Saturday, October 24, 2009
I meant all kinds of tyrannies .. Fahrenheit 415 by Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 takes place in an unspecified future time (dialogue on one page places it after 1990) in a hedonistic anti-intellectual America that has completely abandoned self-control. This America is filled with lawlessness in the streets ranging from teenagers crashing cars into people to firemen at a station who set their 'mechanical hound' to hunt various animals by their scent for the simple and grotesque pleasure of watching them die. Anyone caught reading or possessing books is, at the minimum, confined to a mental hospital while the books are burned by the firemen. Illegal books mainly include famous works of literature, such as Walt Whitman and William Faulkner, as well as the Bible and all historical texts.
One rainy night returning from his job, fireman Guy Montag meets his new neighbor Clarisse McClellan, whose free-thinking ideals and liberating spirit force him to question his life, his ideals, and his own perceived happiness. Clarisse would not ask how a thing was done but why. Later, Clarisse is presumptively killed after being hit by a car.
After meeting Clarisse, Montag returns home to find his wife Mildred asleep with an empty bottle of sleeping pills next to her bed. He calls for medical help; two technicians respond by proceeding to suck out Mildred's blood with a machine and insert new blood into her. The technicians' utter disregard for Mildred forces Montag to question the state of society.
In the following days, while ransacking the book-filled house of an old woman before the inevitable burning, Montag accidentally reads a line in one of her books: "Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine". This prompts him to steal one of the books. The woman refuses to leave her house and her books, choosing instead to light a match she had concealed from the firemen's view, prematurely igniting the flammable kerosene the firemen had sprayed her house with and, in a bizarre act of martyrdom subsequently burns herself alive along with her beloved books. This disturbs Montag, who wonders why someone would die for books, which he considers to be without value.
Jarred by the woman's suicide, Montag calls for sick leave, whereupon he receives a visit from his fire chief Captain Beatty, who explains to him the political and social causes which underlie the work they perform. Captain Beatty claims that society, in its search for happiness and in an attempt to minimize cultural offenses through political correctness, brought about the suppression of literature as an act of self-censorship and that the government merely took advantage of the situation. Beatty adds that all firemen eventually steal a book out of curiosity, but all would be well if the book is turned in within 24 hours. Montag argues with his wife, Mildred, over the book he himself has stolen, showing his growing disgust for her and for his society.
It is revealed that Montag has, over the course of a year, hidden dozens of books in the ventilation shafts of his own house, and tries to memorize them to preserve their contents, but becomes frustrated that the words seem to simply fall away from his memory. He then remembers a man he had met at one time: Faber, a former English professor. Montag seeks Faber's help, whereafter Faber begins teaching Montag about the vagaries and ambiguities but overall importance of literature in its attempt to explain human existence. He also gives Montag a green bullet-shaped ear-piece so that Faber can offer guidance throughout his daily activities.
During a card game at the firehouse, Beatty tells Montag he had a dream about him, and relates the literary argument he claims to have had in his dream. Beatty quotes many books and shows an amazing knowledge of literature to prove to Montag that books can confuse the thoughts. Shortly after receiving an emergency dispatch, Montag follows Beatty and the crew to another call to arms; Beatty theatrically leads the crew to Montag's own home. He reveals that he knew all along of Montag's books, and orders Montag to destroy the house. Montag sees Mildred moving away from the house and sets to work burning their home; not content destroying the books, he burns the televisions, beds, and other emblems of his past life. When Beatty finds Faber's earpiece, he threatens to track Faber down, whereupon Montag turns the flamethrower on Beatty, killing him. He is soon a fugitive for these crimes. When the firehouse's mechanical hound attacks him, he turns the flamethrower on it, destroying it.
He flees to Faber's house, with another firehouse's mechanical hound and television network helicopters in hot pursuit. The newscasters hope to document his escape as a spectacle, and distract the people from the oncoming threat of war, a threat that has been foreshadowed throughout the book via the reader being repeatedly told of planes flying over the buildings that the characters are in, as well as a radio broadcast that says "this country stands ready to defend itself". Faber tells Montag of vagabond book-lovers in the countryside. Montag then escapes to a local river, floats downstream and meets a group of older men who, to Montag's astonishment, have memorized entire books, preserving them orally until the law against books is overturned. They burn the books they read to prevent discovery, retaining the verbatim content (and possibly valid interpretations) in their minds. The group leader, Granger, discusses the legendary phoenix and its endless cycle of long life, death in flames, and rebirth, adding that the phoenix must have some relation to mankind, which constantly repeats its mistakes.
Meanwhile, the television network helicopters surround and kill another man (who regularly walks about) who they kill instead of Montag to maintain the illusion of a successful hunt.
The war begins. Montag watches helplessly as jet bombers fly overhead and attack the city with nuclear weapons. It is implied Mildred dies, though Faber is stated to have left the city. It is implied that more cities across the country have been incinerated as well; a bitter irony in that the world that sought to burn thought is burned itself. At the moment of the explosion, the emotion of seeing the city burned causes a key phrase from the Bible to emerge from the depths of Montag's memory. The final page of the novel shows this phrase to be Revelation 22:2.
The novel is concluded in a shocking but slightly optimistic tone. It is suggested that the society Montag knew has almost completely collapsed and a new society must be built from the ashes. Whether this new society will meet the same fate is unknown, but it is implied that the book-keepers will begin to build mirror factories (a literary allusion wherein mirrors are a metaphor for books) to show people who they are, what they have become, and how they can change with time and knowledge.
