Tuesday, February 28, 2017

It was a Pleasure to Burn

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 
by Ray Bradbury

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door...Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”   ― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

This is one of the great dystopian novels of all time, especially for bibliophiles. In this age of Kindles and Nooks and Ipads this story seems almost nostalgic, a fifties rendition of the future that reminded me of an Orwellian world ruled by a Huxleyan culture.

A totalitarian regime has ordered all books to be destroyed. In an ironic reversal of sorts Firemen no longer save buildings from fire (since all buildings are completely fire-proof) but, instead, they burn books. Books have long been abandoned since the multitudes live in a society where literature has deteriorated into tiny bites of data as life has speeded up (sounds like twitter). Everyone communicates orally and the home is dominated by large television wall screens that broadcast interactive reality programs. One of the book burners, Guy Montag, slowly rediscovers the importance of books and becomes one of very few humans struggling for some meaning and truth in his life. Montag is a fireman. It is his job is to set fire to books so that no one will read and consequently understand the hopelessness of reality. One day he has to burn an old woman who will not leave her books and this effects him deeply. Later that day his says to his wife, "You weren't there, You didn't see. There must be something in books, things we can't imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don't stay for nothing."(p 48)

He meets a young woman named Clarisse who intrigues him and spurs further thoughts about his life and its meaning. Of course the story of Adam and Eve immediately comes to mind. But this allegory has deeper meanings. What is the role of the book and what are the limits of language? What would you do if you realized your life is devoted to the destruction of that which you love? Are you willing to engage in the search for Truth? For Montag, who has suffered from an unidentified malaise for some time, these thoughts have a momentous impact, leading him to question his job and the direction of his life.

The novel is written in an allegorical style with a fantastic background that mixes futuristic ideas within a rule-bound society where the masses are ruled by videos and drugs. Bradbury is effective in creating an evocative nightmare tale, for he is a brilliant storyteller. This, like most of his stories, has a fantastic edge. The denouement is brilliant and the result is a book that you will never forget. Once you have seen the amazing cinematic recreation by Francois Truffaut you will have additional images to put along side those of this book, emblazoned on your mind forever. This along with The Martian Chronicles is among my favorite Bradbury works and some of the best fantastic fiction I have read.

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Ruth said...

"...a fifties rendition of the future that reminded me of an Orwellian world ruled by a Huxleyan culture." Love that! And I love this book, too. My copy has a rant by Bradbury rebuking people for not reading anymore. It's great! I've never seen the film. I'll check for it on Youtube.

Sam Sattler said...

I just read that portion of The Martian Chronicles this morning where the government has banned all written word and film that makes reference to things like vampires, witches,zombies, devils, etc. on both Earth and Mars. This is the story where a rich man on Mars has built a replica of Poe's House of Usher and filled it with robotic copies of all such characters used in Poe's work. It is an absolutely brilliant story and takes place way in the future...2036. I had somehow forgotten just how brilliant The Martian Chronicles really is.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. The Truffaut film is memorable, with youthful Julie Christie playing both roles of Clarisse and Mildred, and Oskar Werner as Montag. The Bradbury rant seems truly appropriate.

James said...

The Martian Chronicles is a favorite from my youth. It's time to reread it as my memory of the brilliant vignettes of life on Earth and Mars in the future have dimmed.

Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary as usual James.

This is one of my all time favorites. I first read it when I was very young and I have read it multiple times since. There are many positive things that one can say about this book. The fantastical elements that you mention, while seemingly odd for this kind of book, make this work so distinct.

"It was a Pleasure to Burn" is such a powerful and well written line.