If my previous rants on the subject didn’t already make it clear to you, censorship is something of a hot button issue with me. For any bibliophile, the banning of literary works is one of the more perverse mechanisms of oppression and social control. Unfortunately, it is a reality that exists in almost every society. My interest in the topic is at least partly a consequence of my work in the human rights field, but it also stems from a love of dystopian fiction. The best works in the genre explore perhaps the greatest of literary thought experiments – the human experience in a world of extreme terror. It is with this belief that I recently corrected an area of negligence, by finally reading Ray Bradbury’s fictional dystopian exploration, Fahrenheit 451.
” ‘Number one: Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more “literary” you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.’ “
Fahrenheit 451 is set in an alternative America, one in which censorship and book burning are rife. The novel follows Guy Montag, a fireman whose job it is to hunt out and burn hidden books. Unquestioning in the conduct of his work, a meeting with his mysterious new neighbour Clarisse McClellan forces Guy to reexamine his role in the suppression of social and political dissent. Overwhelmed with doubt, Guy steals a book during the raid of an old woman’s house, adding it to a collection of stolen literary works that he has been accumulating over the course of a year. Yet following a report from his wife and her friends, Guy becomes the subject of suspicion. After his colleagues arrive at his door, Guy is forced to confront the reality of the society in which he exists – a reality in which knowledge is the enemy and the establishment will stop at nothing to eradicate dissent from its empire.
Ray Bradbury’s prophetic classic is a novel that truly brings home the dangers of cultural enslavement. It presents a world from which curiosity is banished, traded instead for consent and conformity. In this world, books are the danger – representing human and intellectual diversity, as well as potential provocation for social discord:
” ‘Ah.’ Beatty leaned forward in the faint mist of smoke from his pipe. ‘What more easily explained and natural? With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word “intellectual”, of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally “bright”, did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone is 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. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it.’ “
In the same way that George Orwell’s 1984 strikes fear into the hearts of those who believe in democratic freedom, Fahrenheit 451 presents a challenge to advocates of individuality and human expression. It understands that the elimination of diversity and independent thought is perhaps the most effective means of maintaining power. This is a lesson that we see replicated across the world – a lesson to which no country is immune, whether democracy or dictatorship. The power of this message is conveyed expertly through both the plot and character voices of Fahrenheit 451.
Bradbury’s skill is particularly demonstrable through his careful and original use of prose. The narrative never strays from a convincingly perverse reality and yet the plot is delivered with a poeticism that helps the novel transcend political diatribe. Bradbury exercises expert precision in his depiction of human emotions and responses, painting both with a truly unique use of language, and making this literary thought experiment all the more poignant:
“He glanced back at the wall. How like a mirror, too, her face. Impossible; for how many people did you know that refracted your own light to you? People were more often – he searched for a simile, found one in his work – torches, blazing away until they whiffed out. How rarely did other people’s faces take of you and throw back to you your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought? What incredible power of identification the girl had; she was like the eager watcher of a marionette show, anticipating each flicker of an eyelid, each gesture of his hand, each flick of a finger, the moment before it began. How long had they walked together? Three minutes? Five? Yet how large that time seemed now. How immense a figure she was on the stage before him; what a shadow she threw on the wall with her slender body! He felt that if his eye itched, she might blink. And if the muscles of his jaws stretched imperceptibly, she would yawn long before he would.”
Fahrenheit 451 has, with relative ease, ascended to the status of modern classic. Following in the footsteps of dystopian giants such as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, Bradbury has carved out a path of his own. This novel is a truly original exploration of the questions that plague modernity – questions of social control, the power of the media, and the suppression of dissent through the manipulation of knowledge. Even in light of its remarkable prosaic style, Fahrenheit 451 is a wonderfully easy read, and at a short 227 pages it presents a viable option for readers of all kinds. So whether you are looking to scare yourself with the potential march of modern society towards conformity or whether you simply want an excellent and gripping read, this is definitely one for you.