RPM, Volume 12, Number 27, July 4 to July 10 2010

Bradbury's Ongoing Blaze*

By Scott Schuleit

"It was a pleasure to burn."

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and 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.
And with those evocative, initial words from Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's classic work of science fiction, Bradbury ushers his readers into a parallel universe, wherein he masterfully employs imagery, symbols and eloquent abstractions to issue a warning—a warning which has proven prophetic—for many of the shadows within the book can now be seen woven within the fabric of our own society.

Ray Bradbury, one of America's finest and most prolific authors, was born in Waukegan, Illinois on Aug. 22, 1920. He started writing at the age of 11, and in 1942, one of his short stories appeared in "Weird Tales," a professional publication. This proved to be an auspicious beginning for the young writer as hundreds of short stories and many books would follow, and even now, while in his eighties Bradbury is still writing. Some of his most popular works are: Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man and Dandelion Wine. Fahrenheit 451, his most famous book, is currently under production (due to delays it has been under production for a long time) for the big screen. This will be the second time it has made its way to the cinema and will be directed by Frank Darabont who has directed several movies, most notably The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, the latter being one of my personal favorites.

Fahrenheit 451 was first published in 1953, and since then has sold millions of copies. The book follows in the dystopian (negative or anti-utopian) tradition in literature. One can trace the root systems of dystopian literature at least as far back as The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, who inspired a Russian man named Yevgeny Zamyatin to produce a book entitled We, which gave a more fuller and distinctive vision within the anti-utopian style. George Orwell acknowledged that We, served as the inspiration for 1984, which is, perhaps, the most famous dystopian vision. Other classic dystopian works include Jack London's The Iron Heel, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Ayn Rand's Anthem, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, Lois Lowry's The Giver and one of the more recent ones, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which was released as a movie in 2009.

With regards to these works, including Fahrenheit 451, it is my understanding, that the various worldviews presented by them could not be construed as being sympathetic to Christianity. Since these works, whether explicitly or implicitly, are generally opposed if not downright antagonistic towards orthodox Christianity, a question remains, which has proven itself to be perennial, concerning whether or not Christians should read them at all. (In this book about censorship, I do wish Bradbury had censored the occasions where he uses the Lord's name in vain.) As with anything, we should be discerning concerning what we read, whether it's Christian or secular, but let me state that there is much to be gained through the reading of secular literature. As one once said, "All truth is God's truth." Though I may not generally agree with the worldview of some work of literature or another, there's almost always brilliant insights to be found within the particulars of a book, especially the classics. I believe that the acquiring of 451 was a providential blessing from God in my life, for through the reading and re-reading of it, I've garnered many profound insights into culture, the human condition, and other elements within the world around me. Very few books, Christian or other, have influenced my thinking as much as 451. I would even go as far as to say that with the possible exception of C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, this book has influenced me more than any single work written by a Christian author.

The plot of Fahrenheit 451 centers on the theme of censorship, and though this is by no means the only theme in the book, it is the main theme, the hub, from out of which, the spokes or sub-themes like freedom and identity emerge.

The setting of the book is sometime in the future on earth, a setting which is uncommon for most science fiction, but typical for dystopian literature.

Guy Montag, the main character in the book, is a fireman, an occupation that requires him to start fires rather than put them out. Firemen are paid to burn illegal books, to burn anything offensive, that is, anything considered to be intellectual, particular or divisive, that the minds of the people might be induced into a state more susceptible to the suggestions and control of the government. Through these methods and other means the masses have primarily become one mindless, insipid, uniformed whole. It should be noted, that the people in general, before there were even any firemen, had freely decided to desist in reading. The decision to suppress their critical faculties—to avoid thinking—was a choice that they had made on their own. It was only after the fact, when the government saw the potential power of censorship and media to manipulate the masses that the firemen were introduced into society. The indulgent, truth-denying, fantasy-glutted masses, in an effort to avoid various realities such as conflict, suffering, and the true state of their human condition, freely chose to avoid the difficulties of thinking altogether. Instead of thinking, they decided it would be easier to let someone else do it for them.

Though elements of Orwell's (1984) highly oppressive, totalitarian regime are certainly in 451, in contrast, the main means of control rather than being that of threats and terror, is through the more subtle means of entertainment. This is more thematically similar to Huxley's Brave New World. In 451, a sort of Romanesque mindset pervades the culture. Some of the characters like Mildred (Montag's wife) and her friends are revealed as being like automatons controlled by the media, their minds constantly immersed within a flood of trite, sensuous, instantly-gratifying images from the huge wall-TV's (entertainment devices portrayed in the book) which invariably induce a lethargic, thoughtless, narcissistic type of life.

In 451, the youth are portrayed as addicted to various thrill-oriented activities, including violent ones to keep themselves occupied, to keep up an incessant surge of adrenaline in an impassioned effort to avoid thinking about life lest the emptiness within them becomes intensely evident. Their various, increasingly wild diversions can be seen as an attempt to quicken the deadness they sense within themselves. From a Christian perspective, we could also see the actions of the youth (as well as the adults) as a violent striving to avoid and do away with the guilt of their sins—to numb their searing conscience, and ultimately, as attempts to escape from the presence of a Holy, Sovereign God.

In the book, there is one youth who is different, a young woman named Clarisse McClelland, who is thoughtful, kind, curious and perceptive, and who—through her talks with Montag—helps to lead him out of the thoughtless mindset imprisoning him. She sets him thinking about his life, culture, nature, and even about his job, causing him to question whether it's ethical or not to be a burner of books.

Eventually, through the upheaval brought about by certain catalysts in Montag's life, including his wife's suicide attempt, the death of Clarisse, and the burning of an old woman with her books, Montag decides to fight against the state.

He quickly forms a friendship with a man named Faber whom he had met a long time ago in a park. Faber, being a lover of books, and who had actually quoted poetry to Montag on their first meeting, is sympathetic to his cause, and though reluctant at first, joins with him in his plan to overthrow the entire system.

From there you'll have to read the book to see what happens.... On a stylistic level, Bradbury's prose is poetic, a rarity among writers these days. He writes in an eloquent, visionary, atmospheric and highly imagistic fashion. His style of writing is reminiscent of several writers of our American literary past, including Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Anderson (Sherwood) and Hemingway among others, all poetic-prose writers he greatly admires. The technique of writing in a poetic-prose style (when done well) quickens the senses, drawing the reader down into a detailed alternate world, causing one to feel immersed within the story in contrast to feeling detached and outside of the narrative flow. This rare quality of engulfment, or enchantment, which is so important to a work of fiction, can, once we emerge from the story, either alter our understanding of reality (for good or evil) or heighten our awareness to see reality in a fresh, transfigured way. The more potent the fictitious dream, the more power it holds to convey ideas. Bradbury, a master craftsman, is among the best practitioners of this literary technique, and Fahrenheit 451 is among its greatest examples, and thus, for this reason and the many others mentioned, I would highly encourage one to read this fascinating modern American classic.

*This book review was first published in May 30th, 2002, on the Ligonier Ministries Website. It has, since then, been slightly revised.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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