Monday, March 09, 2015

"Farenheit 451"

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury famously envisioned a future where mindless television and meaningless summaries replaced all of literature. In the society he portrayed, possession of books of any type was a crime punished by immediate death. To enforce this prohibition, firemen's hoses streamed kerosene to burn the books and their owners. Much has been written about the implications of this still-possible future.

Google image of many covers of Fahrenheit 451, a classic I've now finally read.
I did see the movie a long time ago, but don't remember it very well.

Like many readers since 1953 when this surprisingly short book was published, I felt the strength of Bradbury's insight about the potential for our civilization to attack itself. Finding parallels in our politics and culture isn't hard.

But I also found Bradbury's writing and imagery to be very interesting, particularly his use of aromas and smells to convey the experience of his central character, a fireman named Montag, who first burns books but then feels compelled to resist, rebel, and ultimately to save them.

Aromas of fruits and spices intensify Montag's moments of insight into who he is and what his fireman's activities imply. These aromas contrast with the smell of cigarettes that the firemen smoke. They contrast with his mechanically prepared breakfast: "Toast popped out of the silver toaster, was seized by a spidery metal hand that drenched it with melted butter." (p. 16) Above all, they contrast with the sickening smells of burning kerosene, burning paper, burning houses, burning flesh.

“Have you ever smelled old leaves? Don’t they smell like cinnamon? Here. Smell,” asks a young woman who first leads Montag to question his world.  “Why, yes, it is like cinnamon in a way,” he answers. (p. 27) "The faintest breath of fresh apricots and strawberries in the air ... quite impossible, so late in the year," had signaled her presence the first time he met her. (p. 4)

As Montag escapes from the tyranny of the fire department, he seeks and finds an old man who has preserved and hidden the content of old books: “Do you know that books smell like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land? I loved to smell them when I was a boy. Lord, there were a lot of lovely books once, before we let them go,” the old man says. (p. 79)

Eventually, Montag becomes a wanted man, hunted by an infernal mechanical hound that can locate any prey, human or animal, by detecting its chemical makeup. The hound can identify any combination of ten thousand possible odors. As Montag flees the odor-sensing hound, he notices the "dry smell of hay blowing from some distant field" and imagines finding safety in "a cool glass of fresh milk, and a few apples and pears." (p. 140-141). Around him the atmosphere is full of spices and perfumes:
"A deer. He smelled the heavy musk like perfume mingled with blood and the gummed exhalation of the animal’s breath, all cardamom and moss and ragweed odor in this huge night where the trees ran at him, pulled away, ran, pulled away, to the pulse of the heart behind his eyes.  
"There must have been a billion leaves on the land; he waded in them, a dry river smelling of hot cloves and warm dust. And the other smells! There was a smell like a cut potato from all the land, raw and cold and white from having the moon on it most of the night. There was a smell like pickles from a bottle and a smell like parsley on the table at home. There was a faint yellow odor like mustard from a jar. There was a smell like carnations from the yard next door. He put down his hand and felt a weed rise up like a child brushing him. His fingers smelled of licorice." (p. 142)
Obviously, Bradbury uses a variety of images of fire and burning in the portrayal of Montag and his rebellion. I find Bradbury's more unexpected contrasts of appealing and repellent aromas and odors to be particularly effective in highlighting Montag's experience -- a remarkable choice for bringing this dystopian future vividly to the reader's imagination.


Pam said...

Interesting! I've never read any of Bradbury's books and will check them out.

~~louise~~ said...

One of my favorite books by him, Mae. The Illustrated Man is still my very best favorite though:)

Thanks for sharing, Mae...

Thank you for participating and visiting the Meatballs today too, Mae, lol...

Jeanie said...

I read this long ago and as a young reader caught it for the intriguing plot.

I think it's worth revisiting. I'm a more sophisticated reader now and I think I would appreciate the language far more than I did in high school!