How People Destroy Themselves and Each Other in Fahrenheit 451
A wife overdoses on medication, much to the distress of her husband; a woman watches as the room in which she stands is doused in kerosene before she takes it upon herself to strike the first match; a Fire Captain hands a flamethrower to one of his subordinates and orders him to aim it at him – at the Captain himself – and pull the trigger. These three suicide attempts –: one successful, one not so, and the other enacted as a murder – embody the theme of self-destruction that runs throughout Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, and each of them represents a different facet of that theme: involuntary self-destruction, voluntary self-destruction, and voluntary self-destruction in order to pre-empt an involuntary self-destruction. Mildred Montag’s overdose implies a dissatisfaction with the world as it is, and a desire to escape into something less real, more passive, an indirect and involuntary kind of self-destruction. The old woman’s voluntary death entails an immense satisfaction with the world that is taken from her, and no desire whatsoever to live a life without some element of that world in it. And Captain Beatty’s death at the hands of Guy Montag represents a combination of both of the above – a man torn between fondness and duty, between an affection for that which he destroys, and for the process of destruction itself.
Mildred’s self-destruction is one common trait of the majority of the citizens in the society depicted in the novel, and hers is a path that Montag risks following – at least until the moment his curiosity gets the better of him and he opens the covers of a book. “I am a cowardly old fool,”, says the English professor Faber, being the placid kind of man that Montag will devolve into if he does not immediately rebel against the system that oppresses him. “Proof of my terrible cowardice: I’ve lived alone so many years, throwing images on walls with my imagination.” Faber is what Montag will become if he allows Mildred to desensitize him. “She was beginning to shriek now,” we are told of Mildred when Montag looks at his wife through new eyes after their argument, “sitting there like a wax doll melting in its own heat.” Mildred’s self-destruction is of the involuntary, passive variety, she does not so much destroy herself as she allows herself to rot away slowly. Her world is a dream-world for which she abandons reality: she is unconscious when we meet her, having overdosed on pills designed to make her sleep and recede into dreams. When she comes to, she is filled with denial and claims she would never have done such a thing, later she has her own name inserted into a television program and so she is literally absorbed into a fictional world. And finally, she replaces her husband with the cartoon White Clowns to the point where Montag asks her: “Does the White Clown love you? …Does your ‘family’ love you, love you with all their heart and soul, Millie?”
The answer, of course, is no, but like so much between Montag and Mildred, it remains unspoken. Indeed, speaking aloud is the means by which Montag very nearly engages in his own self-destruction: he recites a poem to Mildred and her friends, and reduces one of them to tears, which causes the others to turn on him. The anger he provokes results in his downfall. This, however, can hardly come as a surprise to him, and even less so to Faber, who listens to the poetry recital via Montag’s earpiece: “You’ll ruin everything,”, he insists, “Shut up, you fool!” – but Montag persists, the poetry is read aloud, and later, after the women have left his house, they turn to the authorities and point their fingers at him. “It was pretty silly, quoting poetry around free and easy like that,” Beatty warns Montag during their final confrontation. “It was the act of a silly damn snob. Give a man a few lines of verse and he thinks he’s the Lord of all Creation.” Ironic, given that only a few moments later when Montag has a flamethrower trained on him, it is Beatty who quotes poetry: “Why don’t you belch Shakespeare at me, you fumbling snob? ‘There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats, for I am arm’d so strong in honesty that they pass me as an idle wind, which I respect not!’”
This is not the first demonstration of Beatty’s literary knowledge. Earlier, he refers to the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, he quotes Jonathan Swift, and alludes to Biblical passages. Also, he understands a reference to religious persecution made by the aforementioned old woman before she sets herself ablaze. How is it that a man, who leads investigations into houses, in order to burn the illegal and outlawed books they have, knows so much about literature himself? Moreover, how is he still able to display some visible level of affection for literature – one that Montag shares, but which, unlike Beatty, he is not allowed to show to the outside world? With his knowledge of and resentment for literature, Beatty embodies the conflict between both literature’s destruction and its appreciation – and so his actions and his speeches indirectly give voice to the reasons why the burning of literature is self-destructive, even if his actual words dictate why it is a positive thing.
