An American original, Ray Bradbury, will enjoy a high reputation for centuries to come. The future will remember him for hundreds of short stories and at least four profound novels: Fahrenheit 451; The Martian Chronicles; Something Wicked this Way Comes; and Dandelion Wine. Though Bradbury never set out intentionally to discuss dystopia or utopia, each lurk around almost every corner in his fictional soul. Dystopia is almost always where too much power has accumulated, destroying the honed order of our ancestors in favor of some matrix to promote an individual or generational ego. Utopia graces our lives, however, when we remember childhood, energy, magic, and love. Much like what Russell Kirk would call a “timeless moment,” a moment of sacramentality so powerful it hints at the permanence of eternity, Bradbury’s utopia is that ejaculation and ecstasy of imagination at its highest. “Life is short, misery sure, mortality certain,” Bradbury wrote in 1973. “But on the way, in your work, why not carry these two inflated pig bladders labeled Zest and Gusto.”1
Of all of his works, Fahrenheit 451 remains the most famously dystopic. Yet, when an interviewer asked him in 1996 if he had tried to present “a bleak view of the future” in the vein of Brave New World or 1984 and to “write a cautionary story,” Bradbury not atypically balked: “That’s fatal. You must never do that. A lot of lousy novels come from people who want to do good. The do-gooder novel. The ecological novel. And if you tell me you’re doing a novel or a film about how a woodsman spares a tree, I’m not going to go see it for a minute.”2 Much as Willa Cather had once tried to explain her art as art not as politics, Bradbury too rejected the idea that a good author writes with an intended purpose. Instead, he has an idea, something precious and magical, and he follows it, plays with it, and seeks its essence. In the end, good art will reveal a truth, but not always the truth an author originally desired to convey. Yet, when asked what the truth was that emerged from Fahrenheit 451, he admitted he wrote it in response to “Hitler and Stalin and China, where they burned God knows how many books, killed God knows how many teachers.”3 Add to this, he feared, the disaster of Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, and free thought and free expression would collapse.4 As Bradbury explained decades after the book’s publication, he hoped to prevent the future more than to predict it.5 And, yet, the medium of science fiction allows so many possibilities. “Whether or not my ideas on censorship via the fire department will be old hat by this time next week, I dare not predict,” he admitted in 1953. “When the wind is right, a faint odor of kerosene is exhaled from Senator McCarthy.”6
The opening line witnesses to the atmosphere Bradbury could create in his writing: “It was a pleasure to burn.”7 Immediately, Fahrenheit 451 offers something tangible as well as sensate. Charged with burning literature, thus destroying the past, its sentimentalities and romanticisms, Guy Montag (montag means “tomorrow” in German) feels like “his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.” The harmony and community created by the musical conductor, so associated with class and depth of history, has been inverted by the power of the community to rewrite its history through the hellacious method of burning. The fireman, rather than saving property and lives, comes to destroy and devour. Fire, it seems, can purify as well as consume.
At the beginning of the novel, Montag encounters a young girl, Clarisse, with eyes so alive that “no move escaped them.”8 Her intensity and curiosity shocks him. All social conventions seem bizarre to her—cars travel too fast, TVs offer too much visual, not enough art, firemen once protected lives not burned books. Her innocence enraptures him and his encounter with his nearly lifeless wife in the next scene racks him equally. She has, it turns out, unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide with sleeping pills. Repeated encounters with Clarisse continue to intrigue Montag, also making him increasingly aware of the world, not as society wants it to appear, but as it really is. He soon questions his fire chief, asking if things had always been this way. Had there been a “once upon a time” when firemen saved lives rather than destroyed books?9 Though patient in the conversation with his subordinate up to this point, the phrase “once upon a time” sets the Fire Captain off, and Montag quickly realizes he just admitted that he’d illegally read a fairy story. Tracing the history of firemen back to Benjamin Franklin in 1790, the Fire Captain assures Montag that the object had always been to burn books. On the next raid, when the owner questions the right of the men to destroy her books, the Captain responds:
Where’s your common sense? None of those books agree with each other. You’ve been locked up here for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel. Snap out of it! The people in those books never lived. 10
Rather than surrender, the woman burns herself with her books.
Her martyrdom changes Montag’s life and he begins to question everything, including his own profession and his own history. Has he burnt books or men? After all, he reasons, every book came from a person not an abstraction. Confessing this to his wife, she recoils at his questioning of social conventions, too sacred to reconsider. In her response, she claims to hate the woman who burned herself, the woman who made Montag’s life unstable, and, perhaps, if unchecked, her own. As he continues to question, the superficiality of his wife, her life, and her friends, hits him hard. After learning the history of books (mostly correct) and society’s desire to end the imagination and curiosity they provoked, Montag confronts one of his wife’s parties with the poetry of Matthew Arnold:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
To the women, his public of reading seems outright pornographic. “You’re nasty Mr. Montag, you’re nasty,” one of them yells. In a fury, he screams at them: “Go home and think of your first husband divorced and your second husband killed in a jet and your third husband blowing his brains out, go home and think of the dozen abortions you’ve had, go home and think of that and your damn Casesarian sections, too, and your children who hate your guts!”11
Reported to the community for his transgressions, Montag becomes a fugitive of the state, controlled by the “most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom” in existence, “the solid unmoving cattle of the majority.”12 Pursued by the Firemen, as well as mechanical hounds from hell, Montag flees, only to find reprieve when a devastating war begins—destroying the very society he had so long protected, but only recently rejected. In his journey, he encounters a community of scholars dedicated to the preservation of the great books. Each member memorizes a complete work, hoping to live long enough to pass it down to another or to see the day when the printing press returns. The myth of the Phoenix reifies, finding comfort as well as apotheosis at the end of nuclear fire.
1 Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing (Santa Barbara, CA: Joshua Odell, 1994), 9.
2 Steven L. Aggelis, ed., Conversations with Ray Bradbury (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2004), 159.
3 Aggelis, ed., Conversations with Ray Bradbury, 145.
4 Sam Weller, Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, 125.
5 Aggelis, ed., Conversations with Ray Bradbury, 159.
6 Bradbury, “Day After Tomorrow: Why Science Fiction?” The Nation (May 2, 1953), 364.
7 Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 3.
8 Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 5.
9 Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 34.
10 Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 38-39.
11 Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 100-101.
12 Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 108.
This essay is part of a series on dystopian literature.
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