Revisiting the Classics: Fahrenheit 451

by wjw on July 30, 2009

I recently re-read Fahrenheit 451 for the first time since I was 14. I found the book full of surprises, in part because I retained more vivid memories of the Truffaut film, which I’ve seen multiple times, than of the novel, which I’d read only once, and long ago.

The first thing that surprised me was the novel’s tone, which is that of barely-controlled hysteria. Montag is the last person in the world you want involved in your conspiracy: he’s on edge all the time, he can’t blend in, he can’t conceal his emotions, and he acts guilty even when he isn’t. He can’t stop calling attention to himself by one hysterical outburst after another. Even the machines, like the mechanical Hound, know he’s up to no good. Montag is on the verge of meltdown in practically every paragraph: I’m surprised how long he survives. I can imagine Bradbury writing all this with permanently clenched teeth.

It’s an angry book. It’s not just about book-burning but about everything that pissed Bradbury off circa 1950: brutality, teenage thugs, wilful stupidity, the education system, the inanity of television, the doped-up bourgeoisie, the Cold War, kids in hot rods, and the iPod (the last of which, if it didn’t exist in 1950, Bradbury certainly saw on the horizon).

Bradbury has stated that the book isn’t about censorship, but about the deadening and stupefying effects of television. This argument is incomplete at best and disingenous at worst— couch potatoes don’t burn books, they ignore them. The real villain (and Bradbury is at his prescient best here) is political correctness— the books are burned not because they contain wrong or unfashionable ideas, but because they upset people, minorities in particular. In a society dedicated to keeping everyone on a continual Miltown buzz, you don’t want the tranquil air rent by someone upset over the depiction of Jim in Huckleberry Finn.

I was surprised by the book’s short time span— the action takes place over just a few days. I was also surprised that Montag never actually reads a book at any point in the narrative— not beyond a line or two, anyway. His house is stuffed with books at the start of the novel, before the action even begins, but they’re all unread. (Montag’s tried, but his brain keeps bouncing off the page.) He doesn’t know how valuable or important his books are, but he’s willing to stake his life and happiness on them anyway. He’s not exactly a rational man.

Bradbury’s prescience fails a bit when it comes to the ladies. Childless married women in his future don’t have the option of a career outside the home; devalued even by the author, they have no option but to become dope and television addicts. The society of Book People revealed at the end of the novel don’t seem to have any women— and they’re all remarkably indifferent to the fact that nuclear weapons have just destroyed every American city. Literature Mastery has set them above all that, one supposes.

The hysterical quality of the narrative combines with the book’s fast pace to provide an almost hallucinatory reading experience. Plot problems are not so much dealt with as blasted into nonexistence by the savage fury of the author’s passage. That kind of intensity is difficult to sustain for the length of an entire novel. I’m not sure I could do it. Bradbury must have been inspired, or really angry, or maybe he’s just brilliant at crafting hysteria.

It’s an amazing book, but it’s amazing for reasons that I hadn’t remembered, and hadn’t expected.

Dennis Jernberg July 30, 2009 at 4:15 am

Well! Looks like I'd better dig it out and reread it. I read it once or twice many years ago, so I barely remember anything about it.

David D. Levine July 30, 2009 at 3:17 pm

That sustained intensity is one of the reasons I wish novels could be as short now as they were then. I suspect that "Fahrenheit 451" is something between one-third and one-half the length of a typical SF novel today.

Lance Larka July 30, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Did anyone here play the computer game 'sequel' back in the 80's?

Despite the slight…er plot difficulty in that it takes place in NY city after it was supposedly nuked…I found it to be interesting although I never was able to finish it.

Steve Stirling July 31, 2009 at 7:07 am

You know, you're right, Walter. He -is- sort of hysterical.

dubjay July 31, 2009 at 7:18 pm

David— yeah, I miss those novels that got where they were going in 65,000 words and left you more satisfied than if you'd just read a million-word flabby fantasy series.

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