I once heard an anecdote about a famous film critic who said that he wasn’t going to watch “The African Queen” until he was on his deathbed, because he wanted to save the best for last. Maybe that’s why I, a fan of both Ray Bradbury and the ‘golden age’ of science fiction, have waited so long to read Fahrenheit 451. Of course, like so many people, my plans were foiled by a child, namely my step-son who wanted help with his 8th grade summer reading, and who could say no to that? Looking around the site you can see that I adore Ray Bradbury, so much so that I would venture to say that, were I ever able to get a PhD., I might just specialize in his works. I think he’s an overlooked genius, but at least, I thought, at least students read Fahrenheit 451. Then I read the novel … and it’s not very good. Also, everything after this point is spoilers, just FYI.
Compared to Bradbury’s corpus, Fahrenheit 451 should have been a footnote; flat characters, been-done plot (it’s basically Anthem), not-helpful observations about how technology is rotting minds. It’s almost the opposite of some of his works, specifically The Martian Chronicles collection, wherein machines are personified sympathetically. In Fahrenheit 451 it’s just “technology bad, people complacent” and the characters … I need to organize my thoughts because I cannot just ramble about my disappointment. All I’m saying is that, if that anecdote is true, I really hope that critic liked “The African Queen” because, for me, not liking Fahrenheit 451 was quite the bummer.
The novel opens with Guy Montag being thrilled with his work as a fireman, you know, the book burning kind. Then there’s a lonely walk down a moodily lit street. Enter: a dame. Clarisse McClellan is teenager and unusual, asking Montag all manner of questions as they find themselves walking side by side. This feels like a “meet cute,” where our two polar opposites meet, don’t agree, yet are drawn to each other. Montag is thirty and Clarisse is seventeen, to which my step-son said “eew!” but whatever, I’m much younger than my S.O. and it couldn’t bother me less. So I guess their age difference is supposed to establish them as platonic? Yet he looks for her every day, misses her, she leaves him little quirky manic pixie dream girl presents like acorns, and Montag thinks about her face, “really quite beautiful in memory: astonishing, in fact.” Clarisse asks him why he doesn’t read the books he burns and she asks if he’s happy before running off into the moonlight, she is the character that introduces these huge concepts to Montag … but then she’s unceremoniously killed off. For no reason.
Before talking about Clarisse’s death I need to talk about Montag’s wife, Bland-ela … no wait, I just checked, it’s Mildred (aka Millie). She’s the worst. Also, when we are introduced to her (after the reader meets Clarisse, hint, hint!) she’s knee-deep in a pill-based suicide attempt. At this point I need to note that, while I’m disappointed with this book, I’m disappointed because my standards for Bradbury are sky high, and the opening section is as beautifully written as you’d expect. Montag realizes that Mildred (a purposefully droopy name) has tried to take the leap when, in the dark of his bedroom (symbol for loveless marriage!) he kicks a crystal bottle. Crystal should always pop out to you in Bradbury and the juxtaposition between the delicacy evoked by “crystal” and the vulgarity of a pill-fueled suicide should strike you forcibly. A stomach pump is home-delivered and the EMT guys couldn’t be more whatever about it, they get these calls “nine or ten a night,” it’s so commonplace. So you, the savvy reader, should notice that Bradbury has established a society wherein suicide is commonplace, and as you read you will find out why. Mildred wakes up hungry, but is either such a robot that she doesn’t remember her suicide attempt, or denies it, and goes back to her TV, which is the whole focus of her life. Her meaningless, empty life. Burn on stay-at-home moms who watch Netflix all day, amirite? Except they don’t have kids so, I have no idea why Millie doesn’t work. I guess she just really loves TV.
