“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” – Isaiah 5:20
There’s something about our American mindset that makes us expect corruption to come from authority members. If some evil exists, it must come from the government, federal agents, or executive CEOs. If it comes from within, it must be the elders of the church or the boss in the office. We never think to look within. We never think that it might be us, the individual members of society, who are contributing to and creating the evil. That it’s those that walk beside us day in and day out who are creating the evils of society. That’s the difference between 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.
Ray Bradbury’s world depicts a world that, in many ways, is not so unlike ours. People are addicted to their parlor screens (TV screens that take up an entire wall and depict a strange sort of soap opera that nobody seems to be able to explain), people base their politics on superficial details, and firemen start fires instead of putting them out.
Oh yeah. I should probably explain that last one.
Houses having long been fire-proof, firemen no longer put out fires. There’d be no point. Instead, they burn books. Not just books on witchcraft, or books with particularly taboo material, but all books. All of them. Dante, Shakespeare, The Bible, Dickens, Orwell, it doesn’t matter. They all burn. Because, supposedly, they’re all evil. They ignite a wickedness within man. The meaninglessness of it all drives men mad.
It’s in this world that we meet Guy Montag. Guy is a fireman, although he’s considerably less radical and scary than you’d expect. He meets a girl named Clarisse, who’s just odd enough to make Guy start scratching his head. She talks about her uncle telling her about simpler times. A time when people used to just chat on the porch. A time when people took walks for no reason. It doesn’t seem too incredibly bizarre to the reader, but it nevertheless gets Montag thinking. And it’s that thinking that gets him into trouble.
Montag’s life is complicated. As much as he puts forth effort not to be, he’s quite the free thinker, yet he’s been holding himself back in an effort to fit in with society. But things start sliding. His conversations with Clarisse bounce around in his head, and he has no one of like mind to discuss them with. His wife is a vain, mindless drone, and he has to keep up an act around the other firemen, most especially Captain Beatty. So he starts slipping. Slipping turns to sliding. Sliding turns to free fall.
So he starts reading.
Bradbury’s writing alone makes the story worth reading, pulling you along with such intensity that you can hardly put it down, practically feeling yourself the tension and suspense as Montag continues his journey downward. But it’s the story’s origins that really show the power of the narrative. About halfway through the book, Captain Beatty gives Montag a rundown of their history, filling in the gaps between the 1950’s (when the story was published) and the current time period. The remarkable thing is that, as Beatty plainly tells Montag, it wasn’t the government. Not at first. It was the natural course of society, the irreversible current of the culture. It was the individuals. It was everyone. The following government accords were simply an expression of where the culture had gone.
These ideas become even stronger when Montag meets Faber, a former academic. He, like all men in his line of work, have become hated and abused. But he’s survived. Because, as he admits, he’s a coward. But through Montag’s coaxing, he eventually agrees to become involved in Montag’s schemes, his desires to change the world and bring down the firemen too strong to still remain inside of him.
Amidst these reminders, when Montag actually begins reading, it’s curious the books that he reads. There’s an almost disproportionate inclusion of The Bible, Montag reading much of Ecclesiastes, and other books being mentioned. Faber also gives a great reverence to The Bible, even if more as culturally important literature than God-bestowed scriptures. That’s comforting, even if it’s at odds with the numerous instances of God’s name being taken in vain, many of those by Montag himself. While the book was lacking in profanity, its use of God’s name remains my primary objection to the book.
All in all, this book is a good reminder that true societal change isn’t imposed by the government or subliminally forced upon us by other leadership roles. Often, it’s the product of us, the individual members of society. It’s on us. And we would do well to remember that as our society drifts further and further into moral depravity. Have we been contributing to that culture? Because our world may soon be like Bradbury’s world. One in which to live as a person rebelling against the culture, we may have to leave the culture.