Fahrenheit 451

The last book that the Wednesday Bookworms read before starting our year of the AWWW 2012 Challenge together next month was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

I wanted to record a few thoughts about Bradbury’s science fiction classic here, because as I was reading it, I was reminded, once again, about why the challenge is so important.

Fahrenheit 451 is the story of Guy Montag, a fireman in an unspecified future, where firemen are charged with creating fires to burn houses that are discovered to contain books. The powers-that-be have decreed  owning and reading books is illegal since, collectively, they contain conflicting opinions and therefore, apparently, cannot be true.  Their fear is that the people will become confused and a confused populace does not make for a happy, manipulable society.  Of course, most people have become utterly numb and if they’re not numb, they’re unhappy. The story follows Montag as he discovers the content of the books he’s numbly burnt for the last ten years and so, it follows, he becomes unhappy and takes action.

The novel was first published in 1953  and over time has come to be regarded as something of a classic. In the 50th anniversary edition that I borrowed from the library, the publisher interviewed Bradbury and asked him when he came to realise his book ‘had real staying power’ and observed,  that it ‘meets the [imagined future] reality test’ far better than Orwell’s 1984. Bradbury noted that Orwell was concerned with a particular political system, Communism, whereas he was more interested in ‘the whole social atmosphere: the impact of TV and radio and the lack of education’.

Here, I think the apparent timelessness of  Fahrenheit 451 is attributable to its reworking of moral panics about new technology and youth that have been going on ever since Socrates decried the written word and the Senate decried Socrates’ influence on the youth. (Today we have the Internet and electronic games.) For this reason, while I accept that Fahrenheit 451 has ‘staying power’ on one level, I think that’s due to what is ultimately its conservatism, its elitism about certain technological forms.

Having made this observation about the novel’s technologically conservative tendencies, I think it’s important to note that while  in much of  Bradbury’s world, television and radio do no more than purvey banality  and provide distraction from living, it is not inevitable that they do.  For instance Faber, a book-hiding former-professor, and his counter-parts who camp out on the side of railway tracks, all have access to television to follow a crucial news item.  And the shell radio that Montag’s wife, Mildred, has permanently attached to her ear has its counterpart in Faber’s green-bullet-earpiece invention, which he uses to communicate with Montag. Faber even lectures Montag at one point:

It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that were once in books. The same things could be in the “parlor families” today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all.  The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.

The use of ‘old’ in Faber’s list of where Montag might find the ideas no one has access to anymore in Bradbury’s universe is not a coincidence.  The new technologies in Fahrenheit 451 are those that are most associated with women and the domestic in the novel, specifically Mildred and her friends. The parlour families are projected on the screens that comprise the walls of Montag’s house and it is Mildred not Montag who seeks the reassurance of their presence, just as it is she who remains oblivious to significant events while the shell radio is attached to her ear.

Again, I can only think of the timelessness of moral panics, for it was this alignment with women that hampered the novel’s initial acceptance as a valued cultural form when it first emerged.

I don’t know if  Bradbury would have any patience with my  feminist analysis of his work.  In the 1979 coda to Fahrenheit 451, he admits he sent rejection letters to each and every correspondent who made suggestions about re-writing his works to include better representations of women and African-Americans. He further sent  missives to anyone who edited his works to remove references to spirituality or anything else they deemed unacceptable to minorities:

There is more than one way to burn a book.  And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.  Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse.

I’m certainly not suggesting that Bradbury’s book be rewritten, but there is a similar diatribe against minorities in the book, delivered by Beatty, Montag’s fire-chief boss:

Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex-magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade-journals.

I suppose it’s here that I think Fahrenheit 451 is dated and can’t lay claim to timelessness–since that’s what the publisher and other purveyors of cultural value are doing on its behalf. Not so much in the content of the accusations against minorities–that is another timeless moral panic– but in the absolute ordinariness  of the priorities of the central (usually white) male characters and their unquestioning belief in their right to freedom of expression, all the while characterising others’ (minorities) efforts to claim the same privilege as censorship, as an attack on freedom of expression. Even if it’s still possible to write these kinds of narratives, I suspect (hope?)  it’s less common to go unchallenged.

I’m not certain I’ll witness the revolution in the works by Australian women writers  I’ll be reading with the Bookworms in the year ahead, but, at the very least, I expect the basic assumptions about who can speak and act to be different. And who knows, we might even find something illuminating in an e-book.

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About Kirsty Leishman

Currently enrolled in a Grad Dip of Teaching and Learning in anticipation of teaching English and Film, TV & New Media to high school students. Abandoned a PhD in television. Completed an MPhil on zines. Honours in Australian grunge literature. Long time university tutor of media, communications, cultural studies and academic writing. Opinionated. View all posts by Kirsty Leishman

7 responses to “Fahrenheit 451

  • Kirsty

    Thanks, Maitha!

  • Matt (@mattt111)

    I’ve had a fondness for this book since I read it in high school but I think you’ve shed a new light on it for me here. My teenage brain picked up on the cool robot dog, wall sized TVs and as a book loving person, I bought without question the premise that books are awesome and subversive and that soapy’s are for dumb brainless housewives. I’d never picked up on the new technology moral panic aspect of it and glossed over the minorities stuff (probably because I didn’t understand what it was getting at).

    From memory, Bradbury describes a form of television where the story is so compressed that it is presented as fragments which just focus on the emotional ‘beats’ rather than having any actual plot or continuity. That makes me think of tumblr where you get all those animated gifs of movies and shows that will just feature one line or part of a conversation. However, unlike as portrayed in the book, tumblr is far more interactive and these emotional snippets are a way that fans engage with each other and the work they’re admiring. Rather than being a sign of passive intellectual stupor, the fragments of media on tumblr point to an engaged and creative audience.

    I can’t see that it’s a “timeless” book in any way. While it has a few futuristic gadgets (which are cool and even somewhat accurate if you look at the ultra thin, very large TVs entering the market), it’s a 50s book about 50s culture. It’s amazing to think about how much it’s all changed and how much of that is because of the Internet.

    • Kirsty

      The robot dog is cool, Matt; I could see that proboscis coming at me from Bradbury’s descriptions. Plus I learned he based it on his imaginings of the Hound of the Baskervilles, which is even cooler.

      The TVs seemed to form part of the fabric of their existence, especially with the parlour families that they projected and people seemed to hang out with.

      That’s a good observation about Tumblr. Or just now, I’m thinking of those YouTube videos that distill The Lord of the Rings and other movies into 5 seconds. Although, of course, they’re done knowingly, rather than as the empty digests Bradbury imagines in the future.

  • Alice

    This is very interesting – I’ll have to re-read in light of this! I read it years ago & don’t really remember much past feeling somewhat ambivalent about it!

    • Kirsty

      I’m terrible at remembering books, which is why I was so impressed with Matt’s recollection of his reading. Be interested to know your thoughts if you do re-read it, Alice. What if you disagree with me? Controversy!

  • Reflections on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 « Reading Sheilas

    […] months were taken up with previously nominated books and we always have December off. I did write a post on the January book: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 541 because I thought it raised a number of […]

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