Saturday, 25 July 2015

'Fahrenheit 451' by Ray Bradbury (1953)

Synopsis: Fahrenheit 451 is a work of dystopian fiction and is set somewhere in America (probably in the Midwest). Guy Montag is a 30 year old fireman who starts fires rather than putting them out, as books are banned and anyone found to have them in their possession will have their home and belongings destroyed by firemen. Montag enjoys his job but then on an Autumn night whilst returning home from work he happens to meet his new neighbour: an exceptionally talkative and inquisitive teenage girl called Clarisse McClellan. Clarisse is unlike anyone that Montag has ever met before and he's fascinated by her. The more he talks with Clarisse the more he begins to see his anti-intellectual, conformist society for what it really is. Becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his life, Montag begins to wonder why certain people find books so precious. He then begins to rebel by secretly rescuing and reading several books which causes deep tension in his already strained relationship with his wife Mildred. Meanwhile, Clarisse disappears and Montag's boss Captain Beatty becomes increasingly suspicious about his behaviour.

Erm... wow! This book blew me away and I could barely put it down! The story is highly suspenseful and thrilling and I completely connected with its writing and themes. Bradbury's prose is absolutely wonderful and full of beautiful metaphors and phrases. At times the writing goes into stream-of-consciousness (which isn't something that I usually like at all) but Bradbury manages to write it very, very well and is one of the few authors that I've come across who's been able to make it work for me.

After reading a few articles about this book I've learnt that the majority of its readers have interpreted the story as an attack on the evils of government censorship whereas Bradbury insisted that it was more of a warning about the possibility of television destroying an interest in reading. However, even though Bradbury might not have consciously intended for censorship to be the main theme of his book I think that it's a completely valid message to take from the story. In his afterword for the book's 50th anniversary Bradbury mentions his main inspirations for the story and almost all of these things happen to be examples of censorship. His main inspirations were the Nazi book burnings, the Stalinist "Great Purge", the ruined library of Alexandria and the Salem Witch Trials. Curiously the Salem Witch Trials were also the major source of inspiration for Arthur Miller's The Crucible which is one of my absolute favourite plays. The fact that Miller wrote The Crucible at roughly the same time that Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 is something that I find extremely interesting!

Not only does Bradbury manage to predict earphones, reality television, giant flat-screen TVs, 24 hour cash machines and biometrics in Fahrenheit 451 but for me the most eerie and chilling thing about the entire book was how its dystopia managed to come about. I'm still quite new to the dystopian genre but I do know that the majority of dystopian societies are the result of evil, totalitarian governments or powerful private corporations. But in Fahrenheit 451 it's society itself that's to blame for the dystopia! One of the reasons why books were eventually banned was because people gradually began to find offensive things in them. How incredibly scary and relevant is that in our age of social media outrage?! It seems to me that far too people in our society will respond to things that they find offensive by either hurling personal abuse (which is incredibly unkind and unhelpful) or calling for them to be banned or boycotted, when they could simply choose to ignore the offensive things or argue against them with logic and discussion. I don't believe that we'll ever see books being destroyed by firemen in our society but the ideas in Fahrenheit 451 still hit very close to home for me.

Fahrenheit 451 is a brilliant book and I would recommend it to anyone who loves sci-fi or dystopias or classic literature in general. It's a very short book that could be easily finished in just a couple of hours but it's still a hugely thought-provoking and powerful read. Although the story is at times extremely bleak the ending is surprisingly optimistic and hopeful. The only thing that I'd really criticise about this book would be (SPOILER ALERT!).... Bradbury's casual killing off of Clarisse which even Bradbury himself later regretted, so much so that when he later adapted his own book into a play he changed the ending so that Clarisse was one of the scholars that Montag later meets in the wilderness. I really liked Clarisse and I'd have loved for her and Montag to have interacted more. It's a small complaint though!

Rating: 5/5

P.S. The only screen adaptation of this book is the 1966 film by François Truffaut. I haven't got any real interest in seeing it though as the film looks extremely dated. They also left out Professor Faber and the Mechanical Hound and I find it rather bizarre that Clarisse and Mildred (called Linda in the film) were both played by the same actress. I'd love to see a new adaptation of the book though!


Mònica said...

Good point about the social media outrage. It kind of creeps me out how when people find something offensive, instead of slowing down and thinking about it they just instantly call for it to be banned or boycotted. I understand the instantaneous knee-jerk reaction that comes with finding something hurtful in a book or online, but just eradicating what you dislike is no way to fix a problem.
Oops, I went on a rant. That happens.
I've read some of Ray Bradbury's writing, I really like the atmosphere in his writing! I forgot what book it was in, but there was one collection of stories that had a really nice free verse about October in the introduction. That one actually inspired me to go on a short-lived poetry writing stint, haha.
Just of out of curiosity, if you were one of the scholars that Montag meets at the end of the book, which book would you memorize?

Hamlette said...

Love this book! I don't tend to like dystopian fiction, but this is a big exception to that, and for many of the same reasons you mention here. Glad you like it so well!

Hannah said...

Monica - No, I liked your rant! And it wasn't really a rant as such. You made a very calm and thoughtful point that I completely agreed with :)

I'll definitely be reading more of Bradbury's works at some point. He's a truly wonderful writer.

I think I'd have to go for either John's gospel or the Psalms but that's one tough question!

Hamlette - Thank you! This book is actually the first "classic dystopia" that I've read. I wasn't the least bit interested in dystopian fiction until I read 'The Hunger Games' books (which I loved). I think I'll have to read and like quite a few more dystopias before I can safely call myself a fan.