Rereading Fahrenheit 451
Over the last year or so I’ve moved from reading mainstream news articles about media addiction to reading science fiction: I want to see how we imagine our relationship to technology. One of the biggest surprises, for me, was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), the classic about a society where books are illegal and television keeps people docile. Of course I had read it before, but a long time ago, well before I really knew about the internet. Rereading it today left me feeling very differently about the book than I had thought I would. Bradbury doesn’t want a world full of writers and creators and independent thinkers. He wants a world of readers.
Beware, there are spoilers in this post. But then, you probably read the book already, didn’t you? A long time ago?
The story, you’ll remember, is about Guy Montag, a fireman in a future where houses are fireproof and the only fires are lit by firemen in order to burn books. But what really interests me, as I reread the book, is the ways in which books and television are portrayed.
Television has evolved into a 3D immersive experience, where the viewer is given a role to play in the story. Mildred, Montag’s wife, has screens covering three of the four walls of their living room, and wants a fourth screen: “why, it’d be just like this room wasn’t ours at all, but all kinds of exotic people’s rooms.” The way Bradbury describes this immersive VR does not leave Mildred a lot of agency, as a player in the holodeck would have. It’s more like the Flicksync tests in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, where the player has to mimic a character’s lines perfectly in order to pass the test. Mildred’s lines are not very complex, though:
“What’s on this afternoon?” he asked tiredly.
She didn’t look up from her script again. “Well, this is a play comes on the wall-to-wall circuit in ten minutes. They mailed me my part this morning. I sent in some box-tops. They write the script with one part missing. It’s a new idea. The home-maker, that’s me, is the missing part. When it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me out of the three walls and I say the lines. Here, for instance, the man says, ‘What do you think of this whole idea, Helen?’ and he looks at me sitting here, centre stage, see? And I say, I say–” She paused and ran her finger under a line in the script. “‘I think that’s fine!’ And then they go on with the play until he says, ‘Do you agree to that, Helen?’ and I say, ‘I sure do!’ Isn’t that fun, Guy?” (pages 27-28)
Mildred loves her shows, and listens to them even at night. This scene very strongly emphasises the way Montag sees her as a corpse when she is immersed in her media. In this scene, he comes home late at night and imagines how he will see his wife in bed, listening to her stories.
He opened the bedroom door.It was like coming into the cold marbled room of a mausoleum after the moon had set. Complete darkness, not a hint of the silver world outside, the windows tightly shut, the chamber a tomb-world where no sound from the great city could penetrate. The room was not empty.(..)Without turning on the light he imagined how this room would look. His wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold, like body displayed on the lid of a tomb, her eyes fixed to the ceiling by invisible threads of steel, immovable. And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty. Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been no night in the last two years that Mildred had not swum that sea, had not gladly gone down in it for the third time.The room was cold but nonetheless he felt he could not breathe. He did not wish to open the curtains and open the french windows, for he did not want the moon to come into the room. (pages 19-20)
He has still not turned the light on, thought. This is all his imagination. When he finally lights his lighter (not wanting outside light from the windows) he realises she is barely breathing and has taken a whole bottle of sleeping pills. The next morning she remembers nothing of the suicide attempt.
In this world, people stopped reading books before they were banned. Bradbury, in the voice of the chief fireman Beatty, blames it on the invention of photography and then radio and television and a world that wanted everything faster: “Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.” (61) In a lengthy lecture to Montag, while Montag lies in bed, attempting to hide contraband books under his pillow, Beatty describes Buzzfeed and clickbait:
He follows up with condemning minorities:
The problem isn’t really the loss of books. It’s the trivialization of the world. Faber, the retired English professor Montag befriends, tells him:
“It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that were once in books. The same things could be in the “parlour families” today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.” (page 90)
One of the reasons that books are good for us, Faber the English professor explains, is that they are not immersive. At least not in the same way as television or VR are:
You can shut them [books], say “Hold on a moment.” You play God to it. But who has ever torn himself from the claw that encloses you when you drop a seed in a TV parlour? It grows you any shape it wishes! It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is truth. Books can be beaten down with reason. (92)
And yet at the end of Fahrenheit 451, when Montag has escaped his relentless pursuers who chase him on live television, making every viewer his would-be-attacker, he finds a band of men who live outside the city, in nature, and who have made it their task to memorise every book. They are not shown discussing books. They are certainly not shown writing books, or creating stories. No, they simply memorise books. And once a book is memorised, these men burn it:
“We’re book-burners, too. We read the books and burnt them, afraid they’d be found. Micro-filming didn’t pay off; we were always traveling, we didn’t want to bury the film and come back later. Always the chance of discovery. Better to keep it in the old heads, where no one can see it or suspect it.” (159)
The books they memorized are old classics: Plato’s Republic, the Book of Ecclesiastes, Byron, Machiavelli, Aristophanes, Gulliver’s Travels, the Magna Carta. These readers have no more agency than Mildred reciting her script to the parlour walls:
The most important single thing we had to pound into ourselves was that we were not important, we mustn’t be pedants; we were not to feel superior to anyone else in the world. We’re nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise. (160)
Mildred and her television-loving friends aren’t portrayed as feeling superior. On the contrary, they are social beings – although they do seem less interested in the specifics of the plots they watch than in the close relationship they have with the characters on their screens. When Mildred tells Montag she went to Helen’s last night, he answers uncomprehendingly:
“Couldn’t you get the shows in your own parlour?”
