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Critical Essay by John Huntington
SOURCE: "Utopian and Anti-Utopian Logic: H. G. Wells and His Successors," in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2, July 1982, pp. 122-46.
In the following excerpt, Huntington considers the dystopianutopian structure of Fahrenheit 451 and comments on the paradoxical symbolism of the book as both cultural and technological achievement.
Montag, the protagonist of [Fahrenheit 451], like Graham [of H. G. Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes], D-503 [of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We], and Winston Smith [of George Orwell's 1984], is a man coming toconsciousness and attempting the overthrow or reformation of the closed, totalitarian, futuristic world he valued at the start. As in the other novels we have looked at, here too a woman is the inspiration for the change of mind. As in the other works, the act of seeing beyond the present is at least in part an act of recovery of a lost tradition: Graham is a revolutionary because he retains 19th-century sentiments of justice which the future world claims to have outgrown; D-503 and Winston Smith find an alternative to the totalitarian state in the antique parts of civilization. And Montag rediscovers books, which the future society has banned. Other similarities might be traced, but my point in sketching the by now conventional situation is not to estimate the extent of Bradbury's debt to the tradition, but to establish a broad common background against which we can understand the different way Bradbury's images function logically.
In Fahrenheit 451 the future is bad because people, denied the rich traditional culture contained in books and imaged by nature, have become unstimulated and unstimulating. The dystopian world is in large part conveyed in terms of the denial of positives. Firechief Beatty's defense of the bookless future is essentially that of the Grand Inquisitor, with the important change that the mass's fear of freedom is seen to be a historical phenomenon, a failure of education. In the past, so the ironic argument goes, people were capable of freedom, but because of technology and the triumph of a debased mass culture they have lost their ability to choose and their joy in freedom. Beatty's argument seems to be the author's; in Montag's wife we see heavily done exactly the mindlessness, the need for booklessness that Beatty defends. Beatty argues that mass culture is necessarily simple and, therefore, inevitably a decline from our own élite culture based on books, and in much of its satire the novel supports him. Where the novel makes Beatty clearly an ironic spokesman to be refuted is not in his characterization of the masses and what they want, but in his inadequate appreciation of the sensitive few who are capable of freedom.
The novel expresses this vision of freedom with images of sentimentalized nature (Clarisse rhapsodizes about the smell of leaves, the sight of the man in the moon), the recollection of the small, mid-western town (the front porch and the rocking chair become symbols of freedom), some tag ends of 1930s' romanticizing of Depression survival, and an unquestioning admiration for books. This cluster poses an absolute pole around which accrues all good and in relation to which all movement away is bad. The dystopian and utopian possibilities in the novel are thus represented by separate clusters of images and ideas that the novel finds unambiguous and leaves unchallenged.
What needs emphasis here is the extent to which Bradbury's novel preserves the dystopian-utopian structure by ignoring the implications of its own imagery. The author advises his audience that they must preserve books to prevent the horror he imagines, but he never questions the values implicit in the books. When the new age is accused of serious flaws—unhappiness, fear, war, andwasted lives—there is no sense that the age of books may have also suffered from such problems. At the end, in his vision of a wandering group of book-people Bradbury invokes an idealized hobo mystique, but with little sense of the limits and tragedy of such a life.
In such a simple system of good and bad values, mediation produces horror rather than thought. Nature is good and technology is bad, but the ultimate terror is a mixture of the two, a kind of symbolic miscegenation. When Montag finally makes his break from the technological future he is pursued by a "mechanical hound," a terrifying figure which combines the relentlessness of the bloodhound with the infallibility of technology. In Bradbury's vision the hound is most terrifying for being both alive and not alive.