“Not everyone [is] born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone [is] made equal,”, Beatty tells Montag in one of many examples of a revisionist history accepted by the society of this world. “Each man is the image of every other, then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.” Therein lies the essence of the evolution of book-burning, as well as the essence of its self-destructive nature. Like Mildred’s involuntary self-destruction, book-burning evolved not from active opposition to literature, but from a passive attraction to other materials. “The world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths,”, Beatty tells Montag. “Films and radios, magazines, books [were] leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm. …Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows. …School [was] shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored.” Essentially, Beatty details the devolution of literature – indeed, of ‘thinking’ itself and its replacement by graphic intake, films and drawings and photographs. “More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. …Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. …There you have it. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship,” Beatty says of the process by which books were banned, before he adds the qualifier: “to start with.”
Those three words – “to start with” – embody everything that is self-destructive about the book-burning of the society depicted in the novel. It is self-destructive because, most conspicuously, Beatty’s assertions with regard to the validity of book-burning do not stand to reason. He claims that society’s individuals lost interest in literature because nothing of value was being produced – books were “dishwater” – but that could not possibly entail a mass abandonment of fiction altogether, particularly when so much of value has already been accumulated by society to begin with – just because no new books of any worth are being produced, there is no reason to abandon hundreds of years of books that do hold some value.
More importantly, however, is that book-burning is self-destructive because it is a violation of individuality and individual rights. Beatty uses this notion to his advantage – “all men made equal” – but here, he fails to add the qualifier that should appear at the end of that statement: “All men made equal, resulting in mass mediocrity, with no man given the opportunity to disrupt or ascend beyond that equality.” That is to say, book-burning is self-destructive because it removes the individual’s choice as to whether or not he or she wishes to indulge in literature. Certainly, even if there were such a world in which society lost interest in fiction and books, there must be some individuals who would still choose to pursue literature for pleasure. These individuals do exist in this world – in the form of Montag, of course, and Beatty to an extent, and most notably in the form of Faber and the group of men Montag meets outside the city – but it is not merely their right to read books that has been taken from them: they have also lost their right to choose to read books. Book-burning, therefore, is self-destructive on both a physical and metaphysical levels: it denies indulgence in physical literature – pages and printed words – but it also denies an individual the right to use his or her metaphysical free will, and in doing so, we realize that it is self-destructive because it nullifies the very thing that makes us truly human in the first place.
However, this is not the extent of its self-destruction, it is only the most visible extent. Worse than this destruction of literature and free will is the destruction of truth. How do we know that the story Beatty tells Montag is real? In fact, we know that Beatty lies on several occasions: “When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when? Well, I’d say it really got started around a thing called the Civil War.” This is not true, firefighters, as we know, have never been employed to burn books, and such a trend did not arise during the Civil War. Even Beatty disputes this claim, but with another lie: “I’d say it really [started during] the Civil War. Even though our rulebook claims it was founded earlier.” If Beatty disputes one important element of his own code of conduct, how can we be sure that anything in that code is true? Instead, we realize that with the above time frame given for the inception of the firemen, as well as other claims such as that houses have always been fire-proof, the citizens of this story live in a world that has fallen victim to a fictional past, as in the aforementioned revisionist history. The history of this society has been glossed-over, deleted, lost and destroyed, re-built and re-written as propaganda, and almost all actual historical truth has been lost, resulting in a world which very identity is one of dualistic irony: a world that shuns fiction, yet is almost wholly built upon lies. Beatty even let’s slip this inconsistency, perhaps subconsciously: he calls Montag a “fumbling snob” for reciting poetry, and he calls the critics of the past “snobs” for denouncing books. Who, then, does he believe to be the real “snob”: those who love fiction, or those who ridicule it? He inconsistency believes in truth that he works hard to conceal: that he knows, somehow, that the laws he upholds are a facade; that, at the very least, they could not have been founded upon any actual history and are instead a product of fiction dressed up as fact.
Beatty continues to explain how book-burning came about: “You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. …Colored people don’t like ‘Little Black Sambo’. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. Burn it. …Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with.” It is due to the sensitivity of minority groups, Beatty says, that book-burning was put in place; the government did not want any disruption on behalf of those groups. This, then, is an ironic example of a more ‘positive’ kind of self-destruction, at least from the point-of-view of Montag and Faber: in its aim to not offend minority groups, the book-burning decree has instigated the creation of a new minority group that eventually overturns it. And, more ironic still, in order to enforce that decree the government has employed the firemen, yet it is one of those same firemen who joins a rebellion against the government and the decree it attempts to uphold.
