Published in 1953, Ray Bradbury‘s Farenheit 451 is a dystopian classic that passed me by until recently. Years earlier I had read his excellent collection of science fiction short stories, The Illustrated Man, so I went into the book expecting good things.
The novel follows Guy Montag, a fireman growing dissatisfied with his lot in life – not surprising, as in his future America firemen start fires instead of stopping them. Their raison d’etre: the burning of dangerous books. A chance meeting with an enigmatic girl proves the catalyst for Montag’s burgeoning awareness.
First of all, I’m glad Bradbury decided to switch the novel’s name to Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which book paper burns) as this powerful conceit, a reaction to McCarthy era censorship with echoes of Nazism, is the beating heart of the novel. I’m a big fan of pithy titles, and I think it’s fair to say that Fahrenheit 451 is a far more evocative title than the original, The Fireman.
Now, this is a thought-provoking book. Like all the good dystopian novels – especially those that have stood the test of time – it extrapolates on the trends of its day, holding up a mirror that is both uncompromising commentary and eerily prescient prophecy. Just think how often we hear the word ‘Orwellian’ these days and you’ll know what I mean. Parallels with the modern world abound: the shadow of modern voter apathy and tyranny by the back door; the numbing bombardment of all-pervasive, dumbed-down entertainment. And, even more resonant, it sets up a fantastic conflict between what are likely two core values of the novel’s readership: literacy and democracy. Bradbury’s vision – like other dystopian greats such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Brave New World – poses the difficult question of responsibility: can people under the yoke of authoritarianism be excused for allowing that state of affairs to come about?
Now here comes the criticism.
Years ago, a friend recommended Crime and Punishment to me, saying that reading it felt like going mad; for me, reading Farenheit 451 felt a little like that. All the characters seemed a little off, the way they interact almost delirious, skirting non sequitur. In a way, I suppose this makes sense: dystopian fiction is a genre of societies gone mad. However, another reason may be Bradbury’s style. Like The Illustrated Man, this is concept-led narrative where character serves ideas, not the other way around, and though there is nothing wrong with that, Bradbury’s characters are where my main criticism lie. Excusing their semi-delirious interactions as symptomatic of the world they’re in, I still didn’t find them particularly memorable…
In Montag we have a fairly standard everyman. His wife is a timid and insipid foil for his journey of self discovery. Clarisse, girl catalyst, ticks every box on the MPDG checklist. Montag’s boss Captain Beatty, by far the novel’s most interesting and intriguing character, is either under-utilised by Bradbury or, possibly, used just enough to keep him interesting and leave us wanting more – I still haven’t decided which.
That might sound damning, but as mentioned earlier, this is concept-led narrative. The characters are almost incidental, they don’t need to be as subtly nuanced or believable as in more character-driven fiction. In fact, the jarring effect of reading them, when contextualised within their bizarre society, actually makes sense (I’m just not convinced this was a deliberate on Bradbury’s part).
In short – and paltry criticisms aside – it was a great, thoughtful read that I beasted through in two days and that has stuck with me since.