As an aspiring author I try to write as often as possible but always remember to have a book on the bedside table. I read for many reasons, mostly the sheer joy of the pastime, but I am constantly trying to improve myself as a writer, finding worthwhile lessons in my successful peers, whether they’re currently enjoying life in the bestsellers list or they have long since written their final words. As I continue my own writing journey (hopefully towards publication!) I’ll be sharing my thoughts on all my latest reads and maybe reveal who I find the most inspiring along the way.
Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
I enjoy visions of the future whether it’s in films or books. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) depicted a society where the majority of people had settled on distant planets, while Marco Brambilla’s Demolition Man (1993) was a peaceful world where human contact was not allowed and crime was almost non-existent. In literature, George Orwell’s 1984 (1948) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) both depicted a bleak future for mankind, loveless societies with technology at the fore and the freedom of the individual vastly reduced through fear and manipulation. Reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for the first time I was fascinated about how it would compare to the great dystopian novels I’d already had the pleasure of reading.
Set in an unspecified future Fahrenheit 451 follows the story of Guy Montag, a fireman who goes through life without asking questions and abiding by the rules. Firemen in Bradbury’s future are not the fire fighters we are accustomed to but fire starters! In this society it is illegal to own or read books and anyone caught doing so must hand them over to the fire service or suffer the consequences. The title of the book refers to the temperature at which books burn and, as can be expected, fire plays a big part in the novel. Guy Montag’s life is turned upside down by an encounter with his free-spirited neighbour, Clarisse McClellan, whose outlook on life is in direct contrast to Montag as she dares to ask ‘why’ in a society that is not to be questioned or reasoned with. From meeting McClellan, Montag begins to question his own existence, his relationship with his wife, Mildred, his work as a fireman and whether books really should be forbidden. The novel follows the change in Montag’s life and the consequences it has.
As with other dystopian novels, Fahrenheit 451 is often frightening when you consider such a reality in our own world. The idea that books are forbidden for the thoughts and stories they convey and are simply not to be harboured by the population is difficult to understand. By robbing the world of books Bradbury’s characters are almost lifeless. Montag’s wife, Mildred, is addicted to TV walls, constantly discussing the images with her friends and hounding her husband for a fourth TV wall. This form of entertainment has become the staple of society and is much preferred for the images projected ensure the viewer doesn’t need to use their imagination or think. A stark contrast to books, of course.
The penalty for hoarding books is best reflected when Montag and his fellow firemen are called to a house where an old woman has many books stashed. After refusing to destroy her precious collection the old woman waits until the firemen have their backs turned before starting a blaze of her own, destroying both her house and her books, and taking her own life in the process. The event rocks Montag severely as does the disappearance of Clarisse McClellan who we do not see again but Montag is assured she is dead. These changes force Montag not only to question the morality of society but to begin keeping books himself and reading them! The change in Montag is wonderfully crafted, the idea that he has no life prior to the meeting with Clarisse McClellan but in discovering the beneficial elements of books he feels more alive than ever, though his transgressions leave him a wanted man.
When Clarisse McClellan is out of the picture, Montag has to turn to an English professor, Faber, who begins teaching him about the significance of books to human history and how they should still be relevant in the present. While Montag begins to learn about books he has to deal with his wife, Mildred, who is reluctant to have them in her house but also with his boss, Beatty, who suspects Montag’s wavering stance but proceeds to spare him punishment by assuring him possession of a book by a fireman for 24 hours is acceptable so long as the said book is then destroyed. Montag’s brief meetings with Clarisse McClellan, his new found need for independence and the ability to choose means he eventually has to leave the society that has been his whole life or have his existence cut terribly short.
When Montag is on the run the novel gathers pace as he first fends off firemen and then the relentless mechanical hounds. After eluding capture Montag has helicopters to contend with and these scenes reflect the stranglehold of society over its subjects. One man steps out of line by reading and keeping books, and all of a sudden firemen, mechanical hounds and helicopters are all devoted to his capture. Montag’s decision to defy society costs him everything he ever knew and if that’s not enough of a problem, he also has to face up to the onset of war!
Fahrenheit 451 can sit proudly amongst the other dystopian novels of the 21st century. Working round the theme of book burning, Bradbury expertly fashions a world where the individual is a mindless minion and helps add weight to the argument of the importance of books. Bradbury’s novel may not predict the Internet but it does suggest books will be obsolete in favour of technology. Prior to the Harry Potter novels there was a growing fear that children’s love of books was decreasing fast but now their enthusiasm has been somewhat restored. It’s unlikely a future like Fahrenheit 451 will come to be but the book should stand as a warning of a way of living we simply couldn’t allow to happen.
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