Chapter no 9

Fahrenheit 451


Kingsley Amis

From chapter IV, “Utopias 1”

Bradbury is the Louis Armstrong of science fiction, not in the sense of age or self-repetition, but in that he is the one practitioner well-known by name to those who know nothing whatever about his field. . . .

e suppression of fantasy, or of all books, is an aspect of the conformist society often mentioned by other writers, but with Bradbury it is a specialty. His novel Fahrenheit 451—supposedly the temperature at which book paper ignites—extends and fills in the assumptions of “Usher II.” e hero, Montag, is a fireman, which means that on receiving an alarm he and his colleagues pile on to the wagon and go off and burn somebody’s house down, one with books in it, under the regulations of the Firemen of America, “Established, 1790, to burn English-influenced books in the Colonies. First Fireman: Benjamin Franklin.” In the expected central dialogue, the fire chief explains to Montag how it all came about:




Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. e dictionaries were for

reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet . . . was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors. Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern. . . . Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. . . . More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? . . . Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. . . . We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. . . . Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? at’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these. . . . 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. . . . Don’t give [him] any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. at way lies melancholy.

One could oer plenty of objections to that, starting with the apparently small point that complacency about sociology, which Bradbury shares with his colleagues, is at least as bad as complacency about the tabloidization of the classics, and that what we ought to want is less sociology, not more. Further, there is about Bradbury, as about those I might call the nonfiction holders of his point of view, a certain triumphant lugubriousness, a kind of proleptic schadenfreude (world copyright reserved), a relish not always distinguishable here from satisfaction in urging a case, but dierent from it, and recalling the relish with which are recounted the horrors of Nineteen Eighty-Four and a famous passage that prefigures it in Coming Up for Air. Jeremiah has never had much success in pretending he doesn’t thoroughly enjoy his job, and whereas I agree with him, on the whole, in his dislike of those who reach for their revolver when they hear the word “culture,” I myself am getting to the point where I reach for my earplugs on hearing the

phrase “decline of our culture.” But in this respect Bradbury sins no more grievously than his nonfiction colleagues, whom he certainly surpasses in immediacy, for Fahrenheit 451 is a fast and scaring narrative, a virtue hard to illustrate by quotation. ere are at least two good dramatic coups, one when a creature called the Mechanical Hound, constructed to hunt down book owners and other heretics, looks up from its kennel in the fire station and growls at the hero; the other when Montag goes out on duty with the Salamander, as the fire engine is called, and finds that the alarm refers to his own house. e book emerges quite creditably from a comparison with Nineteen Eighty-Four as inferior in power, but superior in conciseness and objectivity. At the end, of course, Montag eludes the Mechanical Hound and joins a band of distinguished hoboes who are preserving the classics by learning them by heart.

Bradbury’s is the most skillfully drawn of all science fiction’s conformist hells. One invariable feature of them is that however activist they may be, however convinced that the individual can, and will, assert himself, their programme is always to resist or undo harmful change, not to promote useful change. It is quite typical that the revolutionary party in e Space Merchants should be called the Conservationists. us to call the generic political stance of science fiction “radical,” as I have done, is not quite precise: it is radical in attitude and temper, but strongly conservative in alignment.is, however, does not weaken its claim to be regarded as, some of the time and in some sense, a literature of warning, as propaganda, not always unintelligent, against the notion that we can leave the experts to work things out for us. Such is equally the impression given, I think, by our next topic, utopias in which the forces of evil show themselves in economic and technological, rather than political, terms. As I said at the beginning, these departments are not, and should not be, readily separable, but emphasis can be graded. In the next section I shall show how Mrs. Montag amused herself while Montag was busy on his incendiary routine of “Monday . . . Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner.”




From chapter V, “Utopias 2”

Without turning on the light he imagined how this room would look. His wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold, like a 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. e 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. ere 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.

As regular readers will have guessed, Mildred is Mrs. Montag, wife of Ray Bradbury’s book-burning fireman. It emerges, I think, that while it will not do for science fiction to characterize in conventional, dierentiating terms, it can have something to say about human nature by dint of isolating and extending some observable tendency of behavior, by showing, in this case, how far the devolution of individuality might go if the environment were to be modified in a direction favourable to this devolution. e lesson to be drawn from the more imaginative science-fiction hells, such as Bradbury’s, is not only that a society could be devised that would frustrate the active virtues, nor even that these could eventually be suppressed, but that there is in all sorts of people something that longs for this to happen. ere are plenty of embryonic Mrs. Montags waiting for the chance to be wafted away by the Seashells, or to share her jolly evenings at the Fun Park, breaking windows or smashing up cars with the steel ball, to join with her in watching three-wall television and trying to persuade her husband to get the fourth wall put in. is eager denial of mind, this longing to abandon reality via mechanical wonders, is obviously relevant to the political thesis of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and of many other works: the deliberate use of technology to promote an unworthy quiescence is a familiar idea. Correspondingly, Mildred Montag is a victim of epidemic neurosis: a cleverly staged scene shows her being brought round after a suicide attempt by a couple of cigarette-pung handymen who just have time to use the almost fully automatic evacuation machine on her before rushing off to the next of their dozen nightly cases. What is most important here, however, is clearly the notion of the Seashell jag, for this need presuppose no kind of political manipulation, whether malevolent or mistakenly paternalistic.