The threat the hound poses for the imagery system of the novel is put to rest the moment Montag escapes him, and the clear opposition between technology and nature that Clarisse has preached strongly reasserts itself. Montag hears a whisper, sees "a shape, two eyes" in the forest and is convinced it is the hound, but it turns out to be a deer, not just harmless, but afraid of him. Nature is submissive and controllable, while technology is predatory and threatening. This important refuge then leads to a sequence of reversals. Montag sees a fire in the woods and for the first time in his life realizes that fire need not be destructive, that in providing warmth it can be benign. And this perception leads to a moment of trance in which Montag resees himself:
How long he stood he did not know, but there was a foolish and yet delicious sense of knowing himself as an animal come from the forest, drawn by the fire. He was a thing of brush and liquid eye, of fur and muzzle and hoof, he was a thing of horn and blood that would smell like autumn if you bled it out on the ground.
I take it that this reduction of the human to animal parts is somehow consoling and ennobling. Like all the nature images in this novel, the purple rhetoric obscures true perception, but nevertheless the revelation is there and the blurred but central symbolic transformation of the novel is complete: Montag has escaped the urban world of destructive technology and joined the nurturing forest world. By rescuing fire for the good, natural side, he has enabled the novel to convert dystopia into utopia.
The interesting difficulty is where do books fit into this simple opposition? Since Gutenberg the book has been a symbol of technological progress. Bradbury partly counters this meaning of his symbol by reducing his pastoral, not to paper books, but tohumans who remember books. Thus the replication and general availability that are books' virtues, but which the novel has seen as the instruments of the mass-culture that has ruined the world, are denied. We have the idea of the book without the fact of its production. Then, by becoming a general symbol of the past now denied, the book becomes a symbol for all old values, but this symbolism brings up two difficulties. First, whatever good books have propagated, they have also preached the evils that have oppressed the world. The very technology that the novel finds threatening would be impossible without books. Second, books can readily inspire a repressive and tradition-bound pedantry which, while anti-technological, is also against nature.
Through most of Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury simply ignores these potential problems with his symbol; but in the final pages, in an act of renunciation that is surprising given the values the novel has promulgated, the moral vision retreats from its main symbolism. The memorizers of books are about to move out of the forest to give succor to the cities that have just been bombed; and Granger, the leader of the bookish hoboes, says:
Hold onto one thought: you're not important. You're not anything. Some day the load we're carrying with us may help someone. But even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn't use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting on the graves of all the poor ones who died before us. We're going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we're doing, you can say, We're remembering. That's where we'll win out in the long run. And some day we'll remember so much that we'll build the biggest steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up.
The vagueness, ambiguity, and misdirection of this passage confuse what Granger is saying; but in the technological imagery of the last line and in the attack on the previously sentimentalized past, in the recognition that books have done little to make life better, this paragraph implies a renunciation of the values the novel has been, however naïvely, building. But perhaps it is also, finally, an awareness of a true opposition, of an irony that gets beyond the simple sentimentalisms of much of the novel. Though one may have doubts as to how to take it, one way would be to see here a titanic revision of values, a deep questioning of the pieties that have inspired Montag and Clarisse. In line with such a reading we should observe that one of the books Montag remembers is Ecclesiastes: perhaps this is an allusion to the Preacher's famous words against the vanity of life, and particularly the vanity of books. But, then, to read it this way would be to suppose that Bradbury is attempting anti-utopian thought, and that seems unlikely.
Bradbury's novel is in the tradition of utopian prose put forth by Wells himself in his later romances. Whatever political differences we might discover between Wells's sane, organized, post-cometsocieties and Bradbury's nomadic society in nature, we can see that they both depend on an imagery which ignores contradiction. Such utopian thought is incompatible with the basic logical techniques of Well's earlier work. It marks an evasion of the pressure of contradiction. It attempts to bring about conviction not by thought, but by the emotive power of rhythmic prose, the attractiveness of pretty images, the appeal to hope which will treat doubt as merely regretful cynicism. Such utopian images have an honored place, but they belong to a genus quite unlike the anti-utopian investigations that mark Wells's greatest scientific romances.
This section contains 1,703 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)