“At least once in his career, every fireman gets an itch,” says Beatty. “What do the books say, he wonders. Oh, to scratch that itch, eh? Well, Montag, take my word for it, I’ve had to read a few in my time, to know what I was about, and the books say nothing!” Notice that Beatty did not read books to know what they were about but to know what he was about, and the books gave him answers – they gave his life a purpose, even if he does not realize that fact. “[The books say] nothing you can teach or believe,” he insists, yet Beatty continually uses the contents of books throughout the novel to teach Montag; their relationship, until Montag rebels against Beatty, is a teacher-student relationship. Though they do eventually become opponents, Montag finds a thematic counterpart of sorts in Beatty as, on a more personal and less societal level, they engage together in voluntary self-destruction in order to pre-empt their involuntary self-destruction. That is, they each suspect they will follow in the footsteps of Mildred, rotting away with passivity, so they deliberately choose to follow in the footsteps of the old woman instead, to challenge those who demand that they not do certain things – to challenge even the laws they have sworn to uphold – in order to prevent themselves from dissolving into nothingness.
Like Mildred, both Montag and Beatty are slowly decaying. Montag, first, admits to himself that he is unhappy – “I don’t know anything anymore,” he says. And similarly, Beatty’s violent antagonism springs from the frustration he feels with regard to his obvious and paradoxical affection for literature, and for his duty to not only hide that affection but to burn its source. Beatty, for all his long, portentous speeches, consistently reveals more about himself through what he doesn’t say rather than by the actual words he uses: “Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?” he asks, without openly acknowledging that he himself is a well-read man: “Me? I won’t stomach [a well-read man] for a minute.” Here, he subconsciously indicates his own feelings of self-loathing – the same feelings that ultimately prompt him to order the flamethrower-wielding Montag to “Go ahead now, you second-hand litterateur, pull the trigger.”
Montag obeys him, and only later does he realize that “Beatty wanted to die. …He had just stood there, not really trying to save himself.” With these words, Montag might just as easily be describing Mildred, if only Mildred had taken control of her own decay instead of simply sitting by and allowing it to happen to her. Unlike Mildred, both Beatty and Montag would rather be destroyed than allow themselves to decay. And so, they both openly and unreservedly share literature and literary allusions with other people – even though it is explicitly illegal because, with neither man being able to destroy himself consciously, they are both aware that the consequences of such actions will serve to destroy them instead: essentially, they both flirt with self-destruction by enticing and provoking some reaction or retribution from the world whose rules they are breaking. Just as the old woman insists to them both “I want to stay here” as her house goes up in flames, so too does Beatty recite ‘Julius Caesar’, while Montag recites ‘Dover Beach’: three different actions, each with the same intention of self-destruction. Only two of those individuals, however, succeed in being destroyed, while the last, Montag, survives, and eventually uses the same passion for literature that nearly led to his death to rebuild an entire world that has destroyed itself.
Ultimately, it is this ability to rebuild that sets Montag apart from his contemporaries and his society, and even apart from Faber, for, unlike Faber, Montag is as much against the self-destruction of his society as he is a product of it. He neither completely denounces it nor does he completely accept it; rather, he agrees to carry out Faber’s joking suggestion that they plant books in the houses of firemen in order to ‘solve’ the problem of firemen and book-burning altogether.
“Fire is bright and fire is clean,” says Beatty; his solution is to destroy. “Do your own bit of saving,” says Faber, “and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore”; his solution is to create something better. Neither of these extremes will work as a ‘solution’ for the problems faced by a society that is founded on a fiction, and that denounces all other fiction. The only solution is to arrive at a compromise, to play by the rules of society in order to break them: “When you’ve got nothing to lose,” says Montag, “you run any risk you want.” This, then, is how he overcomes the obstacles of this book-burning society – he understands both the disease of self-destruction and its cure. And so it is that this self-destructive society is itself destroyed under his watch, and is rebuilt into something altogether more constructive by way of his hands.
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