Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This is arguably Bradbury's most famous work, with the possible exception of The Martian Chronicles. It is considered a classic even by those who don't normally read SF, equal in stature to two other famous dystopian novels, Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Several real life events sparked its creation; first, the book burnings in Nazi Germany and other places, and second, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations into Communist sympathizers in the US, then later Joseph McCarthy's Communist "witch hunt" through the Senate's Government Operations Committee. Bradbury has stated that he feared book burnings could become commonplace if such attitudes prevailed.
After several rejections, the 25,000 word novella "The Fireman" was finally accepted by Horace Gold for Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, appearing in the February 1951 issue. Several earlier story ideas were incorporated into the novella, including the never published "The Bonfire," as well as "Bright Phoenix," which pitted a small town librarian against a would-be book-burner. It was written in 1948 but not published until '63. The element of a society that discouraged individuality while encouraging the populace to remain at home pacified by television came from "The Pedestrian," written before "The Fireman" but printed six months later. After the story's positive reception, Ballantine Books inquired if it could be expanded to novel length. Bradbury returned to the library basement where he had been writing all his stories on a rented typewriter, and knocked out another 25,000 words in nine days. Ballantine felt the original title was boring and mundane. Bradbury had already done research on the temperature at which paper ignited when his editor inquired if he had asked a fireman.
The book's protagonist is Guy Montag. His job is to burn books since the government has decreed that ideas are dangerous. He has perfomed this task for many years without question, although it is apparent he has had doubts even before he meets a gregarious young woman who asks him if he's ever read any of the books he burns. He has already hidden at least one book behind an air conditioning vent in his home. The original story was set in 2052, but the novel eliminated that fact and the time period was left vague. Society is static and stagnant. No creativity or imagination is allowed, for that would lead to one person feeling different, maybe even superior, to others. Most accept this, including Montag's wife Mildred, who spends her days and nights interacting with the "family" that surrounds her on three full wall-screens, listening to innocuous music or stories on her "ear-thimbles," or else dosing herself with tranquilizers and sleeping pills.
There are a few, however, who have stashed away some treasured books, who are not mesmerized by televised images, but rather try to nurture the old ideas of imagination, intelligent conversation and camaraderie among friends. Montag's life comes crashing down around him after he witnesses a woman who refuses to leave her home and books. Instead, she lights the match herself and dies in the fire. Montag is later implicated by his wife, and he must flee the city. A confidant, a former professor, had told him about a group of people who hid in areas outside of the cities. Montag is able to find them, discovering they have memorized books and ask him to do so too. That way they hope to have them reprinted one day, and in that way they will turn the tables on the book burners who use the symbol of the phoenix. Hopefully it will be the books that will rise from the ashes to live again.
Oddly enough, Bradbury's target was not government censorship. Montag's superior, Captain Beatty, explains to him how the fireman's life came to be. It began with minorities objecting to how they were portrayed in certain books, so they demanded those pages be excised. That happened enough times that there were few books left that had not had their initial intent obliterated. People stopped reading books and newspapers, objecting to anything that offended their sensibilities. If no one was reading, what was the point of printing books? Eventually, legislation evolved that mandated everyone had to be "equal," that is, equally ignorant, equally unambitious, equally pacified into submission. Thus the government was merely protecting the people from confusing ideas that would only make them sad and feeling inadequate. So Bradbury was actually speculating about a time where people would lose interest in reading and learning in general. A preposterous notion of course, then again... Over the past few months, SF fans have been embroiled in disputes over the "right" type of stories that should be awarded, the "right" type of ideas that should be embraced. I'm not saying it might ever morph into a situation where certain kinds of books won't be able to find a publisher, but it would if certain voices prevail. In that way, Fahrenheit 451 was prescient, and still relevant more than sixty years later.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention what I consider a flaw in the novel. If Montag had been narrating his own story, the lyrical prose, very typical of Bradbury, would have been wrong. It should have been simpler, less flowery prose, since he would not have the vocabulary or notion of style that the story contains. It is written in omniscient third-person, so my complaint might be invalidated, but it is told from Montag's perspective, with his thoughts described. It is possible that Bradbury wasn't capable of writing it as simply as I felt the story deserved. Minor complaint I know, but I've always felt style should be tailored to the theme. It should at least have been simpler in the beginning, with the style changing as Montag begins reading himself. Still, an excellent story, chilling and disturbing though it might be. Well deserving of its reputation and the many awards it has received.
My profile article, Ray Bradbury: His Life and Work
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