Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 is the story of a fireman named Guy Montag. Guy lives in a future, dystopian United States where firemen don’t put out fires, they start them. In this future, mass media is used to control the hearts and minds of the populace. Anything which is perceived to threaten mass media’s control, such as books must be destroyed. As a fireman, Guy responds to a person’s reported possession of books by showing up at their house and burning the books. However, Guy knows there is something missing in his life. Unable to put his finger on the problem, he seeks for answers outside of the normal mass media outlets, and he begins to develop a fatal attraction to the very books he is burning.
I’m not sure how I managed to avoid reading this book in high school, but I did, making this my first read through of the classic work. I found Bradbury’s description of his imagined future technology, such as ear-bud like wireless headphones and flat screen TVs, prescient. Guy Montag and Clarissa were interesting characters, but I thought several of the other characters, like Guy’s wife Millie, were rather throw-away. The story is more of a character drama, and we follow Guy through his internal struggle to rationalize the world around him.
The dystopia in Fahrenheit 451 differs from those established in 1984 and Brave New World in a couple of ways. First, the setting is in the United States instead of London. Second, while the exact nature of the government is never discussed, it does not appear to resemble communism in any appreciable way. The state does seem to be a far reaching entity, but it is never exactly clear how far reaching. I think the ambiguity of the dystopia both helps and hurts the story. Having an undefined government structure makes the book easier to interpret and identify with, even sixty years after the book was published. Unlike earlier dystopian novels with a clear-cut totalitarian state, Fahrenheit 451 requires the reader to supplement some of the details about the government from their own mind. There is enough suggestion in the book to guide our vision of the future, but not enough to color it completely. This has helped the story stay relevant as modern readers supply their own details and interpretation of events, and even though these interpretations might be different from what the author intended, they’re still valid. For me, the ambiguity hurt the story at times. There were occasions where I would have liked to know more concrete details, and they were never supplied.
Another enjoyable classic which has aged well, Fahrenheit 451 is worth a read. In some ways it represents a major departure from other dystopian novels written before it. It lacks the “big reveal” moment found in 1984 and Brave New World, but I don’t think that hurts this story. Focusing more on character and less on the dystopian setting, Fahrenheit 451 reads a lot more like a story than a cautionary tale, a clear sign of the change in the dystopian genre over time.