Rebellious Literature: A Brief Look at Fahrenheit 451
by Annelise Royles
In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian classic, a fireman’s job is to find houses where books were illegally hidden. He then burns both the books and their not-so safe havens. One of these fireman, Guy Montag, thoroughly enjoys his job until he meets a young teen named Clarisse, who refuses to take her world as it is created for her. Instead, she knows facts which he had never heard about life long ago; she asks questions about natural phenomena around her and makes an effort to have an original perspective life in a world that values watching thoughtless television shows.
Clarisse rouses something in Guy and he begins to want to be engaged in meaningful conversation, which is something unheard of in his humdrum life of a complacent man who simply goes through the motions. The seed Clarisse plants grows when Guy goes to an old woman’s house to burn her books; the woman opts to burn with her books, and he begins to question is societal role as a fireman. Guy realizes that “[t]here must be something in books, things [he] can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house...You don’t stay for nothing” (48). The resulting fallout is full of action as Guy commits himself to think critically.
Bradbury’s bleak dystopian shares many of the same elements that we saw in 1984 and A Clockwork Orange. In fact, Fahrenheit 451 begins much like A Clockwork Orange. Both consists of anti-heros who thrive in hurting others. Moreover, the society in which they live encourages these actions. The first sentence of Fahrenheit 451 perfectly sets the tone for our main character to work against the reader’s wishes: It was a pleasure to burn (1). The evidence of Guy’s joy is the “fiery smile” (2) he claims “never went away, as long as he remembered” (2) the act of burning. A few pages in the novel, the reader must ask herself why Guy enjoys burning books in the same way she asked herself why Alex is so drawn to violence in A Clockwork Orange.
Is Guy’s pyromania something cultivated only through his work, or is there an internal switch that makes fiery destruction appealing? The rest of the novel, and especially the last scene of the work, is (at least in my mind) definitive proof that Guy is a character whose society taught him to revel in the flame. Once he realizes that “a man was behind each one of the books” (49) he burned, Guy never mentions wanting to burn books. In his introduction in the novel, Neil Gaiman explains that “fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over” (xvi), which I think is applicable when talking about Guy’s character arc. He is a man who thrives in what he knows; he knows that books are bad and he enjoys watching them burn so he is happy. But once his perspective widens because of Clarisse, he questions things he believed were absolutely true. Is he really happy? Does his happiness come at the cost of others?
More similarities Bradbury’s work shares with A Clockwork Orange include the three-part story, even though Fahrenheit 451 follows a different story arc wherein Guy learns that books may have value, he then begins reading them, and then must flee to avoid imprisonment for his new attachment to literature. In both novels, however, the main character is a completely man than in the beginning of the novel; he organically reforms himself (at least from the reader’s POV) and the end of his story marks the beginning of a new life.
Additionally, Fahrenheit 451 connects to 1984 in many ways. Bradbury’s novel includes a third person omniscient narrator, which we also saw in 1984. However, the narrator is much more focused on Guy as a character than 1984 is focused on Winston. Language is also very important in both novels. (It also plays a key role in A Clockwork Orange, but for a different reason). Newspeak is described as a way to prevent complex thought in 1984. It is designed to move people away from strong emotions.
In Fahrenheit 451, Guy’s captain at the fire station describes novels and the language in them as entities that only complicate life and breed inequality. He describes a time when writers feared offending the many factions of people amongst them. Then people cried, “[a]uthors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters” (55). The authors obeyed. Here is where Bradbury and Orwell’s work stray from one another. Literature’s disappearance was the result of the people: “It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration,no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick...” (55).
Furthermore, Bradbury clearly fears the herd mentality (which political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville speaks of in the nascence of American democracy) that mindless activities such as watching television may bring. Complacency is something that wards off tenements of critical thinking such as a book, which is famously described in this novel as “a loaded gun” (56).
In an old interview, Bradbury claims that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 just because he thought that people were watching too much television, and he demonstrates how a simple phenomenon such as this one can spiral out of control. This is why Neil Gaiman calls Fahrenheit 451 a piece of “speculative fiction” in his introduction to the novel. He explains that “[t]his is a book of warning. It is a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted” (xi).
Overall, Bradbury’s excellent novel is an appeal to critical thought, to questioning why we get caught in routines and why we all find ourselves believing in things in which we actually do not believe. He ultimately echoes Catcher in the Rye’s rebellious spirit and asks people not to blindly follow others. Intellectual disagreement keeps the human spirit alive. So let Netflix chill alone for a few minutes and open a book because as put by Neil Gaiman, “[i]deas—written ideas—are special” (xvi).
P.S. There is so much more in this novel that warrants discussion, such as Mildred and Clarisse as foils, the irony in the firehouse motto, and much more! So, if you feel so inclined, write your own thoughts about them!
Stay tuned for next week’s selection, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five!
— Annelise Royles is an English major at Kenyon College. She edits for Persimmons Literary Magazine, which was founded and still operates on Kenyon’s campus. A few of her favorite books include A Clockwork Orange, Passing, and Middlemarch.