Monday, 4 April 2011

34/111 – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I decided to read this because I wanted a little break from reading about depression for a while. I bought this book quite recently, while I was at World Book Night. I decided to read it because I love a good bit of dystopian fiction and thought it might be a nice distraction and also provide some good things to ruminate in my brains.

Guy Montag is a fireman. However he is not a fireman in the sense of the word that we are familiar with. His job is not to put out fires, but to set them. Specifically, his job is to burn books. He and his team of firemen are called out to a house where the inhabitants are accused of harbouring books, where they proceed to soak them in kerosene and torch the whole place. In Montag’s world, books are illegal, and the people who persist in owning them are outlaws and social misfits. Up until now, Montag has happily opted in to this version of society, however his new neighbour, a strange teenage girl called Clarisse, permanently changes the way he thinks about the world. He begins to think more, which in this world, is just not cool. Prompted by Clarisse's questions, he begins to think about whether he is really happy. He discovers that he is not, and his life begins to unravel as he gives in to the compulsion to take a book from one of his fires.

I quite liked this. I was hoping to enjoy it a little more – I thought it might be a little more in the style of Richard Matheson, who I had really enjoyed earlier this year, since they were both written around the same time. Stylistically, this felt a lot more old-fashioned, like 1984 or Brave New World, and there were other parallels between these books that I will come back to later.

There were a lot of interesting ideas here. For my final year dissertation I wrote about Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, and there was a lot of stuff in Fahrenheit 451 that was really similar. The fires set by the firemen, for example. There’s really no reason for the firemen to make them so huge, or for them to burn down an entire house. The point is to make the fire a spectacle, as this sends a message to the rest of society that this is what happens when you don’t conform. It’s also a form of entertainment. Everyone else can kind of draw together in mutual horror and revulsion at the outcasts and their misbehaviour, and give themselves a nice pat on the back for being such good citizens.

The other area which is similar to Society of the Spectacle is the sort of entertainment available in Montag’s world (hey I just realised that both people I’m talking about are called ‘Guy’!). In Society of the Spectacle, Debord talks about how entertainment is used a tool to deliberately draw our attention to one thing in order to take it away from another area. As a broad example, you could use the idea of reality TV. People watch reality TV shows, which have no value whatsoever, save entertainment (and even that is questionable). If they are watching these shows, then they are spending less time doing or thinking about other things, like world poverty, or reading the news, or writing to their local MPs, or causing an uprising. According to Debord, entertainment in the form of spectacle is to distract the people from serious issues, and most importantly, to keep them docile. In Montag’s world, there is also the more sinister function of keeping the population in check.

Considering the fact that this was written in the 1950s, when TV had had very little impact so far, Bradbury has also done a great job predicting how the world would look someday. For example Montag’s wife, Mildred, spends her days obsessed by ‘programs’ featuring characters who ‘love’ her, and whom she claims to love. This super-TV takes up three walls of their living room, and she is pestering Montag for a fourth wall so that she can be totally cushioned from the outside world, and therefore only exist within this spectacle. I could make all sorts of comparisons with contemporary ‘entertainment’, but I don’t think I need to.

Going back to what I said earlier about 1984 and Brave New World: my comparison to these two texts is not for favourable reasons, unfortunately. All three of these texts have one thing in common which I find myself extremely frustrated by: their lack of good female characters. Lenina in Brave New World, Mildred in Fahrenheit 451 (and to a lesser extent Julia in 1984) are vapid, stupid, consumerist and sometimes even downright malicious women. The portrayals of these women show them as people who are unable or unwilling to engage critically in their surroundings. They buy into the system without a moment’s thought, and when the people around them appear to question things, they act bewildered and horrified. This really annoyed me, and I would have liked to see some stronger female characters in all of these novels. I don’t know if their portrayals are just a sign of the times they were written in? Clarisee has the potential to be an interesting and multi-facted character, but Bradbury kills her off before any further development (a decision which he now says he regrets).

I’m not going to talk about the book-burning side of things, because I’m sure that’s been done to death. It’s very interesting, though. And as a bonus, I can now also spell ‘Fahrenheit’ without any trouble.

Next: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

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