“Sure, but it’s nice visiting.” (57)
Mildred and Montag try reading together, but they struggle to understand the words. They were unlucky enough to get Gulliver’s Travels, and as Montag reads about the war over which end of the egg is the end one should break, Mildred complains, “What does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything!” She is very consistently given the role of the uneducated person.
Mildred kicked at a book. “Books aren’t people. You read and I look around, but there isn’t anybody.”
“Now,” said Mildred. “my ‘family’ is people. They tell me things; I laugh, they laugh! And the colours!” (80)
Although Mildred is portrayed as believing in her fake relationships with the characters on the screens of her parlour (her “family”), she is also the only person in the book who appears to have genuine friendships. Montag is not shown as having a single friend, although he meets educational characters and forms brief, intense relationships with them through the course of the book. Mildred and her girlfriends get together regularly, it seems, and usually to watch shows together. I don’t think Bradbury really liked women. The only women in Fahrenheit 451 are ridiculed and pitied.
He was eating a light supper at nine in the evening when the front door cried out in the hall and Mildred ran from the parlour like a native feeling an eruption of Vesuvius. Mrs Phelps and Mrs Bowles came through the front door and vanished into the volcano’s mouth with martinis in their hands. Montag stopped eating. They were like a monstrous crystal chandelier tinkling in a thousand chimes, he saw their Cheshire Cat smiles burning through the walls of the house, and now they were screaming at each other above the din.
These women are both ridiculous and, in a negative manner, connected to nature. They are noisy, they run, they feel, they burn, they scream. Towards the end of the book nature is seen as positive and Mildred and the city are seen in opposition to it, but here, nature is emotional, trivial, uneducated.
Montag asks where the women’s husbands are. One is at war: “the Army called Pete yesterday. He’ll be back next week. The army said so. Quick war. Forty-eight hours they said, and everyone home.” (102) Montag proceeds to ask about their children. One is astounded that anyone would have children, the other says it’s easy enough with Caesarians and school:
“I plunk the children in school nine days out of ten. I put up with them when they come home three days a month; it’s not bad at all. You heave them into the ‘parlour’ and turn the switch. It’s like washing clothes; stuff laundry in and slam the lid.” Mrs Bowles tittered. “They’d just as soon kick as kiss me. Thank God, I can kick back!”
The women showed their tongues, laughing. (104)
It’s an ugly world, devoid of marital or parental love or care. Montag himself can’t even remember when he met his wife Mildred, not until the end, after the city is destroyed. But these women are friends. They seem to care for each other. I don’t think Bradbury really intended that, but the women’s friendship is pretty clear. No care for husbands or children, but they care for each other.
Montag flees the city after killing his own boss, and escapes to the forest outside, where he finds a group of men, sitting round a campfire, each man able to recite a book that he has memorized. Here again we see a single-sex group of friends strangely dissociated from any family. There are no parents, spouses or children here. (I suppose the aunts and uncles and the “family” on the screens are supposed to supplant real families – but how does that fit with these family-less men who despise screens? For them, books seem to have the same purpose.)
A bomb explodes, obliterating the entire city, but Montag is safe outside it. He imagines Mildred’s last seconds before her death. (So often she is seen through his thoughts rather than speaking herself.) He sees in his mind the moment when the screens around her go blank and she sees her own face in them, her own face that she has presumably been avoiding all these years:
Montag, falling flat, going down, saw or felt, or imagined he saw or felt the walls go dark in Millie’s face, heard her screaming, because in the millionth part of time left, she saw her own face reflected there, in a mirror instead of a crystal ball, and it was such a wildly empty face, all by itself in the room, touching nothing, starved and eating of itself, that at last she recognized it as her own and looked quickly up at the ceiling as it and the entire structure of the hotel blasted down upon her (..) (167)
We don’t see ourselves, this book argues. We use our screens to avoid love and to avoid looking at our own faces to understand ourselves.
“Come on now, we’re going to go build a mirror-factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them,” one of the men in the forest tells Montag (171). Bradbury did not foresee selfies.
Rereading Fahrenheit 451 makes me skeptical of books. Don’t get me wrong, I love books. But the way that books are portrayed in Fahrenheit 451 is not alluring. They are massive works of incomprehensible nonsense that must be memorized and treated with great respect. They are not something to be argued with, to be written, to be dogeared and torn and scribbled in.
Old books memorized by old men in the woods won’t save the world described in Fahrenheit 451. What would save that world is people talking together, reading, watching, playing, but most importantly, creating. Sharing. Being.