This is a novel that I went into thinking I would not be able to enjoy it because any story that involves the burning of books will make me uncomfortable. But I quickly found that the philosophical pondering of the story and the belief systems that were explored within the novel were extremely intriguing to me. This went far beyond simply believing there’s a great power in written words. There’s this kind of atmosphere throughout the novel about questioning things. It’s not good enough to just know things, you have to challenge the things that you know. Even if it’s feels like everyone knows it and to try to push it farther with be misguided, question it anyway because maybe it’s not as straightforward as it should be, or maybe it shouldn’t be as commonplace as it is.
Guy Montag is a fireman. In his world, where television rules and literature is on the brink of extinction, firemen start fires rather than put them out. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden.
Montag never questions the destruction and ruin his actions produce, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television ‘family’. But then he meets an eccentric young neighbor, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people did not live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas in books instead of the mindless chatter of television.
When Mildred attempts suicide and Clarisse suddenly disappears, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known.
It would be easy to point at this book and say it is about censorship but, as Lee (2014) points out, there’s more to the social commentary than that. For one, the books themselves–as much as it pains my bookworm heart to admit–don’t matter. It’s what is contained within the books that has value and the physical medium through which that knowledge and experience can be obtained.
It goes back to that argument every English teacher makes on the first day of classes–you should hand-write your notes because you’ll remember them better that way (I can’t be the only one who ignored that and typed my notes anyway, right?). This is a novel that seeks to prove that thinking and sensory input go hand-in-hand–I swear I didn’t mean to make a pun there.
There are plenty of moments within the novel when the dulling of people’s senses is shown but the most powerful, at least in my opinion, is at the beginning of the novel when Mildred, Montag’s wife, almost dies from an overdose. Not only does the reader see someone who relies heavily on drugs to numb her emotions but they also see how routine an overdose is. There’s no doctor because overdoses have become common enough that others have been trained to deal with it; like getting your oil checked in your car.
However, this event, along with meeting Clarisse, awakens Montag to his senses, leading to all of his actions throughout the novel. Because once he realised what he has been missing while numbly existing he is unable to give up sensation.
We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other, then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.
If I can get a little deep for a minute, this is a concept I find very personal. I won’t get into details but going numb is how my brain copes with unpleasant events and feelings. For longer than I care to admit, being numb was normal and powerful emotion rare. Reading became less about the story and more about a safe place to feel without actually having to look inwardly.
This is a novel that focuses on the lack of feeling in the characters that populate it. After all, it wasn’t through focus that the repressive government came to their power but the apathy of the citizens that created on opening for it. The government capitalized on the masses lust for mindless entertainment and altered the culture they were exposed to.
The physical aspect of reading a book awakens Montag to his surroundings and results in him being unable to go back to the mindless existence that he sees in the people closest to him. Books become his escape too, until he obtains the words he needs to describe how he feels.
And that’s really what’s happening here. It’s not about censorship only or even removing stimulation. It’s about taking away people’s ability to express themselves. Not to get too artsy but that’s what art is. It’s an expression that can only be described through the artists medium.
So books give them the words they need to experience what they’re thinking and once they do that they are unlikely to be apathetic anymore. The government loses its control. Therefore, the words must burn.
As someone who uses words all the time to express who she feels and thinks, there’s something horrifying about that ability being taken away. There was a time when all I wanted was to mindlessly watch television but I rarely watch more than an episode a day–if that–now. Words have so much power to them, not only because they allow us to pass information through history, but because they are the closest we can come to experiencing how someone else feels.
And goodness knows we need more empathy in the world, not less of it.
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Lee, Sunjoo. “To Be Shocked to Life Again: Ray Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451.” The Explicator, vol. 72, no. 2, Routledge, Apr. 2014, pp. 142–45, doi:10.1080/00144940.2014.905433.