could that happen?

This is a great passage on the enigmatic powers-that-be:

“Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”

In other words, humans need to avoid thinking; they need to avoid internal conflict. Contrast this with an earlier passage on how Montag feels when he encounters the humanity present in Clarisse:

“He felt his body divide itself into a hotness and a coldness, a softness and a hardness, a trembling and a not trembling, the two halves grinding one upon the other.”

Such is real life: internal conflict, thinking, and the need for resolution which doesn’t come easy. Bradbury’s nightmarish dystopian society looks for easy resolution without thinking.

Lara: In some ways, it could happen more easily than we think. I mean, just this morning, we discussed how some schools don’t allow Hunger Games to be read in school (though they may allow Lord of the Flies). Isn’t that outrageous? But, yet, they can make that choice. So a few banned books may not create a widespread apocalypse, but there’s still a lot of fear in the world . . . fear that drives questionable or limiting or dangerous outcomes. With fear, we also get complacency and consent.

And that’s why we need the Clarisses, those who instantly question, and the Montags who come around and are willing to stand up. And, you! Didn’t you once protest when James Baldwin was questioned by some parents in your little parent posse?

It reminds me of this passage from the book:

“Do you know that books smell like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land? I loved to smell them when I was a boy. Lord, there were a lot of lovely books before we let them all go . . . Mr. Montag, you are looking at a coward. I saw the way things were going, a long time back. I said nothing. I’m one of the innocents who could have spoken up and out when no one would have listened to the ‘guilty,’ but I did not speak, and thus became guilty myself.”

Jennifer: Yeah, I’ve gotten bent out of shape over book-banning issues a number of times. I’ve thrown fits over parents wanting to ban Go Tell It On The Mountain, The Book Thief, and The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve also freaked out a little about Harry Potter, even though I haven’t read the books. So, yes: I’m no friend of book-banning.

At any rate, you’re right. I think Bradbury’s genius is more evident in his understanding of information control than it is in his understanding of human nature. I won’t harp on this—but that marriage: also not gonna happen. So count me out on the dog and the marriage.

I did think an especially gut-wrenching scene was when his wife attempts suicide and is “fixed.” And how the fixing is routine, all in a night’s work, for the people who show up on Montag’s doorstep.

There are probably too many things here for us to adequately deal with, but I’ll mention just a few:

  • Bradbury chooses to quote Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” of all the poems in the world. That’s an essay right there.
  • The history of book-burning. Thinking about Hitler.
  • The history of the suppression of the Arts. Thinking about Stalin.Which was partly on Bradbury’s mind.
  • The discussion in this novel of the Phoenix, rising from the flames. Granger, the drifter/hero/exile speaks of how humans have the ability to learn from their mistakes, to hold mirrors up to themselves, to not repeat their historical mistakes. (I’m sure we could launch a whole big discussion on this in light of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and the weird backlash it’s had on refugees.)

Bottom-line: This book is majorly thought-provoking. I also found it very well-written. One passage and I’m done:

“And the men with the cigarettes in their straight-lined mouths, the men with the eyes of puff adders, took up their load of machine and tube, their case of liquid melancholy and the slow dark sludge of nameless stuff, and strolled out the door.”

Lara: Bottom-line . . . you’re right. And so many good passages: I will add another gem before we sign off.

This is Professor Faber, talking to Montag:

“You’re a hopeless romantic . . . It would be funny if it were not serious. It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books… No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for. Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

Oh Faber…

Next Up!

Stay tuned for our year-end recap. The best of the best! The worst of the worst! And even the meh. Happy reading, Snotties!


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One Comment

  1. Natalie Braunger December 22, 2015 at 11:39 am - Reply

    Nicely done ladies! Surprising to me that neither of you had read this a young person. It resonated with me in my adolescence, and it continues to be a favorite. Nice dialogue and connections to current events. Keep up the good work, I certainly enjoy the commentaries!

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