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Critical Essay by David Mogen
SOURCE: "Fahrenheit 451," in Ray Bradbury, Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 105-11.
In the following excerpt, Mogen provides favorable analysis of Fahrenheit 451, citing Bradbury's use of satire, metaphor, and stylistic excellence to deliver social commentary.
If The Martian Chronicles (1950) established Bradbury's mainstream reputation as America's foremost science-fiction writer, publication of Fahrenheit 451 three years later (1953) confirmed the promise of the earlier book. Indeed, these two science-fiction novels from the early fifties seem destined to survive as Bradbury's best-known and most influential creations, the most sustained expressions of his essentially lyrical treatment of science-fiction conventions. The Martian Chronicles presents the pioneering space romance in a distinctive tone of poignant irony and elegy; Fahrenheit 451 counterpoises this ironic otherworldly drama with a searing vision of earthbound entrapment, evoking a painfully ambivalent poetry of incineration and illumination from the conventions of antiutopian fiction. Whereas The Martian Chronicles portrays entrapment in memory, the difficulty of accepting and adapting to an alien environment, Fahrenheit 451 dramatizes entrapment in a sterile and poisonous culture cut off from its cultural heritage and imaginative life, vigilantly preserving a barren present without past or future. Though Fahrenheit 451 has been accused of vagueness and sentimentality, it remains one of the most eloquent sciencefiction satires, a vivid warning about mistaking, in Orville Prescott's phrase, "mindless happiness and slavish social conformity" for "progress."
Fahrenheit 451 fuses traditional themes of antiutopian fiction to focus satirically on the oppressive effect of a reductionist philosophy of "realism" translated into social policy. A very American satire, written in response to the cold war atmosphere after World War II, the novel's sarcasm is directed not at specific government institutions but at antiintellectualism and cramped materialism posing as social philosophy, justifying book burning in the service of a degraded democratic ideal. Fahrenheit 451 depicts a world in which the American Dream has turned nightmare because it has been superficially understood. For all his burning eloquence Captain Beatty represents Bradbury's satirical target, not Big Brother but the potentially tyrannical smallmindedness of the common man, perverting the most basic community institutions to enforce conformity. The underground scholar Faber warns Montag that the captain's rhetoric, like the seductive brilliance of the fire, destroys the foundations of true freedom in its leveling blaze: "Remember that the Captain belongs to the most dangerous enemy totruth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh, the terrible tyranny of the majority."
Given this satirical target—the debased Americanism of McCarthyism—the ironically reversed role of the "firemen" serves admirably as Bradbury's central metaphor, since it represents both the charismatic seductiveness of demagoguery and a perversion of the community values of Green Town, Bradbury's symbol of the American tradition at its best. Indeed, the power of Fahrenheit 451's imagery derives from this ironic inversion of values in an institution that once evoked Bradbury's boyish awe and respect. Writing of the personal memories that inform the novel, he recalls how like many boys he idolized local firemen prepared to battle the "bright monster" of fire:
And I did pass the firehouse often, coming and going to the library, nights and days, in Illinois, as a boy, and I find among my notes many pages written to describe the red trucks and coiled hoses and clump-footed firemen, and I recall that night when I heard a scream from a part of my grandmother's house and ran to a room and threw open a door to look in and cry out myself.
For there, climbing the wall, was a bright monster. It grew before my eyes. It made a great roaring sound and seemed fantastically alive as it ate of the wallpaper and devoured the ceiling.
In his memory, the firehouse is the protector of library and home. And this heroic image of the community firehouse, the curiously thrilling terror of fire, inspire the angry lyricism of Bradbury's vision of the American Dream gone awry: for in this appalling future the community firehouse has become the impersonal agent of fire itself, destroying rather than preserving the community institutions Bradbury cherishes above all others—family life, schools, and, most fundamentally of all, perhaps, the local library. As Donald Watt demonstrates in "Burning Bright: Fahrenheit 451 as Symbolic Dystopia," ambivalent associations with fire, both destroyer and center of hearth and home, fundamentally structure the novel. But the ambivalence evoked by fire metaphorically represents the ambivalent implications of American democracy, the possibility that the communal spirit of Green Town could become an American form of totalitarianism, a "tyranny of the majority" as fearful as the tyranny of Big Brother, founded on shallow misunderstanding of rationality, science, and the nature of "happiness."
