Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Fahrenheit 451

            Fahrenheit 451* ignited a fire in 1953, and it’s been blazing ever since. I have a love-hate relationship with this novel. On the one hand, it affirms what I believe about the power of reading; as Bradbury writes, “A book is a loaded gun…who knows who might be the target of a well-read man” (Bradbury, 58). On the other hand, I’m not always crazy about Bradbury’s style.

            Unlike 1984, Fahrenheit 451 shows us a world in which ignorance is willfully chosen and maintained by the people. The government doesn’t forcefully strip the people of their knowledge and autonomy; instead, they simply help preserve what the masses want: pure, unencumbered bliss. Happiness is the ultimate goal, which here entails dumbing of the mind and titillation of the senses. You can’t be cheery 24/7 if you’re philosophizing about your own mortality. Books have the potential to bring about awareness that “all isn’t well in the world” (Bradbury, 104). The people prefer to remain oblivious to anything that could upset them, so learning becomes obsolete.

            I love that Bradbury chooses this route—I feel that it’s more realistic and more terrifying to see people dig their own graves. We know oppressive governments exist, and we see that censorship is alive and well in many countries. It’s easy to be enraged by that—there are people you can point to and parties to blame. In my opinion, a diffuse disregard for knowledge is more worrisome—it’s harder to spot and more difficult to quench.

            Bradbury writes in the McCarthy Era, so his concerns stem from both the political and technological climate of his time. Thus, he comes across as strikingly anti-technology—the citizens of Fahrenheit 451 are glued to the modern day equivalent of a TV. The television “cram[s] them full of noncombustible data”—all facts and no substance (Bradbury, 61). I’m biased towards books, and I think that overall, books are more capable vehicles for knowledge.  It’s easier to turn off your brain and consume via a medium that does all the work for you. But there are crap books just like there are crap TV shows. I get the impression that Bradbury hyperbolizes the downside of technology; I grant his point that television can displace intellect, but I don’t believe that’s always the case.

That’s not my only issue with Bradbury. This work reminds me of Huxley’s Brave New World—both authors have an incredibly groundbreaking idea, but they make mistakes plot-wise. Huxley fails to create remarkable characters and hardly anything interesting happens. Bradbury crafts richly complex characters, but then ramps the narrative up to such a fast pace that he skims over their potential development. The main character—Guy Montag—unquestioningly lives in the status quo one second and then suddenly feels the burn the next. I craved less action and more in depth insight into characters’ history, motives, relationships, etc.

Additionally, dystopian novels are especially vulnerable to a pitfall that’s a personal pet peeve: overly telegraphic dialogue. Dialogue is effective when it advances plot, but it falls flat when characters tell each other what they should presumably already know. For example, I’m suspect of conversations that outline in detail how society and government is structured. When two adults tell each other obvious facts about their own country, I start to think this is a lazy way of showing the reader how their world is organized. It’d be like having one American say to another “Well, you know, we’re currently under the Obama administration and the next election will be in November 2016. Donald Trump is the Republican nominee and that’s caused quite a bit of controversy.” Well, no duh. This isn’t news to the other individual unless they’ve been living under a rock, so you get the unsettled feeling that it’s just for the reader’s benefit, which isn’t realistic.

I don’t mean to hate too hard on Bradbury. He has mastered a good metaphor and his fire motif is lit. Most importantly, he pioneered meaningful discussions on intellectual freedom and how knowledge-seeking behaviors shape us as individuals and citizens of the world. He shows us how the basic desire to learn is linked to the ability to connect and empathize with others, and he illustrates the lifeless horrors that can occur when that desire stagnates. The firemen in the story burn to churn; they keep the wheels rolling on society, but no one’s going anywhere. Bradbury’s work isn’t a straightforward, apocalyptic prediction; rather, he hopes to prevent us from becoming an illiterate people so steeped in mindless media that we don’t see the problem. His work has been a critical reminder to us for over sixty years, but his impressive prescience is counteracted by the aforementioned narrative drawbacks. So, Fahrenheit 451 gets 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Del Rey Books, 1953. Print.

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