Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Brian G Turner

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I found this dystopian novel to be somewhat disturbing - for the wrong reasons.

The basic premise is that Montag is a "fireman" who goes around burning books - and any homes in which they are found. However, through the story we see him question his role in this, and face the moral problem of what he's doing.

By itself, it should be a classic dystopian warning against book burning. And it kind of is that.

The problem is, there's no real depth to the story - it's incredibly superficial, with no real character or world-building, or even plot.

And no real ideology, except that the masses should not be disturbed by ideas that should make them think, and shake them from their own dreary existences.

This is all underlined in a speech about a third of the way into the book when Montag is confronted by his superior, Captain Beatty.

At times it makes for chilling reading, apparently as relevant today - not least the portrayal of Montag's wife, Mildred, who separates herself constantly from the world with earphones and holographic general entertainment.

She is not a sympathetic character, and this is the problem.

When I was younger I might have cheered this attack on the mindlessness of mass culture. But reading it now, Bradbury isn't just doing that - he's laughing at people.

And this is where the whole book falls down for me: Farenheit 451 is more of a tirade against mass culture, rather than a promotion of the importance of literature - more of a specious rant by an old Mid-Western college professor, resenting that the wider population doesn't read classic literary greats such as The Bible and Plato's Republic (you read that right).

The premise - that mass culture refuses to be challenged - also misunderstands that popular culture constantly challenges the values of mass culture. The sociologists in the room will recognize that distinction.

Overall, of all the big-name dystopian novels, Fahrenheit 451 is easily the weakest. It may be worth reading just to make up your own mind - but don't be too surprised if rather than deep insight, it comes across as an old man ranting that radio and television will rot your brain.
 
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Robert Zwilling

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Do you think the original movie did a better job of mainlining the idea of the history of literature over popular culture?
 

TheDustyZebra

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I read this again a couple of years ago, and was sadly disappointed. It wasn't anywhere near as good as I remembered it, nor anywhere near as good as its perpetual hype would have us believe. And definitely not up to the Bradbury standard, so it's sad that this book is held up as his classic work.
 

Onyx

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I didn't like it in high school and always assumed that it was selected for its theme rather than its actual strength as literature.
 

kythe

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Ray Bradbury is among my favorite authors, but Fahrenheit 451 is my least preferred of his works. I always thought it felt very bloated - like a long, drawn out short story. Some of his actual short stories are very atmospheric and thought provoking, and several contain similar themes as Farenheit 451.

A few short stories in The Martian Chronicles involve firemen or book burning. My personal favorite is his Poe tribute, Usher II.
 

Guillermo Stitch

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My own book gets compared to Fahrenheit 451 (but with better jokes, I'm assured) but actually I agree with a lot of what's said here. Maybe I need to explore more Bradbury. I do remember enjoying the old movie - I loved the visual look of it. But even that might have had something to do with the fact that we did it in school so I got to watch something instead of working.
 

awesomesauce

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The problem is, there's no real depth to the story - it's incredibly superficial, with no real character or world-building, or even plot.
I think that's typical of much of the sci-fi from that era though. (I call it "mid-century American sci-fi" to myself.) Especially the Big Idea books.
 

Justin Swanton

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Weeeell.....it does have more plot than Rendezvous with Rama, but the premise is rather silly, as if books make any difference in a dystopian society (The Book of Eli is worse for the same reason). I remember being unconvinced by how quickly Montag and Mildred became discerning critics of what they were reading, growing in mental sophistication in days rather than years (which suggests the books didn't really have all that much to teach them in the first place).

1984 is a far more convincing social engineering dystopia as hooking society on ideology is a much better way of killing the power of books and their nuanced and multifaceted approach to reality than just burning those books and getting people to watch TV. But even ideology eventually falls flat: it doesn't age well and after a few generations people can't help but see through it.

No. If you really want to permanently mould a society you need religion. Religion can set up a social order lasting millennia which could sometimes become pretty dystopian (cf the Aztecs).
 
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Onyx

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Any ideology can mold society for generations - look at the Mongols. They reshaped the Old World for centuries without any strong interest in religion or the politics of the people they took over. The thing that religion, political theory and social taboos share is enforcement - the ability to transform an idea into broad compliance.

