Covering the related themes of literature and literacy, book-burning censorship, as well as consumption of the mass media, Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” is a dystopian novel which follows fireman Guy Montag, whose job is not to fight or to put out fires, but instead to burn books. The plot across the three parts moves quickly, and even though some segments – such as those with former English professor Faber and with the drifters towards the end – could have been extended, the blend of narrative tension and action help illuminate these social commentaries. In particular, the internal tension Montag grapples with (especially after meeting Clarisse McClellan) and the external tension he has with his wife Mildred Montag and his fire chief Captain Beatty compels readers to put themselves in his shoes.
This notion of “What would you do?” only becomes more complicated, as Montag veers further away from a society where books are outlawed, and where illiteracy and hedonism complement each other. Continue the conversations with his new neighbour, the teenage girl Clarisse McClellan posing questions – for instance, whether it was true “that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them” – which challenge the status quo? Persist with his responsibilities as a fireman, ransacking and burning book-filled houses? Keep his books and venture down a dangerous path, or revert back to his safe, yet monotonous life? And despite the short length of the novel and without lengthy backgrounding or exposition, Bradbury’s characters are marked by unique personalities with clear, specific literary functions.
What stands out too amidst the tension and action, finally, are the powerful monologues and soliloquies, especially by Montag and Beatty. Beatty, for example, on the relationship between reading and the mass media: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none … Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs … Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with”.