IT WAS A PLEASURE TO BURN

By Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 has arguably one of the best first lines of any book – It was a pleasure to burn. The book is generally defined as dystopian literature – imagining a state of society where there is great suffering and injustice. The book is centered on a society that is intolerant to books. The main character is Guy Montag, a fireman with the designation 451. He goes about his fireman business until a chance meeting with a crazy girl Clarice challenges him to question the status quo.


I had lost interest in the book but it is a public holiday today and given that it's a short read, I decided to read it in one sitting. It's a quick read but can be frustrating.


Montag meets Clarisse, a 17 year old girl who is out of school and is considered abnormal by society. To quote Clarisse,

Oh, they don't miss me," she said. "I'm antisocial, they say. I don't mix. It's so strange. I'm very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn't it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this." … "Or talking about how strange the world is. Being with people is nice. But I don't think it's social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you? … we never ask questions, or at least most don't; they just run the answers at you… That's not social to me at all… They run us so ragged by the end of the day we can't do anything but go to bed or head for a Fun Park to bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with the big steel ball. Or go out in the cars and race on the streets, trying to see how close you can get to lampposts, playing 'chicken' and 'knock hubcaps.' I guess I'm everything they say I am, all right. I haven't any friends. That's supposed to prove I'm abnormal. But everyone I know is either shouting or dancing around like wild or beating up one another. Do you notice how people hurt each other nowadays?

Clarisse seems to be the butterfly wing flutter that causes a typhoon in Guy Montag’s conscience. He realizes his role in the censorship. Clarisse seemingly dies and he is forced to question his role when he takes part in burning a woman alive with her books. He contacts Professor Faber with whom he seeks to plan his revolution - except the revolution ends promptly when he is caught with books. His house is burnt and his wife leaves him. He commits murder to protect Prof. Faber and he goes on the run and meets up with a group of other society outcasts who are living on the fringes.


Why you should read Farenheit 451

I think there is better dystopian literature but it could spark some thoughts on censorship and some of the issues that arise in Montag’s world are eerily similar to current situations we face in society.

The book does criticize the summarization of information into soundbites but it has quite the soundbites.

We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.

A very relevant political commentary

If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change.

Criticism

  • Shallow on deep subjects

The author iintroduces a number deep subject but he only seems to glide over them. It seems like a petty grievance and whining over serious issues that the author does not seem to be interested in addressing in detail. Like he’s just being passive aggressive without actually wanting to resolve the issue. Making tiny snide comments and then moving on swiftly.


  • Very Very Poor Potrayal of Women

There are several women in the book – Mildred Montag, Mrs Phelps, Mrs Bowles and Clarisse Mclellan. They are not portrayed in the best light.


Clarisse is portrayed as enlightened but plays into the clever but crazy stereotype. This is usually that woman who is great but has that one fundamental flaw that makes her incompatible with society. It may not be very obvious in this instance but if you have watched The Queen's Gambit - Think of her as Beth - the crazy genius. No woman is ever just great?


There is Mildred who is portrayed as vain, sickly, materialistic, shallow and disloyal. Her suicide is hardly addressed and there is the implication that women are shallow and repressed. This is part of the reason why the book was frustrating – the author introduces a very controversial or important societal issue and then doesn’t engage in it or uses it in the most inopportune way.


Mrs. Phelps is unconcerned that her husband is being sent to war and I think this is a poor portrayal of the role and attitudes of women in crisis situations. She seemingly breaks down when Montag reads a few lines of poetry further digging into the women are shallow and repressed picture.


The author again mentions Mrs. Bowles’s husband’s suicide and does not address the issue. He seems to suggest it should be something to be ashamed of that Mrs. Bowles has been married multiple times even after one of her former husbands committed suicide. I think the kind of thinking that seems to judge women by the number of times they have been married or that they should be held responsible for the behavior and mental states of their husbands is an issue to be questioned. If the author sought to address the issue, he did not expend much effort in the same.


I found this quote indicative of the author’s attitude towards women. “The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.” Seemingly innocent but using very graphic language in relation to feminine.


Rating: 2.5/5

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