Home > 20th Century, American Literature, Bradbury Ray, Classics, Dystopian Fiction, Science Fiction > How do they sleep while their books are burning?

How do they sleep while their books are burning?

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. Read by Thierry Blanc.

When I saw Fahrenheit 451 in the audio book section at the library, I thought “Why not? I only knew the book by name and that it was science fiction. I knew nothing about the author or about the time it was published and I did not search for answers before starting it. I like blind dates with books, films or plays. I enjoy opening a new book without expecting anything or sitting in the dark and discovering a movie or a play, open-minded and ready to accept it as it comes without preconceived ideas.

Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, during the Cold War, which I guessed while hearing the novel. The story takes place in America in an unspecified future time. Guy Montag is a fireman, whose job is no more to protect people and extinguish fires, but be the armed arm of a dictatorial government who forbids people from reading. Reading is thinking, and thinking would lead people want more than being distracted. Therefore books are forbidden and firemen burn them.

The country is run as an apparent democracy (elections take place) but is in fact a dictatorship. The society is organized to keep people busy and happy. Happiness means being entertained all day long and turning one’s brain off. Happiness is not a right anymore, it is an obligation. And like the verb “to read”, “to be happy” does not bear the imperative form.

Life changes for Montag when he bumps into his new neighbour Clarisse McClellan a night after work. She starts talking to him and makes him see things in a different light. She enjoys walking on the streets, observing the moonlight and chatting. In my head, Clarisse sounded like Astrolabe from A Winter Journey written by Amélie Nothomb and physically looked like Amélie Nothomb herself. I can’t explain why.

She sows the seeds of doubt in Montag’s head and helps him realize what he confusedly already feels: that his life is meaningless and that he is lonely, although he is married.

Already doubting, he is sent to burn a house in which books were hidden. The owner of the house would rather be burnt with her books than live. That someone could die for books deeply disturbs Montag and makes him cross the bridge from doubt to rebellion.

 The society Bradbury describes is by some ways not fictional anymore. Montag and his wife Milly hardly speak to each other because the walls of their house are covered with huge screens which broadcast silly TV shows. The screens customize the speeches and directly address to the person in the house. Milly calls them “the family”. I don’t know if Ray Bradury had imagined Secret Story or Big Brother or any of those brainless TV shows but he was close. There is no better way to stop people talking to each other than putting huge screens with a constant flow of images. See what happens when there is such a screen in a café or in a restaurant, your eyes are always tempted to turn toward the screen and give up the conversation.  Montag and Milly cannot recall where they first met or how their relationship started. Bradbury shows by this how brainwashed they have been, because it is something spouses usually do not forget.

Milly can only sleep with pills and thanks to a constant flow of music and words in her ear. (Premonitory iPod?) When Montag takes the train, commercials are endlessly repeated, to a point that he cannot concentrate on his thoughts. People are never alone but do not care about each other, they get killed by fast cars and nobody protests. They do not elect the president who has the best political ideas but the one who is good-looking. They are shallow in every aspect of their lives.

It seems we’re here already. But even if Bradbury was dead right on some aspects of our contemporary society, I don’t want to be so pessimistic. Yes, consumer society is a soft dictatorship and mass marketing is its best ally. Yes, we need to be watchful. But books still exist, despite all the other – and easier – ways one can spend time. Some books may not be of high literary quality, but as long as people do not give up the whole institution, I have hope. And blogs prove we can also use technology to our best advantage and create human conversations which wouldn’t otherwise exist.

  1. October 6, 2010 at 1:15 am

    I have never read this, and there’s even a film version–this is probably because of the science fiction tag. It’s odd, isn’t it, how some things have come true (the big screens).

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    • October 6, 2010 at 4:58 pm

      Hi. I hadn’t read it either, because of the science fiction tag too. It’s amazing how Bradbury guessed right on some things. To be honest, this book is interesting but I’m not thrilled about it.

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  2. October 6, 2010 at 4:42 am

    Probably my favorite book. . .or Dandelion Wine. Can’t decide. Bradbury rocks!

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  3. October 8, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    I’m glad you picked out the TV walls, for me those are the most lasting image of the book and the most depressingly prophetic. The scenes where he tries to talk to his wife but can’t really get through because the soap characters address “her” (whoever is watching) as if she were a character are heartbreaking.

    Bradbury is a fine writer. I have his Martian Chronicles at home, many of which are strange, wistful and disturbing. He was a prolific short story writer (I’m not sure he still writes), often to good effect. He also wrote the rather disturbing horror/fantasy novel Something Wicked this Way Comes.

    I was a huge fan of his in adolescence. As an adult, I think a lot of his work still stands up well, though like many prolific authors not all of it does.

    Anyway, a nice review. You capture what I recall of it and why it had an impact.

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  4. October 8, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    Oh and great title by the way.

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  5. October 8, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    I agree with you on the moment he desesperately tries to talk to his wife. She betrays him in so many ways. For him, being married still means something and he expects her to be there to comfort him. But she prefers unreal connections with the people from the screen.
    Internet can be like that too, don’t you think?

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  6. October 8, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    I do, but I think a lot of things can be like that. The screens are more actively intrusive, so much so they make matters worse than they otherwise might have been, but there have always been those who preferred unreal connections to the messy reality around them – through following sports teams, through volunteering, through work, through a myriad distractions from what they don’t want to address.

    I’m not saying all those things (or any of them) are unreal, just that they can if someone is so inclined be used for the same purposes. The screens, and the internet, just make it all much easier.

    Gosh, that was bleak.

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  7. October 8, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    Fahrnheit 451 is not a cheerful book, it can only bring that kind of thoughts. I’m always touched by lonely characters who suffer from their loneliness. They’re breakable, fragile and so human.
    You recall this book very well for someone who has read it a long time ago. It’s a sign that it really moved you and made you think.

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  8. October 15, 2010 at 10:46 am

    Yes, I think your last line must be right. Curious as I hadn’t thought at the time it had that much impact. Now though I remember few books I read back then, but this one clearly.

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  9. October 15, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    That could be a nice group blog entry : books we read during adolescence and that we still remember very clearly.

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  10. November 6, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    Looking for something else, I came accross the film version at the library and borrowed it.
    It’s the 1966 version by François Truffaud. Disappointing. The story has been changed, particularly the relationship between Montag and Clarisse. A major slip, to me. And Milly is now named Linda. What’s the use of changing the name of Montag’s wife ? It is as shocking as the red-haired Isabelle Huppert playing the black haired Madame Bovary in Chabrol’s version.
    Moreover, the whole atmosphere of the novel is poorly adapted. The huge screens are not bigger than nowadays flat screens, the constant advertising in trains is absent. In my mind, those screens were like a personal Madison Square Garden. All the entertainement habits shown in the book are missing. And they don’t burn books at night, they burn them during the day.
    Many details which are nothing alone but make the whole book consistant when together are missing.
    It’s as if Truffaud had found that Ray Bradbury’s imagination was too wild and had thought it was too much.
    Not a remarkable movie. A bad service to a good book.

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