Yet if Fahrenheit 451 gains power and specificity from its American frame of reference, the satire also applies to patterns that can recur in all societies, whenever reductionist philosophies resultin the sacrifice of individuals and free play of imagination for the common good. Bradbury's satire is directed not at American ideals but at simplistic perversions of them, as well as at the American innocence that assumes totalitarianism can't happen here. However, horror at Hitler inspired the book's original conception, that to burn books is to burn people: "When Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as burning a human, for in the long sum of history they are one and the same flesh." And though Hitler is defeated, and McCarthy's era finished, they will always have successors who will keep the firemen at work: "For while Senator McCarthy has been long dead, the Red Guard in China comes alive and idols are smashed and books are thrown to the furnace all over again. So it will go, one generation printing, another generation burning, yet another remembering what is good to remember so as to print again." Ultimately, Fahrenhelt 451 warns that tyranny and thought control always come under the guise of fulfilling ideals, whether they be those of Fascism, Communism, or the American Dream. Yet the cyclical pattern Bradbury describes also suggests the positive implications of one of the book's central symbols, the Phoenix: for, like the Phoenix, mankind always arises from ashes to rediscover and refashion a desecrated cultural heritage.
Though Fahrenheit 451 has been compared frequently to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four—an obviously influential model—it actually combines the oppressive atmosphere of Orwell's police state with a cultural milieu derived from the other major model in the science-fiction antiutopian tradition, Huxley's Brave New World. Indeed, the novel's affinities with Brave New World are profound, since they establish the basic thrust of Bradbury's satire, which is not directed at authoritarianism but at a more characteristically American problem, a reductionist, materialist image of human nature and human culture reinforced through mass entertainment media. Though the novel's basic mechanics of thought control derive from Orwell, Bradbury's satirical vision does not focus primarily on government itself but on the potentially poisonous superficiality of mass culture, on whose behalf the firemen work. As in Huxley's satire (itself profoundly influenced by American culture in the twenties), the power of totalitarianism in Fahrenheit 451 derives primarily from pleasure rather than pain, from addiction to mindless sensation rather than from fear of government oppression. The firemen work for the "people," not for an established hierarchy. Indeed, compared to Big Brother the firemen are haphazard and mild agents of repression.
Next to Orwell's vision of totalitarianism, Bradbury's appears vaguely defined, both ideologically and politically. Montag's entrapment generates nothing like the weight of despair that crushes Winston Smith's spirit. Yet understanding the American context in which Bradbury writes clarifies the logic of this political vagueness, since his major satirical target is the leveling impulse of mass culture, rather than the rigidity of ideology. As Kingsley Amis suggests, Bradbury's style is very different from Orwell's, working through key symbols rather than through elaborately imagined detail. Yet the final effect is similarly impressive: "The book [Fahrenheit 451] emerges quite creditably from a comparison with Nineteen Eighty-four as inferior in power, but superior in conciseness and objectivity."
As is true of all Bradbury's best science fiction, Fahrenheit 451 dramatizes its central extrapolations with lyrical intensity, creating an atmosphere of entrapment that originates in the mind-numbing addictiveness of mass culture as much as from the firemen themselves. The novel's most powerful scenes are not the sometimes tedious expositions in dialogue, but descriptive passages, asides, which capture the inarticulate spiritual desolation disguised by the busy, upbeat appearances of this world. As they burn, books and magazines appear as "slaughtered birds" drenched with kerosene, expiring with a dying fall: "A book lit, almost obediently, like a white pigeon, in his hands, wings fluttering." Montag sees himself in the mirror as "a minstrel man, burnt-corked" smiling a smile that "never ever went away, as long as he remembered." The single most powerful scene evoking this atmosphere of glazed entrapment, perhaps, is the description of Mildred dying of an overdose of sleeping pills in their bedroom, a "cold marbled … mausoleum after the moon has set." She is at her most appealing in this icy trance, like a princess cast under deathly enchantment by incantations from her "Seashell ear thimbles" and the hypnotic ritual activity of her television "walls," imaging forth in her "moonstone" eyes a despair she can never consciously acknowledge: "Two moonstones looked up at him in the light of his small hand-held fire; two pale moonstones buried in a creek of clear water over which the life of the world ran, not touching them."