Harold Bloom (1930–), America’s best-known literary critic, scholar, and anthologist, is Yale University’s Sterling Professor of the Humanities. His abiding interest in creativity and literary traditions led to publication of e Western Canon: e Books and School of the Ages (1994), which promotes teaching an apolitical vision of the literary canon today in much the same spirit that Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 promoted the preservation of canonical literature in a darkly imagined future. Not surprisingly, Bloom’s introduction to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publications, 2001) begins to define the novel’s place in the literary tradition as well as its continuing relevance for the twenty-first century.





Harold Bloom

While Fahrenheit 451 manifestly is a “period piece,” this short, thin, rather tendentious novel has an ironic ability to inhabit somewhat diverse periods. In its origins, the book belongs to the Cold War of the 1950s, yet it prophesied aspects of the 1960s and has not lost its relevance as I consider it in the new millennium. One does not expect the full madness of a new eological Age to overwhelm the United States, despite George W. Bush’s proclamations that he never makes a decision without consulting Christ. And yet, in time, there may be no books to burn. In the Age of Information, how many will read Shakespeare or Dante?

I resort to a merely personal anecdote. A little while back, the New British Library wished to celebrate its grand instauration, and invited me to show up to help close a self-congratulatory week. At a Friday afternoon symposium, I was to make a third, in conjunction with the leading British authorities on software and on “information retrieval.” After I protested that I did not know what the latter was, and knew nothing of software (having not yet learned to type), I was told that my function would be to “represent books.” I declined the compliment and the invitation, while reflecting gloomily that a once-great library was betraying itself.

Reading Fahrenheit 451 after many years, I forgive the novel its stereotypes and its simplifications because of its prophetic hope that

memory (and memorization!) is the answer. When I teach Shakespeare or American Poetry I urge my students to read and reread Macbeth and Song of Myself over and over again until these essential works are committed to memory. Myself, I have eaten the books (to employ a Talmudic trope), and I repeat poems and plays to myself for part of each day. Bradbury, a half century ago, had the foresight to see that the age of the Screen (movie, TV, computer) could destroy reading. If you cannot read Shakespeare and his peers, then you will forfeit memory, and if you cannot remember, then you will not be able to think.




Bradbury, though his work is of the surface, will survive as a moral fabulist. “e house will crumble and the books will burn,” Wallace Stevens mournfully prophesied, but a saving remnant will constitute a new party of Memory. In our America-to-come, the party of Memory will become the party of Hope, a reversal of Emersonian terms but hardly of Emersonian values. Is there a higher enterprise now than stimulating coming generations to commit to memory the best that has been written?

Margaret Atwood (1939–) is a celebrated Canadian novelist and poet whose international honors include a wide range of American, British, and European literary awards and award nominations. e Handmaid’s Tale, along with other Atwood novels, are often regarded as science fiction, but she considers them speculative works or, at most, Earthbound sociological science fiction firmly grounded in projections of today’s reality. Bradbury’s sense of Fahrenheit 451 as a sociological novel, projecting elements of the present into an all-too-possible future, strikes a similar chord that goes far to explain Atwood’s enduring attraction to this novel; she expressed these views in “e Star’s Our Destination,” the (London) Guardian’s May 13, 2011, survey of the favorite science fiction works of leading authors.


Margaret Atwood

As a young teenager, I devoured Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 by flashlight. It gave me nightmares. In the early 1950s television was just rolling forth, and people sat mesmerized in front of their flickering sets, eating their dinners off TV trays. Surely, it was said, “the family” was doomed, since the traditional dinnertime was obsolete. Films and books too were about to fall victim to the new all-consuming medium. My own parents refused to get a TV, so I had to sneak over to friends’ houses to gape at e Ed Sullivan Show. But when not doing that, I fed my reading addiction, whenever, however, whatever. Hence Fahrenheit 451. In this riveting book, books themselves are condemned—all books. e very act of reading is considered detrimental to social order because it causes people to think, and then to distrust the authorities. Instead of books the public is oered conformity via four-wall TV, with the sound piped directly into their heads via shell-shaped earbuds (a brilliant proleptic leap on the part of Bradbury). Montag, the main character, is a “Fireman”: his job is to burn each and every book uncovered by the state’s spies and informers. But little by little Montag gets converted to reading, and finally joins the underground: a dedicated band of individuals sworn to preserve world literature by becoming the living repositories of the books they have memorized.

Fahrenheit 451 predated Marshall McLuhan and his theories about how media shape people, not just the reverse. We interact with our creations, and they themselves act upon us. Now that we’re in the midst of a new wave of innovative media technologies, it’s time to reread this classic, which poses the eternal questions: who and how do we want to be?

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