Monday, March 1, 2010

Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Ah, classic dystopian fiction! Cold War-era dystopian fiction, no less. Published in 1953, Bradbury's short novel tells of a society in which firemen start fires instead of putting them out. The object of incineration is books, the houses in which they abide and, sometimes, even the occupants.

Guy Montag is one such fireman. He lives for the pleasure of burning until he meets a girl who makes him question the purpose of his occupation. Did firemen always start fires, or did they once put them out? Like in Nineteen Eighty-Four, state-sanctioned censorship and the rewriting of history is rife.

Fahrenheit 451 is set against the backdrop of impending nuclear war, but I suspected while reading this novel that it was either a fictional war or a perpetual state of strife that the government encouraged in order to instill fear and obedience into its citizens. A world without writing is a world in which the government can easily dupe it citizens, after all, as there are few ways that dissenters can communicate their doubts and opinions. But rather than a treatise on the sinister uses of censorship by the government, Bradbury is making a statement about that opiate of the masses, television. Human feeling and relationships have given way to parlors lined with massive interactive television screens. Characters on lively and banal shows have replaced family. The Bible, now banned, has been replaced by a televised Jesus who peddles brands alongside his sermons.

Guy Montag, the protagonist, in discussion with Faber, a man who has dared to hold onto his books (p. 82):

"Nobody listens anymore. I can't talk to the walls because they're yelling at me. I can't talk to my wife; she listens to the walls. I just want someone to hear what I have to say. And maybe if I talk long enough, it'll make sense. And I want you to teach me to understand what I read."

Faber examined Montag's thin, blue-jowled face. "How did you get shaken up? What knocked the torch out of your hands?"

"I don't know. We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren't happy. Something's missing. I looked around. The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I'd burned in ten or twelve years. So I thought the books might help."

It's tempting to believe that books are intrinsically noble and forthright creatures. That they improve minds by their mere existence. But Faber replies, "It's not the books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books."

When I read that I got that delightful yes! feeling that comes from reading something that's so spot on. I've always felt that the people and situations contained in books are much more real than representations of reality that are portrayed through film and song. And fiction aside, how could masterpieces like On the Origin of Species be communicated if not through prose?

Fahrenheit 451 is a character-driven novel, which is unusual for dystopian fiction. Often its events that force the main character into action, but in this case it's the people that Montag interacts with. There's something of the Gary Stu/Mary Sue about him, but that's easily forgivable as the rest of the novel is so exceptional. The writing itself is vibrant, almost melodramatic, in places. I enjoy a dialogue-heavy book, and Bradbury's novel has plenty of banter and just enough description. And the climax is just excellent.


  1. I am shocked--really shocked--that I haven't read this yet. Thanks for the reminder, and the thoughtful review, good lady.

  2. This book sounds really wonderful. This is one of those titles that I hear get mentioned a lot but have never picked up or really even know much about. I really want to read it now! Thanks for the excellent review.

    Also, I have an award for you to collect over on my blog.

  3. I love the irony in this book (fireman start the fires), and the irony surrounding it (it's one of the most frequently banned/censored books, and it's about banning/censorship).
    Great review.

  4. You've just made me realise I really need to reread this. Also, the movie is actually pretty awesome too - if you haven't see it, it's worth checking out.

  5. Great review Rhiannon!
    I just read it this month and I loved it, but wasn't sure what to write about it. You managed to say really well what I also thought of the book. I had that "delightful yes! feeling that comes from reading something that's so spot on" too when I read this.

  6. I love this book and your review of it captures a lot of its essence. Have you read the official graphic novel to it? I think the style is fantastic and captures the feel of the story to an extraordinary level.

  7. One of my favorite books of all-time. A great, great read. I should bring it off the shelf again sometime to read it again. Very nice review.