Fahrenheit 451, written by Ray Bradbury, is a futuristic science-fiction novel set in a dystopian future where reading books is prohibited by the Law.
The novel is set in a possible dystopian future. The setup is minimal; the author only describes the relevant details about the city which is a future version of the society. Reading books is prohibited. People in possession of books are hunted and their books, and their home are set on fire. The fire fighters have turned into arsonists. They are given the responsibility to hunt down the book readers and burn their possessions.
“Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?”
The city is also a war zone, but it is unclear as to what the war is about and when it had started. Citizens are submerged in mass media. Most people disliked human interaction and they’d rather watch TV programming on their Parlour Walls or race in their cars to clear their heads. Interestingly, the ban on the books is because of the citizens themselves and not any totalitarian government, which I had perceived before coming to this book. In an exposition by one of the characters we are told that people thought that they were better off in their safe zones rather than subject themselves to differing point of views.
“Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters.”
- The protagonist of this novel is a fire fighter, Guy Montag. He is an archetypical Hero who goes on a Hero’s Journey. His internal struggle is the crux of the novel. He is in denial with the reality, becomes disillusioned with the status quo after witnessing death of his friend and a gruesome arson of an old lady’s house, and rebels.
- Mildred, Montag’s wife is used to her routine life. She is emotionally distant from Montag. In a way, she’s the model citizen of the city. She disapproves of Montag’s itch to make sense of the world and regain his lost humanism. She enjoys watching TV on her Parlour walls and racing her car to clear her head.
- Claire is a young cheerful girl who’s curious about the world that had been. She’s an odd duck who enjoys human interaction and rejoices in nature.
- Beatty is the chief of Firemen staff. He is an archetypal Father figure and a Trickster. He is presumably well read but abides by the rules.
- Faber and Granger are archetypal Old Wise men and Rebel who are former professors but try to hide their former identities.
- Strange creatures and gadgets are tropes of scifi novels. There’s a mechanical hound, an eight legged bag of chemicals which is programmed to track and punish the law breakers.
Like the setting, the plot of this novel is minimal and linear. We mostly follow Montag and his actions form most of the novel. Montag’s denial, crossing the threshold, rebelling against the society and in the end his hope for a better future drive the novel forward. Most of the back story and background is through exposition.
I had heard about the novel a long time ago, but only recently did I get a chance to read it. Before coming to this novel, I had the impression that the novels is about a dystopian society ruled by a Totalitarian state. I stand corrected. Thematically, this novel is nearer to Brave New World than 1984. I was reminded of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death while I was reading the novel. Consumption of Mass media and people demanding for their safe zones leads to the state of affairs of the novel.
Being a book about the books, there is intertextuality. The author references Gulliver’s Travels, Plato’s Republic etc. Metaphors abound - the books are birds which are being roasted alive, Humanity is phoenix which will rise from the ashes.
“… while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house”
I think the unit operation of this novel is Lost Humanism. Montag yearns for human experience, and reading the books is his way of exploring and understanding humanity. The Book Burning plot point is a scaffold to illustrate the theme.