Fahrenheit 451 and Dover Beach

book imagea novel by Ray Bradbury

Published: 1953

My rating: ***** 5/5

In Fahrenheit 451 firemen don’t put out fires.  They start them.  Books are seen as the sources of dangerous and divisive knowledge, leading to uncertainty and unhappiness.  If a person owns books, eventually they will meet with dire consequences.  Fire.

For years, Guy Montag, a fireman, passively looked on as pages of books and the homes of people who owned them were engulfed in flames.  However, a brief encounter with a young girl and an awakening experience on the job provides the spark that propels him into the unknown world of books and discovery.

burning books

from the film directed by Francois Truffaut

In the world familiar to Montag, people are simply “fed” information rather than participating in any kind of exploration and critical thought.  The mental disruption that would normally be caused by critical and independent thought has been replaced instead with rote repetition of information that is delivered in a near Pavlovian fashion, which creates the illusion of having received important knowledge.

“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.”

The most striking thing is that people seem content to be fed instead of having to think.  On the surface no one appears unhappy.  It has been instilled in them that their way of life = happiness.  And they believe it.  They aren’t angry, they don’t protest, they don’t even think that they’re being oppressed!   Part of the allure of this submissive acceptance is not only certainty and uniformity but also superiority.  People who succumb to the reading of books are pitied and looked down upon.  Mildred, Montag’s wife, ironically calls them “simple-minded.”  It’s almost as if this non book-reading society feels that they have surpassed learning from books.  They are so convinced that their way is superior that they carry on blindly and blissfully accepting information only from the channels deemed acceptable (in the novel information is primarily disseminated through television).  For the most part, no coercion is necessary to keep people away from books.  They abstain willingly.  They even go so far as to think, talk, and act in a way that serves to reinforce the claim that the knowledge found in books is divisive and leads to confusion and unhappiness.

For instance, when Montag reads a portion of the poem, Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold (published 1867), aloud to a group of women one of the women starts to cry.  This leads another to vehemently respond,

“I’ve always said, poetry and tears, poetry and suicide and crying and awful feelings, poetry and sickness; all that mush.”

There are several things about this woman’s statement which are interesting.  First, even though she has probably never read any poetry for herself, she speaks as though she came to this conclusion on her own.  “I’ve always said . . .” It’s obvious that she has internalized the “truth” of her statement.  As an objective reader, from the outside looking in, we can think of a number of different reasons for the tears.    However, the reactive woman quickly attributes a value to the tears that will reinforce the desired, safe, and conforming explanation.  In her mind, she has all the proof that she needs to think, speak, and act with certainty.

The choice of Dover Beach over any other poem is significant.  I’ve included it below, in full.

Dover Beach

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

In the beginning the sea is calm.  However,  that tranquility doesn’t last for long.  There is a light which “Gleams and is gone” by the end of the first stanza.  The commentary on The Victorian Web suggests that the light = certainty and therefore certainty is gone.  This aligns well with Montag’s situation.  When he accepted everything that was fed to him there was certainty. And there’s a calm and comfort that comes with certainty, isn’t there?

Yet, serenity gives way to hostility with a “grating roar” much like the society in 451, which on the surface seems placid but beneath the veil of “happiness” there is turmoil.  We get a sense of this very early on when Montag comes home to find that his wife, Mildred, has taken a bottle of sleeping pills and has to have her stomach pumped.  This is shocking and tumultuous, right?  A woman has just attempted suicide, which should be a cause for serious alarm.  However, the “handymen” who are sent to remedy her situation seem unaffected and we learn that this is a pervasive issue, too common to warrant much concern.  The next day Mildred has no recollection of anything that happened to her, saying, “What would I do a silly thing like that for?”

Montag reads only the last two stanzas of the poem aloud, beginning with “The Sea of Faith.”  The first three lines of this stanza speak to the certainty that Montag once felt.  It was like a “girdle furled,” with all the tightly coiled security that certainty provides.  When Montag is awakened to a broader scope of knowledge, however, that certainty, that Faith, is replaced with “melancholy.”  His world is not the benign “land of dreams” that he once thought it was.  No longer enveloped in the blanket of certainty and security, Montag experiences insecurity, nakedness, and exposure.  He becomes an outsider in a world that,

“Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”

Montag’s own battle and escape by night echoes the last two lines of the poem:

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Apparently, Bradbury explicitly stated early on that the intent of the novel was to demonstrate how television might destroy literature.  However, he added in a later edition that, “There is more than one way to burn a book.”  Indeed, various groups and organizations have their own brand of information control communicated by what they choose to condemn.  People may willingly go along without ever feeling censored because they put trust in the group’s leadership.   That’s what gives this book a far-reaching scope that goes beyond just the effects of television and technology.

 

“{T}he world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

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5 thoughts on “Fahrenheit 451 and Dover Beach

  1. This is a wonderful review! I love that you focused on that scene with Montag reading poetry, and broke down the poem for us. For a very slim book I think I could spend years studying it. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis.

  2. Although this doesn’t touch on Fahrenheit 451, even tangentially, I wanted to comment on how I found Ray Bradbury, the poetic proseman, through Alfred Hitchcock mystery short-story collections when I was around 10 or 11. Sometimes the way we make connections to one author through another can be interesting…at least to the reader involved. I have 22 books (mostly short-stories) by Ray Bradbury and I admire the abundance of nostalgia and sense of strangeness in the commonplace he brings out in them. At times he mentions his admirations of other authors or includes them as characters in his stories. In his book, Long After Midnight, a collection of 22 hauntings and celebrations, there is a story titled “Forever and the Earth.” In addition to the interest and enjoyment his other writings always gave me, I am indebted to him for introducing me in that story to no less a personage than one of my all-time favorite writers, Thomas Wolfe.

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