In 451, the firemen were the enforcers, but we come into the story late enough that their job is pretty much done - people wouldn't read books if they were given them. I don't know if Bradbury believed that enforcement was a necessary step in the evolution of the 451 society, or if the real warning was against TV and the fireman were just there to sensationalize the lack of books.
 

Justin Swanton

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Any ideology can mold society for generations - look at the Mongols. They reshaped the Old World for centuries without any strong interest in religion or the politics of the people they took over. The thing that religion, political theory and social taboos share is enforcement - the ability to transform an idea into broad compliance.
Genghis Khan was a military commander rather than a social engineer. The only thing he changed about Mongol society was to demand that his men be absolutely loyal to him rather than to their tribes, as part of a military hierarchy based on merit rather than noble birth. For the rest the Mongol social fabric remained as it had always been, and the Mongols required nothing more from the peoples they conquered than submission and tribute.

I'm not so sure about their reshaping the ancient world for generations. Ghenghis Khan conquered northern China but the rest of his conquests did not extend into heavily civilised regions. Subotai mounted what was in effect only a raid into eastern Europe. By the time the Mongols had completed the conquest of China they were well on their way to being assimilated into Chinese society. Timur conquered Persia but destroyed rather than permanently changed it. The Golden Horde spent some time lording it over the Russian states near the Caucasus but didn't have any real effect on their society. The Mongol invasions of India didn't bring any real changes to Indian society AFAIK. I can't think of anything else.

Enforcement only really works as a t crosser and i dotter. You must have already convinced your people of your ideology and use force only to take care of a minority of dissenters. If the people as a whole are not convinced force will serve only to unconvince them further and set you up for a fall. Propaganda works better.
 
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Justin Swanton

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Which, of course, is the foundation of 1984 - and why it seems strange to me that any overt ideology seems to be missing in Fahrenheit 451.
Even 1984 needed magic to make it work: the mind-reading thought police and, more importantly, the praeternatural voluntary mass amnesia ability, by which the population could forget at the drop of a hat the most widely known facts like the price of rationed chocolate the week before.

If induced selective amnesia becomes medically possible it's the first thing I would legislate as a dictator.
3168.png

Hey, there's the germ of a story there....
 
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Toby Frost

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No. If you really want to permanently mould a society you need religion.
Surely Big Brother is a god: O'Brien says that he is real but cannot die. Cults of personality around dictators are surely no different from religious cults. The Two Minutes' Hate and the Nuremberg Rallies were acts of worship. No politics are involved except prostration before a deity. After all, Hirohito was the head of a totalitarian fascist state and worshipped as a literal god.

I'm not enormously sold on Bradbury's prose poetry, but I think 451 holds up as a short novel. While Montag is perhaps a bit more snobbish than Bradbury intended, the book is a strong warning against a kind of mindless anti-intelligence, which is present in all dictatorial regimes (although the 451 America is still a democracy, it seems, at least in name). Also, I expect that TV and pop culture were much less sophisticated when Bradbury was writing: the stuff Mildred watches probably makes Love Island look like The Ascent of Man.

I agree that it's surprising that there is no real ideology in 451 except a sort of consumerism with brains on half-power. In a society that empty and hedonistic, I would have expected a tyrant to seize power.
 

Toby Frost

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Yeah, me too.

Anyway, back to this science fiction book from the 1950s which has nothing to do with real life...
 

althea

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I think Ray Bradbury is a master storyteller. Of course,not being a writer myself,I just judge a book on it's entertainment factor for me and the actual writing. I think this book chilled me to the bone when I read it many years ago. I still remember it well,all these years later.That to me is a sign of a good book.
 

Onyx

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Even 1984 needed magic to make it work: the mind-reading thought police and, more importantly, the praeternatural voluntary mass amnesia ability, by which the population could forget at the drop of a hat the most widely known facts like the price of rationed chocolate the week before.

If induced selective amnesia becomes medically possible it's the first thing I would legislate as a dictator.
View attachment 45137
Hey, there's the germ of a story there....
Doesn't seem any more magic than what actually happened during the Cultural Revolution.
 

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