It is once in a while in the history of one’s literary experience that a book comes a long which is so poignant in its message, so “frightening in its implications” [New York Times], and so ironically simplistic in its word choice. One of these treasures of 20th century literature sits on my desk in front of me as I type-Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, the novel devoted to denouncing the adage, “Ignorance is bliss”. This novel provides a glance into a bleak world similar to our own (almost too similar) where war is common, feelings are shunned, family is non-existent, and thought is no longer an individual’s query.
To facilitate this last criterion of Mr. Bradbury’s world, books have been banned, condemned to be burned on sight along with their possessors. (Incidentally, I am sure that Mr. Bradbury was aware of the high irony of writing this down in a book when he conceived of the idea. ) And who should be the policemen of this world of ignorance? The “firemen. ” Not unlike the firemen in our world today, they dress alike, drive big trucks, and wail their loud sirens. There is one fundamental difference, however-these firemen start fires; they cleanse the evil books of their sin.
And who should personify the heartless, unfeeling, cold-warm fireman but Guy Montag. His father was a fireman, and his father in turn, so what other job could there be for a man like him? Well, as you, the reader, will see, Montag will soon have trouble answering that question himself. As I have mentioned, Montag is like all the others at the commencement of the novel: loving his job, never questioning an authority that has never given him any reason to obey.
This all changes though when, while walking home from work, he encounters a young girl named Clarisse, who, through her innocence and oblivion to the world around her, shows him that society is crumbling around him and that he can be a part of the solution, not as everyone else is-the problem. For the first time in his life, he questions what he sees around him: his wife overdosing on pills, Clarisse getting hit by a speeding car and killed, and even the book burning which he does every night for money.
Or was it amusement? Either way, curiosity gets the better of him as he “steals” a book from a raging fire during one of his raids. As he looks at the woman who owns the virtual library which is about to be burned and who would rather die with her books then live in a jail, he starts think how important something is that you would die for it. Of course, the other firemen dismissed the old woman as mad. Montag starts to wonder if he will end up the same. The next morning, Montag is sick, physically and emotionally.
Realizing his wife would rather watch TV than care for him; that the world is an empty, cruel place; and that there are things out there which are worth dying for makes him even more so. After deciding to stay home from work, he receives a visit from the fire chief, who tells him the “evils” of books-that they make stupid people feel inferior to the smart ones, that they make some races feel more superior than others, that they can invoke “unnecessary” feelings like sadness and anger.
Apparently, his Utopian society is one of no diversity and no independent thought. For is it not the flaws and faculties of each individual that make them individuals? Upon leaving, Montag feels even sicker. The fire chief hints that he knows of Montag’s stealing a book from the burning house and insinuates that the “criminal” has twenty-four hours to return it. It is that very book that he soon forces himself to show to his wife, who, obviously, is taken aback by the boldness of his action.
He shows her his “collection” of books as well, a small but significant amount. They sit and read all day. It is hard to say what Montag was feeling when he committed this action. It could be said that he had been made irrational by the traumatic events of the day-the fire chief’s visit, Clarisse’s death-or that he was just desperate to tell someone, anyone of his ambitions. As the story continues, Montag goes back to work, only to find that he has been called to burn down his own house.
As he stands outside it, his wife comes out, gets into a cab, and drives away. The fire chief then places him under arrest and gives him a flamethrower. The job is understood. He burns his own house with utmost regret, not for the loss of his property or his life or even his “sanity”, but for the loss of the knowledge and history in the books. When he finsishes, the fire chief taunts Montag to the extent that he points the flamethrower at him and pulls the trigger.
This crazy world made him kill! After knocking out two other firemen and burning a metal police dog, he starts off running and doesn’t stop until he reaches the river bed. He was told by a friend that there were people there like him, fugitives from a world of ignorance, comdemned because they were different, because they thirsted for knowledge. These people take Montag in as one of their own as they travel away from the city, never to see it again.