This icy alienation is the inner reality preserved by the fierce blaze of the firemen, a sterile desert of "happiness" within the widening circle of flames. Mildred's waking self, hungry only for distracting sensations, has irrevocably disassociated itself from her interior life, a subliminal meaning Truffaut artfully visualized by casting the same actress as both Mildred and Clarisse. Montag himself has never been able to distance himself so utterly from his inner self, that "subconscious idiot that ran babbling at times" inside his skull. It is this irrepressible inner self that projects his culture's hidden despair into cosmic imagery of alienation, imagining their noisy machines might leave them snowbound in stardust: "He felt that the stars had been pulverized by the sound of the black jets and that in the morning the earth would be covered with their dust like a strange snow. That was his idiot thought as he stood shivering in the dark, and let his lips go on and on, moving and moving."
Structurally, Fahrenheit 451 moves from these early images of entrapment and alienation ("Part One: The Hearth and the Salamander"), through Montag's acknowledgement of and integration with the voice of his inner self (which becomes for a while the literal voice of Faber in "Part Two: The Sieve and the Sand"), to the final journey downriver to refuge in the wilderness ("PartThree: Burning Bright"). There those who have preserved their own inner life and man's cultural heritage quietly observe the final apotheosis of the culture that drove them out, as it finally consumes itself in flames. Thus, as the novel develops, the ambiguous connotations of Bradbury's central symbols express the emotional impact of his theme, the process of death and rebirth for Montag and the interior values he represents.
As the title suggests, fire provides the central metaphors for Fahrenheit 451. It opens and closes with contrasting images of fire and light, and the shifts in their symbolic associations illustrate how the novel's theme develops. In the opening description Montag revels in flame, like the mythical salamander, a blackened emblem of his culture's exhilaration in sensationalism and destruction: "It was a pleasure to burn…. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning." This fire is associated with darkness rather than light. But by the book's conclusion Montag has learned of the other fire of the "hearth," which warms and lights both "home" and "heart." Watching an old woman martyr herself in a pyre of her own books ignites a blaze of illumination inside him he cannot extinguish: "This fire'll last me the rest of my life." When he stumbles upon his first campfire in the wilderness, he finally comprehends fire's natural role in the "hearth," and he draws the moral himself: "It was not burning, it was warming."
In the campfire's glow Montag finally experiences the warmth of genuine human community, the slow lilt of relaxed conversation that in other contexts Bradbury identifies with talk at dusk on Green Town porches: "The voices talked of everything, there was nothing they could not talk about, he knew, from the very cadence and motion and continued stir of curiosity and wonder in them." And after the cities are scorched in the salamander's final revelry, the glow of the morning campfire blends into the light of a new day, as fire and light once again assume their roles in the natural cycle: "They finished eating and put the fire. The day was brightening all about them as if a pink lamp had been given more wick. In the trees, the birds that had flown away quickly now came back and settled down." Thus, the phoenix spirit of mankind regenerates new life from ashes, as Montag walks in the wilderness and savors the prophetic lines from Revelation: "And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."
Like all of Bradbury's best fiction, Fahrenheit 451 creates its best effects through vivid style. Yet it is also unique among his major writings for the sustained tautness of the narrative. Two of his other book-length fictions, The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine, are not so much novels as patterned colleges of vignettes and short stories. And his other major novels, Something Wicked This Way Comes and Death Is a Lonely Business, are baggy monsters by comparison, in which the lyrical asides threaten to subvert the central narratives. But in Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury achieved his central artistic objective, to rewrite the original novella, "The Fireman," with the sustained intensity of his bestshort fiction: "I wanted to write a short novel and have it as 'truthful' as my stories. A novel, that is, with a skin around it and its own essence and being sacked up inside." This results, as Kingsley Amis describes it, in a "fast and scaring narrative" that successfully utilizes Bradbury's lyrical gifts to musically develop its disturbing theme.
An illustration of the fact that science fiction can comment eloquently on social problems, a story that translated effectively into Francois Truffaut's film, Fahrenheit 451 deserves its reputation as one of the best American books of the postwar era. Willis McNelly calls it "in every way a magnificent achievement, perhaps his best book," and Mark Hillegas described it in the mid-sixties as "the archetypal anti-utopia of the new era in which we live." Fueled by Bradbury's lifelong passion for books and libraries, by his indignation at seeing American ideals defiled, Fahrenheit 451 succeeds in warning of fire's seductive appeal while also affirming the power of man's phoenix-nature—the capacity to be warmed with inner illumination in desperate circumstances, to endure and rebuild new hearths in the ashes of history.
This section contains 2,512 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)