Honestly, I find Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 more frightening than 1984. Both are dystopian visions of the future (well, the future respective to the time they were written — now, it’s just modern times). Both have a protagonist that begins the novel as a cog in The System, but has an emotional and intellectual awakening that forces them to question everything. Despite their superficial similarities, however, Bradbury’s novel differs from Orwell’s in one highly important regard: the suppressed, unthinking state of society is a mandate of the people themselves, rather than a forced change by the government or Big Brother.
Bradbury begins Fahrenheit 451 by introducing us to a fireman named Guy Montag. Montag loves his job, though firemen are no longer the rescuers of the past; their job is to start the fires. They burn books, specifically, and those who read them. Books are banned across the board, due to the way they make people feel and think. Sameness is encouraged, mandated even, in Montag’s society. People spend all their time staring at screens that feed them endless stimuli. Not true entertainment, not stories or dance or music or art, just noise at outrageous volume and pictures at high speeds to keep a person’s attention hooked. People are addicted to their televisions, addicted to fast cars, to drugs, and to violence. Sound familiar?
Montag begins to break free of the chains society has willingly bound itself with thanks to a whimsical dreamer who lives next door to him. She encourages him to experience the world around him, to look for beauty in life, and most essentially, think for himself. Of course, society frowns upon this sort of thing. People around Montag begin to notice that he is different; this difference reaches a breaking point when the firemen are called to a house filled with hundreds of books. However, the books alone do not prove to be the catalyst, but rather their owner, a woman who refuses to leave her prized possessions to be burnt like garbage. She instead gives the firemen several seconds to leave the house before striking the match herself, making her books a literary funeral pyre. (Side note — this would totally be me. I’m not a huge fan of self-immolation, but there is no way I’d let someone burn my precious library.)
This particular burning starts a chain of events that Montag furthers as if in a feverish dream. As the story unfolds and the reader learns more about how society came to be this way, it becomes more and more horrifying. Eventually, Montag’s actions place him in a flight-or-fight situation, and he he chooses fight — to the extreme. Without giving away specifics, let me just say that Montag goes from aimless anger to focused hellfire in under five seconds. It’s unexpected and irrevocable. The fallout from this reveals yet another aspect of society that has indeed come to pass: crime as entertainment. The hunt for Montag is a television event, one that keeps every citizen glued to the screen.
As bleak as Bradbury’s outlook is, he does not leave the reader despondent. Instead, he paints a portrait of a society that is not ruined, only temporarily lost. In spite of the war, the government, and even themselves, Bradbury gives us light at the end of the tunnel for the people of Montag’s society. The story is not uplifting, by any means, but it is not without hope. In fact, the book serves as a reminder for why we must continue to fight for free expression in our own world, and allow for freedom of intellect and choice. And so, as a solid recommendation for this novel, I raise my fist for the salvation of literature in the face of adversity, even when the adversity is ourselves.