Technology – television, robots, and cars – are a major part of the novel, and Bradbury’s critique of “too much TV” is as apt as it is wrong to the modern reader. Instead of Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and whatever is next, in the novel you can replace your walls with TV screens. You can even participate in the shows and those characters become, for people like Mildred, your family, your reality, your whole life. All Mildred wants in life is the fourth wall ($2,000) to be installed, even though they are still dealing with the financial fallout of having the third wall installed. So as silly as it is for there to be “A TV … that’s a whole room!” we do have a modern equivalent, and it’s Snapchat. For those of you not here for help on your summer reading: Snapchat is a stupid phone thing for young people, wherein they replace real interactions with fake ones, then share them, all the while maintaining the fiction that they are actually interacting with each other, when, in reality, they are interacting with a machine. Because of the TV (Snapchat) Mildred and her friends are so disconnected with reality that literally nothing matters to them aside from the TV. So later when one of her friends is all, “I don’t care if my husband dies, LOL, I hate my kids, LOL,” and the others are like, “Gee!” which is as chilling as vision of the future as I can think of. Also, Mildred nonchalantly mentions that Clarisse was killed by someone who felt like hitting someone with a car, which is the new national pastime, along with killing animals.
That brings us to cars, which are now just killing machines, and are never mentioned in relation to actual transportation. There are people who just drive around at insane speeds, running over everything, without consequence, and this is how Clarisse is killed. I have no idea why Bradbury chose to kill off Clarisse in this way. Having her run away first? That would have made sense. Not being a romance novel? I am totally okay with it. But killing her off so abruptly when she was so important and the foil for Montag’s boss Captain Beatty? It seems sloppy and forced. She is missing from the novel in the sense that her absence doesn’t work. Almost as though Bradbury ended up with a character he didn’t know what to do with, so he got rid of her. Cars, by the way, are how we know that Mildred is dead inside: she likes running over animals, and, when the evil Mechanical Hound is outside, says that Montag should kick it, because she hates animals. We hate you, Millie!
The Mechanical Hound is interesting and so Bradbury-ian; it’s a dog-shaped killing machine (that the firemen use to kill animals for fun, evidencing their sickness, and linking them to Mildred) that can be given any human scent and it will track them down, and inject them with poison. Note that Mechanical Hound is legion, but is personified by capitalizing it’s moniker, as though it’s alive, something Montag struggles with. Montag being its eventual target is foreshadowed heavily by the fact that the Mechanical Hound doesn’t seem to “like” Montag. Someone has been feeding the mechanical hound Montag flavored snacks, it seems. Surprise, it’s his boss, Captain Beatty! The night after Montag steals a book, and then immediately watches a woman burn alive with her books, he understandably falls ill. Captain Beatty, who speaks in chunks of quotes and riddles, reveals that the McClellan’s were on their radar, and that Clarisse is “better off dead.” Turns out that Captain Beatty kind of feels that way about himself, too, screwing with Montag to the point that the Captain brings him on the run to burn Montag’s own house. The Captain’s last words are Shakespeare, so he’s obviously well read, and his quote from Julius Caesar leads me to believe that the Captain is a more complex character than he initially seems to be. Montag, cornered, kills the Captain with fire (obviously, so obvious as to be a little too on the nose) to save his accomplice, who I haven’t mentioned yet.
Montag makes a run for it as the Mechanical Hound chases him down, making the final standoff in the novel between man and machine. The Hound was, again, obviously programmed to kill Montag by the too-knowing Captain Beatty, and having outlived him, the Hound’s sole purpose is ending Montag. The Hound, like the omnipresent television, is infinite, with a new one replacing each one that is destroyed, and so Montag reconvenes with Faber (his accomplice) and makes a run for it. Of course, he outsmarts the Hound, because at this point the novel has become a touch predictable, and ends up getting away … to a colony of homeless old men with books in their heads. Of course. Who then try to save the world with their intellectual mother load after everything is bombed to Hell, obviously.
If you haven’t read Ayn Rand’s standard issue 10th grade novella Anthem, it ends with the main character running into the woods and hoping, one day, to find or make like-minded people (yes, make, he has a baby … like in The Giver). This novel is one that just kind of happens every 25-50 years or so: misunderstood genius run away to the woods, possibly saves world? The ending is always a cliffhanger. Which is why I didn’t need it from a genius like Bradbury, because with such a trite story line, and so few symbols (only like five as opposed to his normal dozens) it just felt weak. Okay, I’ve rambled on enough about the novel for now, feel free to leave any questions or opinions in the comments.