Fahrenheit 451: A Review

Fahrenheit 451: A Review

I’ve been amping up my reading of late, mostly catching up on sci-fi classics that I’ve missed or forgotten, and I’ve been posting reviews over on GoodReads. I wasn’t planning to even write a review for Fahrenheit 451 because it’s such a tiny, well-known, much-read book that I didn’t think there was much to say. And then I got to Bradbury’s notes at the end, and, well, I wrote this:

Spoilers! But come on. You’ve probably already read it.

I doubt I have much to say about this book that hasn’t already been said by a thousand high school freshmen. I liked it when I was that age but had mostly forgotten the details, so I picked it up again. It’s a very short read and entertaining; Bradbury’s language is florid, which I like. My main criticism was in the treatment of the fire chief, Beatty – he is obviously well-read and intelligent, but there’s no exploration on why he burns books…

…until the afterword (in my edition at least, which is a 1982 paperback), in which Bradbury discusses a play he wrote that had Beatty taking Montag to his home and showing him a library full of books that he has never read. He then tells Montag that he turned from books the way a stereotypical atheist turns from a god: a hard life for which books offered no reprieve. Eh. OK.

I was happy to give Bradbury a pass on his treatment of women as it isn’t egregiously bad compared to the rest of sci-fi/fantasy of this era written by fairly clueless men. It’s a man’s story told about men. The antagonists (save Beatty) of all genders are stupid, but their stupidity falls neatly along gender lines, with stupid men being violent, predatory animals and stupid women being vapid, screeching harlots. All the “good guys” are men save Clarisse, who has a few precious pages in which to kick everything off before she is killed off-stage without explanation. Bradbury implies in his afterword that he would, 30 years on, have preferred to keep her alive to show up at the end, which I appreciated. I figured time had possibly given him a bit more perspective on the use of a good character who happens to be a woman.

And then came the coda, the after-afterword, in which Bradbury comes across as a whining baby who confuses his right to write what he’d like with a right to keep others from criticizing what he writes or even helpfully making suggestions. In the novel, it was minorities who started all the problems by demanding that no writing ever offend them. I found that forgivable as I assumed that in his universe there were several “minorities” like the Religious Right – a minority in numbers but not in power.

The coda dispelled that notion for me, as Bradbury sobs over the horror of receiving a letter from a woman who liked the Martian Chronicles but would love to see more women in it, and from black people concerned about the treatment of blacks in the same book. “There’s more than one way to burn a book,” Bradbury cries.

If as he says those people had actually suggested he rewrite his books, I can certainly understand the impulse to say “That’s absurd.” But what’s truly absurd is to completely ignore the problematic portrayal of marginalized people in his past work and further to imply that pointing out those problematic portrayals amounts to censorship in any way, shape, or form. He also complains about an editor wanting to republish one of his short stories with two religious phrases deleted. He told them no and presumably that was that.

He finally tells the tragic tale of how he sent off a play to a university theater in the hopes it would be performed. The University responded to say that it had no female characters in it and that the “ERA ladies” would be furious if it was staged. Bradbury responded by half-sarcastically suggesting that they should perform his play followed by a production of “The Women.” It apparently escaped his notice that a play with an all-female cast was so remarkable that they had to title the play “THE WOMEN,” and that the screeching harpies of the ERA had probably seen enough all-male plays to fill a lifetime. Plus the fact that maybe the University just plain wasn’t interested in his Moby Dick-inspired play about “a rocket crew and a blind space captain who venture forth to encounter a Great White Comet and destroy the destroyer.” I’m not saying that play was definitely terrible, I’m just saying it sounds terrible and I wouldn’t blame the University one bit for letting him down gently.

Anyway, it’s at that point I realized if Ray Bradbury were alive today, he’d be a Redditor.

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

13 Comments

  1. Rebecca Watson

    I didn’t know this stuff about Ray Bradbury. I meant to get around to reading Fahrenheit 451, but I never got around to it.

  2. I’ve never read the coda in question, but it unfortunately, sounds about right since Bradbury veered sharply into grumpy right-wing old man territory in his later life.

    I wonder if the complaints he mentions refer to the story “Way in the Middle of the Air” from The Martian Chronicles. The story follows a small southern town where the entire black population leaves for Mars, bewildering and enraging the white residents of the town. It does fall into stereotype at times, but it seems like a fairly good treatment of racial prejudice in America for a story written by a white guy in 1950.

    Depending on when he wrote the coda in question, he may have been reacting to the fact that this story was removed from later versions of The Martian Chronicles. While there are certainly fair criticisms of the story, I definitely think expunging it was a mistake. Imperfect as it is, there is still abundant thought and discussion to be had from it.

  3. Ah well, there’s always Kurt Vonnegut.

  4. Ever since I started hanging out on Skepchick, I’ve found it deeply disappointing to go back and read books or watch TV/movies that I enjoyed as a boy. It’s easy to see that I was completely oblivious to the chauvinism and casual misogyny that permeated much of what I enjoyed reading or watching. I’ve gone from wondering (as a boy) why so few girls enjoyed scifi or fantasy, to wondering (as an adult) why there were any at all! Fortunately, I can’t be too hard on 10-15yo me, since I did also enjoy many stories by authors like Andre Norton and Octavia Butler, who certainly didn’t shy away from strong female lead characters.

    It does make it hard to be able to recommend books to my daughters, though, since I feel like I need to re-read them with my re-booted brain before I can do so. I look forward to more of your reviews, Rebecca.

  5. Do yourself a favor and pick up some Ursula K. Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness is a good one.

    • Yes, I second that! For some reason I also want to add, Phillip K Dick, The Man In The High Castle.

  6. Meg would have saved the books and her brother.

  7. Confusing criticism with censorship is a pretty common tactic people with use to claim victim status. However, I don’t know how Bradbury took criticism in general, so I can’t say if that was his intent or if he’s just thin skinned (or both). As for the University being worried about “The ERA Ladies” complaining about his play; that reminds me of my favorite scene from “Comic Book Confidential” where execs from DC Comics are telling the story about how they cancelled Wonder Woman to avoid offending feminists, followed by a cut to Gloria Steinem saying “We were furious, how could they stop printing Wonder Woman?” I don’t think any feminists complained, I think a bunch of people who didn’t know any actual feminist blamed straw feminists for their own cowardice.

    • Sorry, the first sentence should read “…people with privilege use to claim victim status.

  8. Rebecca, what would be your top SF recommendations so far from your latest reading?
    I haven’t had an SF spree for quite a while (except Mary’s Book Club post on I Robot last year inspired me to read an Asimov biography and reread Foundation’s Edge)

    • So far my favorite was Left Hand of Darkness. Beautiful writing and intriguing universe.

      • Oh wow, cool, somehow I knew you’d like that! That was a long time ago, 1979 I think, I was supposed to be writing my Masters thesis but I got on an SF bender instead. Lets see – also The Wind’s Twelve Quarters including The Ones Who walk Away From OMELAS, have you read that? Powerful stuff, unforgettable.

      • Thanks for the suggestion, I’ve been looking for something new to read. But, it’s not on Kindle, so now I have to go and read a paper book like a caveman.

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