The Writing of Fahrenheit 451

One of the things that most impressed me on my reread of this book was the quality of the writing. More than the plot, the premise, the passages explaining how the dystopia came to be, it was the simple beauty and originality of the sentences that kept me reading on. I’m not usually one to write down quotes, but this time I did, and I’d like to share some that really stood out to me. Note that this will contain some spoilers.

I’ll start with one that seems the type of quote that people usually take from a book they admire: “don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.” This is a piece of advice, and it’s one that I think holds up very well. People can die. Things can be destroyed. If you count on one thing, to the exclusion of all else, you will be destroyed when it is. Some portion of your strength must come from within.

In the context of this book, I think it’s also very fitting. One of the problems in this dystopic world is the prevalence of suicide. This line is spoken as a piece of dialogue, from one character who’s managed to endure to another character whose life is being torn apart. And it’s a message that I think he takes to heart in the portion of the book that follows, in which he’s forced to fight for his life against seemingly impossible odds. His endurance is more believable for having heard this from a person he trusts, and the sacrifices he makes are more understandable to the reader who remembers the danger of depending on just one thing. Even if that thing is a collection of books that may include the last copies in the world.

And that brings me to the portion of the book that was my favorite. Guy Montag, our main character, has spent the entire first portion of the story growing disillusioned with the world around him and coming to see the priceless value of the books he’s saved from burning libraries. The reader has seen the care he takes to keep them hidden, his willingness to spend whatever it takes to have new copies printed in secret, and his explicitly stated belief that these could save their whole society.

The reader has also become intimately familiar with his home and his wife, who likes to sit in a parlor where three of the four walls are giant television screens depicting characters she calls “the family”. “The family” is everything to her. When Montag reveals his stolen books, her first thought is that they must be destroyed. But he talks her out of it, convinces her to read with him. The book started out with her undergoing a suicide attempt, and he believes these books can save her, too. When she brings two of her friends over to watch a particular television show, he snaps it off and confronts them about the lives they’re living: the way one treats her children like burdens to be dumped off to others or plopped in front of the television whenever possible, the cavalier attitude they have towards the possibility of their husbands dying in the war that’s just about to begin. His emotions grow to a fever pitch, and the writing itself reflects it as he leaves the room and comes back with a book.

“The room was blazing hot, he was all fire, he was all coldness; they sat in the middle of an empty desert with three chairs and him standing, swaying, and him waiting for Mrs. Phelps to stop straightening her dress hem and Mrs. Bowles to take her fingers away from her hair. Then he began to read in a low, stumbling voice that grew firmer as he progressed from line to line, and his voice went out across the desert, into the whiteness, and around the three sitting women there in the great hot emptiness.”

The metaphor of the desert is perfectly chosen to mirror Montag’s emotional state and his view of the world around him. An inhospitable environment, too hot, blazing hot. But as he reads the poem, he doesn’t escape the desert. He walks into it. He engages with the world, for all its faults, braving his way into the depths, perhaps hoping he can journey through it and reach the other side. A better world, for him having read this poem. Or at least a better parlor, for the people in it having heard.

He reads them Dover Beach, and at the end, Mrs. Phelps is crying. And that night, Mrs. Montag reports her husband to the fire department that burns books. The very department he works for.

I couldn’t get enough of this section, in which Montag is forced to burn the very home he built, the very books he treasured, all with the belief that his cooperation is accomplishing nothing more than delaying his inevitable arrest. It’s heartbreaking, and the writing truly makes you feel it. From the very beginning…

There was a crash like the falling parts of a dream fashioned out of warped glass, mirrors, and crystal prisms. Montag drifted about as if still another incomprehensible storm had turned him, to see Stoneman and Black wielding axes, shattering windowpanes to provide cross-ventilation.

…to the middle portion in which his mind twists itself under the strain of cognitive dissonance…

Montag stood looking in now at this queer house, made strange by the hour of the night, by murmuring neighbor voices, by littered glass, and there on the floor, their covers torn off and spilled out like swan feathers, the incredible books that looked so silly and really not worth bothering with, for these were nothing but black type and yellowed paper and raveled binding.

… to a sad reflection on the life he shared with his wife here…

He stepped into the bedroom and fired twice and the twin beds went up in a great simmering whisper, with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain.

…to the very end.

Montag stood with the flame thrower in his limp hands, great islands of perspiration drenching his armpits, his face smeared with soot. The other firemen waited behind him, in the darkness, their faces illumined faintly by the smouldering foundation.

And here the writing begins to bring us back to earth again, back to base level. We get this beautifully written image of Montag and his coworkers and the glowing wreckage that they’ve left behind. But if all the book was written in such detail and with such language, this part would not stand out as much as it did and therefore would not bring us to the heights of emotion that it did.

I don’t know if I can ever hope to write with such command of figurative language and exquisitely chosen detail, but reading a book like this provides my brain a little spark, a notion of what, perhaps, to aim for. If you haven’t read the book, I hope you do. And if you have, I hope these quotes have re-inspired you, as they did for me. There’s little more I can add, but sometimes the simple act of admiring is all you need.

2 thoughts on “The Writing of Fahrenheit 451

  1. This is a beautiful reflection on the book. Makes me want to read it again more carefully, I was definitely too young to fully appreciate it on the first read.


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