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Critical Essay by John Colmer
SOURCE: "Science Fiction," in Coleridge to Catch-22, St. Martin's Press, 1978, pp. 197-209.
In the following excerpt, Colmer assesses Fahrenheit 451 as a work of social criticism, citing shortcomings in the novel's sentimentality and high-culture allusions.
Fahrenheit 451 takes its place in a long line of works concerned with the survival of language and the written word, since it not only presents a future in which there is constant war or threat of war but one where there is no legitimate place for books. The infamous burning of the books in Nazi Germany provides the historical model for Bradbury's fictional projection. On this model, he imagines a future society in which reading and the possession of books are anti-social activities and therefore must be eradicated.
The curious title is based on the scientific notion that Fahrenheit 451 is 'the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns', and the first paragraph of the book describes the special pleasure of seeing things burn. 'It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.' Since the meaning of the whole book centres on the character called Montag, it is necessary to establish his function as a fireman and to introduce explanations for his abnormality, his deviation from accepted behaviour. Bradbury introduces his first bit of verbal play in explaining Montag's function in this future society. He is a fireman. Whereas, in our society, a fireman extinguishes fires, in Bradbury's a fireman extinguishes books. He destroys them with fire. A far less successful fictional invention is the character, Clarisse McClellan, the seventeen-year-old social misfit, who likes 'to smell things and look at things, and sometimes stay up all night, walking, and watching the sun rise'. In many ways a sentimental device to represent the natural values and interpersonal relationships that have been lost, she also serves as an effective contrast to Montag's wife, Mildred, who is completely adapted to a life of drug-taking and passive consumption of 'sound thro' little seashells, thimble radios in the ears, and T.V., or rather wall entertainment'. Bradbury himself wrote:
In writing the short novel Fahrenheit 451 I thought I wasdescribing 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 in her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap opera cries, sleepwalking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there.
When Mildred takes an overdose, Bradbury describes the two machines that restore her to normality. The operator of one could look into the soul of the person, as the machine pumped out all the poisons accumulated with the years. The other machine 'pumped all the blood from the body and replaced it with fresh blood and serum'. The invention is an extrapolation from present psychiatric and medical practice to reinforce the notion that human beings have ceased to be regarded as individual personalities and have been reduced to the level of things or controllable processes. This is one of the fairly peripheral bits of social documentation. Less peripheral is the detail that relates to the wall TV, especially the contrast between the mindless mush that Mildred and her neighbours enjoy, and the effect on them of two passages from Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach. The women cannot help being moved by Arnold's lines, but one of them, Mrs Bowles, condemns poetry and Montag roundly:
I've always said, poetry and tears, poetry and suicide and crying and awful feelings, poetry and sickness; all that mush! Now I've had it proved to me. You're nasty, Mr Montag, you're nasty.
The trouble with Montag, of course, is that he has discovered the value of books. He keeps some hidden away behind the ventilator grille. And the reader realises that it is only a matter of time before he is discovered. Bradbury develops a certain amount of suspense and drama through Mildred's fears, through the poker-face duels between Montag and the fire chief Beatty, and through the ominous sounds outside Montag's door. One of the most effective minor climaxes in Fahrenheit 451 occurs when the firemen are called out and Montag finds, to his horror, that the address they have been sent to destroy books is his own.
It must be admitted that Bradbury is more successful in creating the horror of mechanised anti-culture than in evoking the positive and continuing power of literature and civilisation. The burning scenes have intense power and the pursuit of Montag by the Mechanical Hound, especially in the last section of the book, is inthe best tradition of Gothic pursuit; mysterious, but relentless. By comparison, the evocation of culture is either laboured or sentimental. It is laboured, because Bradbury cannot rely on his readers picking up his allusions. He therefore has to explain laboriously; for instance, the fact that Ridley was one of the Oxford martyrs of 1555 who was burnt at the cross as a martyr to truth. In case the relevance of the words spoken by the woman burnt up by the Mechanical Hound is missed, Bradbury supplies an explanatory recapitulation a few pages later:
They said nothing on their way back to the firehouse. Nobody looked at anyone else. Montag sat in the front seat with Beatty and Black. They did not even smoke their pipes. They sat there looking out of the front of the great salamander as they turned a corner and went silently on.
'Master Ridley,' said Montag at last.
'What?' said Beatty.
'She said, "Master Ridley." She said some crazy thing when we came in the door. "Play the man," she said, "Master Ridley." Something, something, something.'
'We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out,' said Beatty. Stoneman glanced over at the Captain, as did Montag, startled.
Beatty rubbed his chin. 'A man named Latimer said that to a man named Nicholas Ridley, as they were being burnt alive at Oxford, for heresy, on October 16, 1555.'
The idea of culture is embarrassingly false in the interview with Faber, who then becomes Montag's better self, through the minute transistor that he carries around with him and which acts as his mechanical conscience. It is painfully folksy in the whole section relating to Montag's meeting with Granger and his greenwoods exiles, each of whom has memorised a great book or part of a book. The theme here is the independence of culture from physical objects, but the notion of a revived oral culture is not developed very far in this piece of pre-McLuhan fiction. Most painful of all are Granger's recollections of his artist grandfather's philosophy of individualism. Putting Christmas-cracker sentiments into the mouths of a now dead grandfather does not make them any less trite.
The image of fire undergoes a double transformation in the last part of the book. What had been the destroyer of culture before becomes the centre of civilised life, as Granger and his exiles gather round the camp fire. Finally, the fire that has destroyed nations in the international conflict is seen as a Phoenix. Bradbury provides a characteristically popular explanation through Granger.
There was a silly damn bird called a Phoenix back beforeChrist; every few hundred years he built a pyre and burned himself up.
A writer who has to explain all his allusions and symbols for the benefit of lowbrow readers is at a considerable disadvantage. But a writer who resorts to condescending explanations like this one probably repels both highbrow and lowbrow readers alike.
When in doubt how to end, there is nothing like putting in a Biblical passage to achieve spurious prophetic power. With the evidence of widespread destruction everywhere, the reader is reminded that there is a time to break down and a time to build up, and Montag recalls a passage from the Bible:
And on either side of the river was there a tree of life, which bore twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; And the leaves of the tree were for healing of the nations.
Books create diversity and harmony, that is the final message of Fahrenheit 451. It is an intensely serious work of popular Science Fiction but it is flawed by sentimentality and meretricious appeals to high culture.
This section contains 1,428 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)