It has genuinely always amused me that the whole conception of Fahrenheit 451 originated from an incident in which Ray Bradbury was being a smartass.
Prior to Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury had written a short story called “The Pedestrian” which he’d often single out in lectures and interviews as a sort of precursor. “The Pedestrian” was inspired by an event that took place in the late 1940s, when Bradbury was out for a walk late one night, and was stopped and questioned by police officers.
“What are you doing?” they asked him.
“Putting one foot in front of another,” he wisecracked. 🙃
The short story was a glimpse into a bleak future where the norm was that everyone stayed inside watching television (or viewing screens), and anybody caught dissenting from the norm, like taking a nighttime walk, can be stopped, harassed, and detained simply by being different.
During the McCarthy era, at a rental typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library for a fee of 20 cents an hour, Bradbury reacted to the fears and concerns of his reality by turning “The Pedestrian” into The Fireman a novella, and then by the urge of publisher Ballantine Books, expanded it once more into Fahrenheit 451. The total amount of time he spent writing this novel was about 18 days. (Again, broke author, rental typewriter…I thought it was impressive.)
Fahrenheit 451 depicts a totalitarian future where firemen burn books and the houses containing them, because the government fears the ideas that books can bring to people, inspiring thinkers to rebel from their rule. As a distraction, broadcast media is promoted to the point where every household has a TV in every room, people consider TV characters their family, and the only life worth living is the one you can safely view on the “viewing screen.”
The main story follows a fireman named Guy Montag, whom hadn’t questioned his destruction and ignorance before, until affected by an old woman in a burning house willing to burn along with her books. He then meets a young girl named Clarisse (who maybe-could-be Bradbury’s play and debunking of the manic-pixie-dream-girl trope), who inspired him to turn away from the screens, to question the world, to think, remember, and cherish other aspects of life and reality aside from the illusion within the media.
Due to the premise of the story being about book burning, the most obvious takeaway people tend to have is that Fahrenheit 451 is about censorship. While a strong part of it is, it is simultaneously about so much more. There is a reason a tiny book like this has survived 60 years of human evolution and still remains relevant in today’s society.
This book, to me when I read it, was about how important books are and the dangers of ignorance, yes, and also about human empathy.
You start the story getting a feel of the world and kind of hating Guy Montag, because he can be so frustratingly stupid and his wife is dismal and his world is an actual disaster with wars going on but instead of worrying about saving lives, firemen are burning books and houses and people are watching TV. Then, through Bradbury’s writing, you start seeing pieces of yourself in Montag and the characters he interacts with. Within the mundane, you start seeing reflections of your world, then you start identifying with it, empathizing with the story, because we are all human.
These characters, while simple and most of them almost one-dimensional, with very brief appearances (aside from Captain Beady but more on him later), remind you of the people you’ve seen before in your life. You’ve met a seemingly-interesting person once, like Clarisse, entirely optimistic to the point of naivety, who inspired you to pull that stick out of your ass. You’ve been in a relationship with someone so boring, Mildred, they seem more interested in the TV, or Netflix, than they are with life. Or, at least, you know people like that. And then you know people like Montag, simple and unquestioning, until something tugs at his heart and he starts changing.
Bradbury has a very remarkable way of making us look at the smaller things, the tiny details that make up the world and a human, and considering them for the unique-thing that they are. These characters were just that—boring, blurry-faced people we see time and time again on the streets. He makes us start to think about them, with his words. They become like fellow humans, strangers passing by, seemingly one-dimensional but probably not. I couldn’t help but sympathize, and find pieces of myself, pieces of other people I know, within them.
The characters and Montag’s change was the most fascinating part of the novel for me. I was 16 when I read this for the first time, and I almost felt like I was changing with Montag, opening my eyes, admitting my ignorance and faults and then finding ways to look at the world again, differently. The self-journey that Bradbury took with the novel inflicted itself upon the reader, causing us to care, causing the story to matter on an individual level, between book and reader.
The subject of the story is a different immortal monster. There will always be concerns about government and power in the world, as long as there are people and a need for order. There will always be ignorance in the world too, simply because we may be too lazy, or busy, or distracted. (Viewing screens!) Bradbury presented this to us, often times getting very preachy through the questionably literate Captain Beady, who was Montag’s boss and primary antagonist. Many science fiction stories deal with themes similar to this, but what made Fahrenheit 451 last in prominence for over six decades was the utmost care that Bradbury had in presenting both sides of the coin, with Beady representing reasoning of the people in power, and Montag being the deluded people now finding their way.
Bradbury presents his reader with this tale, and this idea. He doesn’t exactly tell us to go out and do things like Ayn Rand or his other contemporaries. Instead, he focused on causing us to care. After reading, we aren’t forced to think or guilt-tripped into thinking and doing, we just naturally did so, because Fahrenheit 451 struck a little too close to home. It’s simultaneously subtle and intense in messaging, which added to the appeal of it. Furthermore, Bradbury’s legendary prose is so easy to read that you can drink up this novel in one sitting, remembering strange characters and quotations that still have great meanings in today’s society.
I’ve read books before this one, thanks to school, but Fahrenheit 451 was one of the very few books that truly fucked with my perception of time. It took me longer than two hours to read the book, but when I got to the end, it didn’t feel like much time had passed at all, it felt more like I’d just seen my new favorite movie and was now getting on with life. That was how well and fast Bradbury’s prose moved, and how well the whole novel fitted together, one word hopping onto the next, to the next chapter, and to the end.
After 60 years, Fahrenheit 451 is still burning intensely bright in its prominence and applications to our world. It’s a book that affects me deeply, because of the reflections and the strange humans I see.
🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥
“It was a pleasure to burn.”