Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

A dystopian flight of fancy by Ray Bradbury, read by William Roberts. I was disappointed by Roberts' work on Bryson's The Lost Continent, but his straightforward style worked well for the unsubtle, confused Guy Montag.

Montag is a fireman in a world where firemen don't prevent fires, they start them. Firemen burn books, the houses of anyone discovered hiding books, and, occasionally, the people themselves. Bradbury uses this conceit to explore the theme of oppression and the meaning of human existence.

The oppressor is explicitly self-imposed by society in Montag's world; Bradbury doesn't assign the role of villain to faceless government agents, but to his protagonist and his friends. The rules about owning books came only after the vast majority of the population had given up reading voluntarily. Montag's wife, his co-workers, their friends; they all live for the moment, avoiding real interaction with each other or with the natural world. As a consequence their lives are empty of real meaning, and they seek oblivion either through the literal mechanism of attempted suicide, through reckless thrill-seeking behavior, or through immersion in mass-produced insight-free entertainment.

Montag is jarred free of his rut when he meets and briefly befriends an unusual teenage girl, a new neighbor. Clarisse catalyzes in Montag a process of re-evaluation; he steals a book from a home he is raiding. He reveals to his wife a secret trove of other stolen books. In desperation he seeks out a former English professor and hatches a scheme to overturn the fireman system. But he is unable to control the passionate, unfamiliar emotions he experiences. He lashes out, putting himself in more and more dangerous situations. He commits a horrible crime and is hunted out of the city, ultimately meeting up with a group of refugees from civilization whose goal is preserving the knowledge lost in books.

I was fascinated by the duality of the themes; the symbolism of fire has a duality that is reflected in Bradbury's judgements. The fires that burn books are the only outlet for normal human passions that this society allows itself; a destructive power. At the conclusion of the book, the city is destroyed by fiery bombs.The fire of the sun (entropy?) is also referred to as a destructive force that humanity must combat. Yet when Montag comes upon the group of Harvard Hobos, they are gathered around a flickering campfire that throws illumination on their group - fire is the source of the light of knowledge.

Likewise Bradbury categorizes entertainment and knowledge as a duel-edged sword. Fiction in books is good, and broadens the mind; televised entertainment is bad. Figurative art is good; abstract art is bad. Interacting with others in a relaxed, 'natural' fashion on a front porch, conversing or just sitting in silent though is good. Interacting with others while watching canned entertainment, or talking about cars or tv shows = bad

Bradbury narrowly avoids tripping over these somewhat arbitrary distinctions by anchoring true meaning in interaction with the natural world. Clarisse is special because she spends time outside, and spends time observing things and people minutely. Montag's redemption comes when he is finally expelled from the city into the countryside around it. The natural world - birds, trees, sunshine - is the wellspring of experience from which meaning is created and made one's own.

I don't know how I feel about that conclusion, but it's interesting that it reflects a book I've failed to read effectively, The Spell of the Sensuous, which claims the same thing.

It's impossible to read this book without comparing it to modern society and wondering how close we are to Bradbury's world of deliberate ignorance. Bradbury's message is ultimately hopeful, but coming as it does after a nuclear holocaust, it's a pretty ultimate hopefulness.

1 comment:

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