A lukewarm response to Fahrenheit 451

Last night I finished our latest book group selection – only a few days after the meeting, which is an improvement on last month. Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury, set in America (presumably, I don’t think it’e ever stated explicitly) in a future when books are banned and burned by the firemen (men who start rather than stop fires). Interestingly the banning of books is not a proactive censorship measure by a despotic government, but a reaction to a society that has stopped reading and regards books as disruptive and divisive. It’s the story of Guy Montag, a fireman who starts reading…

At least, that’s what Bradbury insists in both the afterword and the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition. The book grew out of a novella called ‘The Fireman’ so it ought to be Montag’s story, but in many way I found him to be the least interesting character in it. The tone of his dialogue (and internal monologues) arguably conveys the zeal of a recent convert, but (like his reading of ‘Dover Beach’ to the ladies in the parlour) it often just seems melodramatic. I found the minor characters far more engaging, particularly the way they embody opposing attitudes and choices: Faber and Beatty are both well-read but one loves books while the other is angry with them; Millie hides in her parlour with the artificial ‘family’ while Clarisse explores the world and talks late into the night with her parents and uncle.

Two aspects of the novel dominated our book group discussion. The first was the uncanny accuracy of many of Bradbury’s predictions, from stomach pumps and flat screen TVs to a society that prefers the digest of the digest to an actual book. (My students used to at least read York notes, but more recently many relied on the Wikipedia summary rather than opening a book.) We also talked a lot about the ‘Dover Beach’ moment, wondering why this is always the poem a writer chooses to demonstrate the power of literature to move and improve the uncomprehending heathen (Ian McEwan uses it to pacify a violent criminal in Saturday.) Half-way through the conversation, I looked again at Arnold’s poem and saw that it describes perfectly the society Bradbury envisions in Fahrenheit 451, from the people who have “really neither joy, nor love” in their “land of dreams, so various” and who know so little about coming war in which “ignorant armies clash by night”, destroying them all. That realisation made me like the whole book rather more.

I read the final section after the meeting so I knew roughly what going to happen – pretty much every bad thing you could possibly imagine! I found it a little difficult to accept that so much could go wrong simultaneously, as if Montag’s rebellion had upset the global balance, but Bradbury wove each plot strand through the earlier sections well and made good use the shifting metaphor of fire (from burning and destructive to warm and life-giving) to counteract what could have been a very bleak ending.

The general feeling at book group was that it isn’t the greatest dystopian novel ever written but it is a good book, which raises some interesting and important questions that are at least as relevant now as when it was first published.  We thought that it didn’t quite match up to 1984 or Brave New World, but it’s a long time since any of us have read either of those and few have read both, so we’re making next month ‘the dystopia meeting’ and will attempt a proper, fair comparison after revisiting our old favourites. If I’m not too depressed after that, I’ll let you know the verdict…

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