by Ray Bradbury
‘ “There is nothing magical in [books] at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.” ‘
Guy Montag is a fireman. But he doesn’t put out fires; he starts them! That is the way of things in Ray Bradbury’s alternate, apocalyptic and (perhaps) strangely prophetic universe. Then there is the sinister Mechanical Hound, a sort of robotic bloodhound that sniffs out offenders and injects them with a paralysing cocktail of drugs.
‘The Mechanical Hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live in its gently humming, gently vibrating, softly illuminated kennel back in a dark corner of the firehouse.’
Guy, who lives with his cold wife Mildred, and works at the local firehouse under Captain Beatty, is not entirely happy with his lot in life. In a society where possessing books is a crime and the penalty for doing so is the burning of one’s property, Montag is assiduous in the pursuit of his profession, yet questioning of its methods and consequences. And he has a secret – inside an air-conditioning vent in his hall is . . . .
The spark – permit an appropriate metaphor – for Montag’s change of heart comprises two events. On his way home from work one evening he meets Clarisse McClellan, a seventeen-year-old girl who seems different from all the millions brainwashed by social media and room-sized interactive TV. Clarisse talks about the world, about nature and moonlight and dandelions. On another evening, Guy witnesses an old woman set herself and her house on fire rather than give up her books.
‘FAHRENHEIT 451: the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns.’
Finally, Montag loses the plot – another metaphor -, commits the unforgivable crime and, pursued by the Hound, becomes a fugitive himself. Is this his destiny, to be hunted for the rest of his life? Or can he find a refuge among the teachers and intellectuals, largely forgotten, who inhabit the wildernesses of the world? Or maybe, instead, War will come at last and obliterate everything he has ever known.
‘ . . . the city rolled over and lay down dead. The sound of its death came after. Montag watched the great dust settle and the great silence move down upon the world.’
Fahrenheit 451 is a novel with threads reminiscent of earlier dystopic works, like Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. Its publication in 1954 followed closely the appearance of the latter (1949) and only two decades after the former (1932). Like the stories it resembles, it has its rebel with a cause, its repression of thought in an upside-down society in which normality is compliance.
However, like each of those, Ray Bradbury’s fictional world is a unique creation. It is a short work, 50,000 words only, a fusion of ideas that the author used in earlier short stories. His writing is filled with metaphor and simile, and sparkling original prose. Sometimes, so it seems to me, there is a mysterious unreality about the pictures he paints.
Montag is not the most likeable hero of fiction, but we understand him. Contrasted with the ephemeral and fey-like Clarisse, and the cynical fire chief Beatty, he seems almost human. The discomforting thing about Fahrenheit 451 is that the world it depicts (like that of another dystopic creation, Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) is much too like our own. Seventy years after its first edition, it still has the power to shock as well as entertain.