Dystopian Classic Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451
Set in the future when books outlawed and even thinking is discouraged, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is the story of a fireman who is troubled because is job is not to put out fires but to start them. The winner of many literary awards, Fahrenheit 451 is an established dystopian classic. In this post, rather than present a literary analysis, I’ll focus on how Bradbury came to write this short masterpiece and two main themes it covers.
In my edition of Fahrenheit 451, the first thirty pages are taken up with a foreword and an introduction, both by Bradbury himself. In each, he shares the origins of this relatively short novel. Apparently, the theme of books being burning had long been on his mind. Bradbury states that he had written numerous tales with belabored warnings on the theme, before specifically listing five unpublished ones that he led to The Pedestrian. This latter, inspired by an encounter with a policeman who questioned why Bradbury and a friend were out walking the streets, led to a second walk as well as a 25,000 word novella entitled The Fireman. Bradbury also credits various world events, both current and historical: Hitler torching books, Stalin and his match people, Salem witch trial, and the triple burning of the Alexandrian library.
How did his 25,00 word novella grow to double its size and gain publication? Apparently, Ian Ballantine started a hard and soft publication venture and saw in Fahrenheit 451 the makings of a proper novel, if Bradbury could add 25,000 more words. Bradbury then faced a dilemma, in being a “passionate not intellectual writer” or a writer who needed to write his story an emotional blaze. In his youth, he had spent hours in libraries, taken notes about firehouses, and seen his grandmother’s house on fire. All of these memories played on his mind as, with the roughest of outlines, he wrote Fahrenheit 451 in nine days. Wow.
In researching Bradbury’s background, two themes were regularly cited for Fahrenheit 451. Naturally, the first is that of censorship. Although Bradbury later distanced himself from this claim, Bradbury clearly loved books and libraries. He even claimed to have graduated from libraries, having spent ten years there, two or three days a week, after his high school graduation. His characters also bear out the claim with their speeches, especially a lengthy one by Beatty who visits Montag who has taken a sick day. To summarize, Beatty talks about how society as a whole tried not to step on the toes of any individual group. Doing so led to books and magazines becoming a “nice blend of vanilla tapioca”. In time, books stopped selling, except for comics and sex confessions. So far, this doesn’t actually seem like a rant against censorship. Eventually though, Beatty explains, the job of firemen was to ensure that everyone remained equal. “A book is a loaded gun in the house next door.” As such, firemen were provided the job of burning books to ensure that ideas don’t upset anyone and that everyone remains happy.
Another theme cited is that of the negative impact of television. Although Bradbury himself turned some of his writings into screenplays and shows, he apparently disliked this medium. One can also see this theme evident in Bradbury’s characters, especially in the interactions between Montag and his wife. She seems obsessed with her TV parlor, to the point that the programs feel more real to her than the world around her. Mildred forgets until four days after the fact that the neighborhood girl died. She also prefers to watch her shows than talk to Montag about when their marriage started, whether the two of them are truly happy, or why books are wrong. The theme is also evident in the character of Clarisse, who is considered a troublemaker because she likes to notice the grass, the flowers, the moon, and to ask questions about history, instead of watching television.
Since first encountering Bradbury in my youth, I have appreciated him for his style and ideas. My husband is also a longtime fan. We have many of Bradbury’s writings, with one of my favorites continuing to be Fahrenheit 451. More than anything, what strikes me is how timely this book written in the 1950’s remains with its high praise of ideas and books and regards to cautionary comments on technology. In our fast-paced society, Fahrenheit 451 reminds one not only to take time to read but to also simply stop to observe, listen, and experience the world in which we live.