Book-Burning: Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is one of the early dystopias. The government is brainwashing everyone with hedonism. Turns out if people are self-serving animals who can’t think, they’re easier to control. Life is empty. Entertainment has put human relationships out of business, and teenagers are crashing cars and killing each other for fun. Most important to the story, books are illegal. Because of this, a new profession has emerged: fireman.
Our main character, Montag, is a fireman, a professional book-burner. Montag likes his job. His wife, Mildred (in the grand tradition of 1984) hasn’t an original thought in her head. Mildred laps up what the government feeds her and spends most of her time interacting with a high-tech TV set. Montag, however, is a little more open-minded. He meets Clarisse, his neighbor, who appreciates nature and isn’t hooked on technology or violence. Talking to her gets him thinking, which is dangerous. After a conversation or two, Clarisse disappears. It’s implied that she was killed for sedition.
Montag steals some books he’s been ordered to burn and takes them home to read. Suddenly, he’s not so keen on his job. He asks Mildred to call in sick for him. She won’t do it. His boss, Beatty, knows he isn’t sick, and comes over to have a talk. Montag gets a lecture on the merits of heroin and unprotected sex, and Mildred snitches on him about the books. We last see her hopping into a police car and ditching him.
A rebel group bombs the city, the government’s control collapses, and Beatty and Mildred don’t seem to survive. In the wake of the uprising, people with books start appearing. Freedom is going to rise from the ashes.
What Just Happened
Fahrenheit 451 messed with my head. I wanted closure. How did society collapse so suddenly? What happened to the government? Who was actually dead?
The story starts off quite clear. A guy burns books for a living. He’s not entirely in his right mind. A girl helps him gain some sanity. But after Clarisse vanishes, the story gets vaguer, because Montag is learning to think. Everything was clear cut before he started living in reality. Now he’s using his brain, everything is confusing and can be contradictory (which is exactly the way Beatty views literature).
You’re along for the ride with Montag, who is a bit overwhelmed, so the novel feels funky. It starts off at a more moderate pace and then gets fast, blazing through the book’s climax. The end is soft and peaceful, even though there’s just been a small apocalypse. It feels quiet, like ashes cooling. In this way, because of its structure, reading Fahrenheit 451 is like burning a book.