‘Fahrenheit 451: the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns.
Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books.’
‘Fahrenheit 451‘ is one of those novels that almost everyone has heard of. It holds an undisputed stronghold on its place in the literary canon, with good reason. Lots of people know the basic premise of the novel, it’s set in a version of our world where books are illegal. The name of the novel itself evokes the image of a huge pile of burning books. But I have to say that, for me, the book was a lot more than just a story about burning books.
The novel is similar to Huxley’s ‘Brave New World‘ in the sense that it is set in a society where no one questions the laws or government because they are happy. They have their parlour walls, high speed cars and seashell headphones to distract them from the real world and keep them entertained, in place of Huxley’s soma, helicopters and sex. What makes the novel particularly potent, however, is that it is not set in a society where the government or dictator had demanded the banning of books as a way of controlling the spread of potentially treasonous ideas within the public. Instead, the illegal status of books comes from the public deciding books are more trouble than they’re worth. This premise is especially interesting because it means there is no seemingly sinister or evil government purposely denying the public their education. Instead, the only villain we are left with is ignorance itself, and the human ability to choose the easier path of ignorance over learning and knowledge.
Ray Bradbury is clearly very skilled at worldbuilding and his lifelong fascination with the question of why anyone would burn books has clearly provided the world with a phenomenal classic. I doubt any future story of banned books or books being burnt will be able to hit the news without someone mentioning Bradbury’s name. In my opinion, one of Bradbury’s key strengths is the fact that before writing this novel he specialised primarily in short stories. Because of that, ‘Fahrenheit 451‘ is never boring and instead keeps up a constant pace of excitement and action that help to create an atmosphere that matches the plot perfectly.
For me, the only place I felt let down with this novel was the characters. Guy Montag is an odd sort of hero. He makes a lot or rash and impulsive mistakes and although that does help to make him all the more realistic and human, it didn’t really allow me to connect with him on any level. Whenever his life was at stake in the novel I never truly felt concerned. I never had that heart in mouth feeling of dread that comes when the life of one of my favourite characters is threatened. To be honest, I didn’t feel much for him at all. I felt far more concerned with the fate of Clarisse, who doesn’t even appear after the first 50 pages than I did for Montag.
Bradbury did succeed in writing an interesting villain in the case of Beatty, if he was supposed to be the villain. His pretentious and continuous supply of book quotes and arrogant attitude towards Montag’s fall from grace secured from me feelings of immense irritation and subsequent relief at his end. Beatty was an interesting character and I couldn’t help but feel like if the novel had spent more time on him than Montag it could only have been an improvement.
All in all I loved the book, and I can definitely see why it’s become such a popular novel. I suppose because of my preconceived ideas about what it was about, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. But, I would definitely recommend the novel to anyone who hadn’t read it, as it plays with some very interesting ideas that are sure to get you thinking.