Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

This is the 225th blog entry on Book Ramblings and I have chosen a dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451 named after the temperature at which paper starts to spontaneously combust and a book that brings terror to all lovers of books. I first read it in my mid teens and amazingly haven’t read it since, presumably the original book I read back then was from the local library, as although I believed I had a copy somewhere I couldn’t find it so had to buy a new paperback to do the review. The back page of this edition gives a brief, although slightly inaccurate (see later), summary of the book’s plot.

Rear cover of Harper Voyager edition

Guy Montag was a fireman, there was a rumour that firemen had once followed alarms to burning houses and put them out, but that couldn’t be true as houses were all fireproof weren’t they? So firemen followed alarms on reports of houses where books could be found and turned up in their great salamander engines full of kerosene and burnt everything inside. Then one day as Montag is walking home he meets sixteen year old Clarisse McClellan and unusually for a time and place where social interactions are far from the norm she starts to talk to him. Her family had recently moved in and unlike all the other houses which shut out the outside world this one had lights on in all the rooms, the windows were open and the sound of people talking could be heard as you passed, such a strange place and by implication a strange family. The reader starts to expect these encounters on the way home as the first ten percent of the novel is built around them as she introduces him to other experiences such as savouring the rain on your face or brushing a dandelion under his chin to see if he is in love and then just as suddenly as she is introduced she is gone. In the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition Bradbury states that killing her off was a mistake and in the play and opera versions he had written she survives and reappears near the end. In this he was inspired by François Truffaut, whose film adaptation in 1966 retained Clarisse, but in the novel we now focus on the fire station and Montag’s home and wife Mildred.

It is at the station that things start getting nasty for Montag, it is clear that the fire chief Beatty suspects Montag of saving books but Beatty himself is clearly well read, he quotes from lots of books during his conversations with Montag for instance, but he will be the driver that pushes Montag into his rebellion against the system. At the station there is also ‘The Hound’ an eight legged robotic killing machine which destroys pests at the station but can also be programmed to seek out humans that don’t ‘fit in’. As Montag gets more nervous regarding his safety, especially as The Hound’ starts reacting in his presence and intrigued about what may be in the books he has been systematically destroying he seeks out a man he met in a park a year ago. Faber is a retired English professor who quite rightly is initially nervous of Montag but will ultimately guide him to safety. From here the book takes a significantly more violent tone as Montag is forced to burn his own home and takes his revenge before making his televised escape.

There is a slow running subplot in the book and that is the regular mention of bombers flying high over the city at night. Is there a war on? There is no mention of it through the soporific TV channels broadcast twenty four hours a day onto wall sized screens but something is clearly building up and when it does it will be totally devastating.

This is Ray Bradbury’s first complete rather than fix-up novel and took for its inspiration five short stories he had written over the previous few years, specifically ‘The Fireman’ which was quite long at twenty five thousand words and starts the premise of books being burnt because they could lead to dissent or at least present alternate views to those in power. He had published ‘The Martian Chronicles’ three years earlier in 1950 but that was a fix-up consisting of several already published short stories with added bridging material and a minor rewrite to make them consistent. The short stories that inspired Fahrenheit 451 didn’t survive into the final novel but between them provided context for the final work. The reason for the rewrite was an approach from Ian Ballantine’s publishing company which was interested in ‘The Fireman’, which had been struggling to sell, but needed it to be fifty thousand words so it could be published as a book. At this point Bradbury realised that the other four short stories provided further structure to allow him to continue the story. It was a brave choice by Ballantines, 1953 was the peak of Senator John McCarthy’s purging of perceived anti-American activities and by now almost anyone could be accused and their works suppressed so a book about the evils of censorship was either well or really badly timed depending on your view.

There is another publishing milestone that should be mentioned here, to help get the book known parts of it were put out for magazine serialisation but nobody would touch it until a new publisher trying to launch a magazine was willing to take the risk. So in editions two, three and four of Playboy you will find extracts from Fahrenheit 451.

Oh, and for the slightly inaccurate piece on the back, clearly this is a reference to Montag’s brief chats with Clarisse at the beginning of the novel and also his chance meeting with Faber a year earlier. It is however with Clarisse that his world view starts to change, but crucially he had already started hiding books in the ventilation shaft of his home well before that as he refers to his guilty secret hidden there right after his first meeting with her. The rear cover summary implies that the book saving starts after both meetings but actually it probably started after his encounter with Faber.

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