I don’t remember what grade it was that Fahrenheit 451 was placed in front of us in English class. Throughout grade school, although I knew that I excelled in English, just like any typical kid, I never did the reading assignments, so I hardly ever knew what was going on during our class meetings; my vacant eyes blended in with those belonging to all my classmates. (However, The Giver changed this for me, which I plan on revisiting. The Giver affected me in some hugely religious way–I was almost in tears when I finished that book, but I didn’t dare admit that to my peers in eighth grade.)
I noticed in fifth grade that when I actually read the chapters assigned in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I was able to participate in class discussion, and I enjoyed it. How uncanny! We also did some really fun assignments based on that book, like creating a newspaper called The Narnian.
Being such a fan of Ray Bradbury, you’d think that I would have read Fahrenheit 451 by now. Well, I just finished reading the same unread paperback I’ve had since high school (or was it middle school?). I’m a few years late, but I’m ready to discuss it now.
As we travel through this story alongside Montag, the first person we meet is the young and mysterious Clarisse, his capricious neighbor who suddenly disappears. Clarisse is childlike, curious, and intelligent, thus rendering her dangerous within the oppressive culture they live. I find her to be almost Christ-like in the sense that she confronts Montag with certain realities, encourages him to think for himself, and begins to guide him in understanding his own identity as a fireman and a person (plus, she dies for her sins). “My uncle drove slowly on a highway once. He drove forty miles an hour and they jailed him for two days. Isn’t that funny, and sad, too?” she tells Montag. This is a clever and wonderful metaphor–the cryptic and ubiquitous “they” are committed to policing joy, sensory experience, and self-discovery. As long as we are going about our business and living our lives too frantically and hurriedly, we prevent ourselves from savoring or learning anything new. We must slow down to question things, enjoy the beautiful things we can touch and smell, and reflect on our surroundings to better recognize who we are.
I find myself fixated on how much we dislike Mildred. Montag “lay far across the room from her, on a winter island separated by an empty sea.” What a forlorn description that really captures the isolation many of us have felt, even when in the company of a romantic partner. When we first meet Mildred, she has overdosed on sleeping pills, as if she truly would prefer to exist as a sort of shadow or ghost in her own home. We believe we’re alone with Montag in the dark, somber bedroom late at night for quite some time, and it almost feels like a betrayal or an intrusion when we notice that Mildred is with us. While she is unsympathetic to Montag becoming ill, we’re given this physical description of her: “her hair burnt by chemicals to a brittle straw . . . the body as thin as a praying mantis from dieting, and her flesh like white bacon.” Midred, then, is at once likened to an insect and raw meat. Nice!
The scene where Montag makes Mildred’s friend cry is both sad and hysterical–she cannot articulate why it is she finds herself crying as Montag recites poetry from one of his books, which, of course, are illegal. This unsettling scene acts as a prodding reminder to all of us that poetry affects us in a deeply visceral, and certainly a religious way; we are poetry, so when we hear another recite it before us, we are faced with the truths of our own placement within the universe, an undeniable reality that we are stardust moving through a galaxy we struggle to make sense of. Poetry can be so comforting in its suggestion of warm death that we may feel sorry for those we leave on earth as we feel the tug of an anticipated afterlife, but its verses can also incite the kind of fear that freezes the marrow in our bones. Mrs. Phelps is overwhelmed by what she hears Montag read, and she leaves the house at once, swearing that she’ll never return.
While we feel sorry for Mildred as a simple victim of the dystopian culture we find in Fahrenheit 451, we downright loathe Captain Beatty. Of course, he wants to die, fittingly by fire, yes, but we enjoy watching him become engulfed by flames as Montag’s doomed house burns after his ghastly wife takes off. The climactic moment here is Beatty’s death and Mildred’s hasty departure, and we know all hell is about to break loose. Montag becomes a fugitive, crawling the streets with a blown-up leg and an armful of books–pretty bad ass. I don’t remember what part of this book I was reading when I decided to put it down as a teenager, and I don’t quite see how else Bradbury could have concluded it: the hopeful but downtrodden group of intellectual, rebel outcasts walking along the river, moving, breathing vessels of literature lost.
This is a bleak and creative look at the very real epidemic of illiteracy today, in addition to a total aversion to learning, discovery, and the value of recording the human experience in writing, no matter how small or silly it may seem. Thoreau’s observations are valuable, even if you feel no kinship with nature; the Book of Job is valuable, even if you’re not religiously-inclined; and Shakespeare is valuable, even if it all sounds like gobbledygook. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I feel that Bradbury’s firemen are around every corner, perhaps waiting to douse those of us still foolish enough to attach meaning to our lives through the written word.