Guy Montag is the protagonist and fireman (see above) whose metamorphosis is illustrated throughout the book and who presents the dystopia through the eyes of a loyal worker to it, a man in conflict about it, and one resolved to be free of it. Through most of the book, Montag lacks knowledge and believes what he hears. Bradbury notes in his afterword that he noticed, after the book was published, that Montag is the name of a paper company.
Faber is a former English professor who represents those who know what is being done is wrong but are too fearful to act. Bradbury notes in his afterword that Faber is part of the name of a German manufacturer of pencils, Faber-Castell.
Mildred Montag is Guy Montag's wife, who makes an attempt at suicide early on in the book by overdosing on sleeping pills. She is used symbolically as the opposite of Clarisse McClellan. In the 1966 film, her name was changed to Linda Montag.
Clarisse McClellan displays every trait Mildred does not, in that she is outgoing, naturally cheerful, unorthodox, and intuitive. She serves as the wake-up call for Montag by posing the question “Why?” to him. She is unpopular among peers and disliked by teachers for (as Captain Beatty puts it) asking why instead of how and focusing on nature rather than on technology. Montag regards her as odd until she goes missing; the book gives no definitive explanation. It is said that Captain Beatty and Mildred know that Clarisse has been killed in a car accident.
Captain Beatty is Montag's boss and the fire chief. Once an avid reader, he has come to hate books as a result of life's tragedies and of the fact that books contradict and refute each other. Beatty tries to entice Montag back into the book-burning business but is burned to death by Montag when he underestimates Montag's resolve. Montag later realizes that Beatty might have wanted to die, purposely provoking Montag to kill him. In a scene written years later by Bradbury for the Fahrenheit 451 play, Beatty invites Montag to his house where he shows him walls of books left to molder on their shelves. Beatty is the symbolic opposite of Faber.
Granger is the leader of a group of wandering intellectual exiles who memorize books in order to preserve their contents. Where Beatty destroys, he preserves; where Beatty uses fire for the purpose of burning, Granger uses it for the purpose of warming. His acceptance of Montag is considered the final step in Montag's metamorphosis from embracing Beatty's ultimate value of happiness and complacency to embracing Granger's value of the love of knowledge.
Mechanical Hound The mechanical hound exists in the original book but not in the 1966 film. It is an emotionless, eight-legged killing machine that can be programmed to seek out and destroy free thinkers, hunting them down by scent. It can remember as many as 10,000 scents at a time. The hound is blind to anything but the destruction for which it is programmed. It has a proboscis in a sheath on its snout, which injects lethal amounts of procaine and morphine. Although Montag is able to survive a partial injection into his leg, he suffers severe discomfort and numbness for a short time. The first hound encountered in the novel is destroyed when Montag sets it on fire with a flamethrower. A second hound sent to kill Montag loses his scent when Montag jumped into a river. The hound then goes and finds a random victim to convince the television audience that the hound never fails, even though Montag escaped. Bradbury notes in his afterword that the hound is "my robot clone of A. Conan Doyle's great Baskerville beast", referring to the famous Sherlock Holmes mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Mildred's friends (Mrs. Bowles and Mrs. Phelps) Mildred's friends represent the average citizens in the numbed society portrayed in the novel. They are examples of the people in the society who are unhappy but do not think they are. When they are introduced to literature (Dover Beach), which symbolizes the pain and happiness that has been censored from them, Mrs. Phelps is overwhelmed by the rush of emotion that she has not felt before.
The novel reflects several major concerns of the time of its writing, leading many to interpret it differently than intended by Bradbury (see "Censorship and the effects of mass media" below). Among the themes attributed to the novel were what Bradbury has called "the thought-destroying force" of censorship, the book-burnings in Nazi Germany in 1933 and the horrible consequences of the explosion of a nuclear weapon. "I meant all kinds of tyrannies anywhere in the world at any time, right, left, or middle," Bradbury has said.
One particularly ironic circumstance is that, unbeknownst to Bradbury, his publisher released a censored edition in 1967, omitting the words "damn" and "hell," for distribution to schools. Later editions with all words restored include a coda from the author describing this event and further thoughts on censorship and "well-meaning" revisionism.
Censorship and the effects of mass media
The novel is frequently interpreted as being critical of state-sponsored censorship, but Bradbury has disputed this interpretation. He said in a 2007 interview that the book explored the effects of television and mass media on the reading of literature.
Bradbury still has a lot to say, especially about how people do not understand his most famous literary work, Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953. ... Bradbury, a man living in the creative and industrial center of reality TV and one-hour dramas, says it is, in fact, a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature.
Yet in the paperback edition released in 1979, Bradbury wrote a new coda for the book containing multiple comments on censorship and its relation to the novel. The coda is also present in the 1987 mass market paperback, which is still in print.
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 feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse….Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever.
... Only six weeks ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with the censorship and book-burning in the future, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony. Judy-Lynn del Rey, one of the new Ballantine editors, is having the entire book reset and republished this summer with all the damns and hells back in place.
In the late '50s, Bradbury observed that the novel touches on the alienation of people by media:
In writing the short novel Fahrenheit 451 I thought I was describing a world that might evolve in four or five decades. But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog. I stood staring after them, absolutely stunned. The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction.
Bradbury directly foretells this incident early in the work:
And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talking coming in. p.12