“It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed….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.”
These words are our first introduction to Guy Montag, the main character in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Montag, a fireman in a futuristic American city, is responsible for protecting society against the dangers of the written word. Instead of putting fires out, he and his team start them. They burn books.
“It’s fine work,” Montag explains. “Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes, then burn the ashes.”
For a decade he’s done just that and never given it a second thought. Until the night Clarisse McClellan, a captivating teenage girl, asks him one simple question: Are you happy?
Finding the answer to that question lights a fire inside Montag and forces him to take a closer look at his life, to think about the future, and search for the truth about the past. Fahrenheit 451 is ultimately the story of one man’s journey from darkness to light, a resurrection from the ashes of ignorance into the light of revelation.
His first epiphany transpires in the privacy of his own home where his wife spends every minute of her day transfixed by a television unit whose screens cover three entire walls of their living area. So engrossed is she in the illusion playing out before her that she has no interest in reality and no connection with her husband:
“And he remembered thinking then that if she died, he was certain he wouldn’t cry. For it would be the dying of an unknown…and it was suddenly so very wrong that he had begun to cry…. How do you get so empty? he wondered.”
Montag needed an answer, but there were few who held the truth and fewer still willing to share it. His boss, Captain Beatty, relays the facts—the rationale behind the dumbing down of an entire civilization:
“What more easily explained and natural? With schools turning out more runners, jumpers, racers….instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be….We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door.”
As it turned out, the books were the loaded gun behind Montag’s closed doors. In his years as a fireman, he’d secretly saved a few books. Now was his chance to read them, to see if they really held the answers he thought they might, but he still couldn’t get all the pieces to fit. He was missing something vital, so he sought the help of a retired English professor, and Professor Faber reveals the missing piece of the puzzle:
“It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books….There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us….They show us the pores on the face of life.”
This revelation provides Montag with the impetus he needs to confront his world with the truth, so he and the professor hatch a plan. Designed in haste by men more desperate for change than equipped to implement it, their plan backfires, costing Montag his job, his home, and his wife.
Now an outlaw, Montag is forced to flee. Deep into the countryside, he connects with a group of men who welcome him into their midst. He learns that these men, along with thousands of others across the country, are a living library. Each one has a piece of literature, history, or philosophy stored safely in his memory. Together, they watch and wait for the time when they will be able to breathe life back into their world.
Freed from the prison of intellectual oppression, Montag begins to recall passages of scripture he didn’t even realize he knew, and as he takes his rightful place among these men, he comforts himself with these words of life and hope from Revelation 22:
“And on either side of the river was there a tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
I find it truly ironic that one of the main reasons this book has been pulled from high school reading lists over the past decade is the objection that the story bashes Christianity and uses the Lord’s name in vain. While the language is coarse in places, reflecting the attitudes and emotions of the characters, the story’s overall message is one of redemption.
Montag is a man searching for truth, and in his journey to find it, he clings to one book—the one whose passages he’d memorized as a young boy—the Bible. His memory of its pages is so strong that he’s given the task of preserving the book of Ecclesiastes for future generations. His appreciation for its message is so deep that they’re the first words he plans to share with a world in need.
I didn’t have the opportunity to read this Sci-Fi classic when I was in school, but I would, without hesitation, make it required reading in my classroom today. Every student born in this technology-saturated generation should have at least one reminder of how important it is to nurture the desire to observe, reason, and debate.
~Vickie Price Taylor