By Remi Trovo
“If you can’t solve a problem, burn it” – Captain Beatty
Imagine a world where the fire brigade start fires rather than put them out. Imagine a world where all four walls of living rooms in every house are replaced by giant TV screens, bombarding people with a constant stream of television and radio, 24 hours a day. This is the world inhabited by Guy Montag, the protagonist of the dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
Fahrenheit 451 is a potent reminder of the power of books and a thoughtful discussion about the meaning of happiness which, although not light-hearted, I found fascinating and well-worth reading.
Fahrenheit 451 is somewhat a world much like our own
Although Bradbury’s world is a fictional one, it contains many elements which can be found in our own. The most obvious one is the almost suffocating presence of screens, which Bradbury vividly describes.
On these screens, a never-ending schedule of programmes is broadcasted every single day, much in the same way that we receive constant news coverage and a continuous feed on our social media. In Fahrenheit 451 screens provide a dazzling spectacle that keeps the population in a dreamlike trance. This same stupefying symphony of sound, light and colour is there for all to see in many different parts of our own society.
What books mean to the population
Books have no hold at all over the general population in Guy Montag’s world. Indeed, they are illegal. Teams of firemen are dispatched all over the city to burn them, along with whatever buildings they happen to be in. Montag himself is a member of one such team.
It is a chilling reminder of how those who seek absolute power have attempted to control the circulation of information and even the course of history itself in order to bring the general population into line. “The Burning of the Books” in Nazi Germany and Mao Zedong’s attempt to obliterate all symbols of Chinese culture during his “Cultural Revolution” are stark examples of this.
Yet in Fahrenheit 451, books are not burned with the sole purpose of obtaining power. They are also burned because they are a source of unhappiness to the population. More specifically, they require people to think. Yet the more people read and think, the more they realise how little they know about the world, making them feel stupid, useless and depressed. In order to avoid having to face up to this reality, the source of more information is disposed of. As Captain Beatty (Montag’s commander) bluntly declares: “If you can’t solve a problem, burn it”.
A destructive humanity
The burning of books, along with the population’s ignorance which allowed it to happen, shows just how destructive humanity can be.
Nelson Mandela once said: “It is so easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build”. In Fahrenheit 451 the type of heroism described by Mandela emerges from the gloom. An example of this is when Montag and a group of outcasts plan to save books from extinction by storing the contents in their memories before eventually rewriting them. It shows that mankind has the ability to create and preserve life as well as take it away; just like how fire can be a source of warmth and life as well as destruction. It is just one example of the many issues Bradbury explores from multiple angles in this novel, making it both fulsome and fascinating.
Fahrenheit 451 is a book in which Guy Montag and his team of firemen will never be able to burn. Bradbury asks the question of what truly makes a person happy. Is it the ability to shirk all responsibility and to profit from life without thinking as the people of Montag’s world do? Or is it the process of learning and self-fulfilment? Reader, I leave it to you to make your own conclusions.
Graphic courtesy of Molly East