While on my travels, I decided to throw myself back into a book that had a profound effect on me in my younger years. I read The Giver by Lois Lowry when I was only 11 years old. I remember my fifth grade teacher, a woman who wore John Lennon-shaped glasses and flowing patterned skirts, looked into my eyes as she passed me the book. I’d just finished what was then published of the Harry Potter series, an act that was inspired by her. I’d read through her suggestions quickly, and as I look back, it becomes apparent to me that she had set up a kind of test for me, a test to see my relationship to literature. Once I passed, she judged me to be ready for The Giver. Perhaps I was, perhaps I wasn’t. When she passed me the book, her eyes large and serious, she told me ‘this is a serious book. Take it seriously.’ She was right. The Giver is about a dystopia disguised as a utopia, my first glimpse at the horrifying perfection of a world. At 23, the book felt different to me- more horrifying in a way, more profound. And while Gathering Blue didn’t quite have the same ponderous effect on me (then or now), Lowry still does an incredible job in it of warning us of the dangers of utopias.
I feel fortunate that I read these two sacred books of my childhood before launching into Fahrenheit 451 for the first time (I can’t believe it has taken me this long). Like all dystopian novels, these three books include protagonists who begin to doubt the ‘perfect’ society in which they live. In Gathering Blue, Kira, an orphaned child with a handicapped leg, transitions from the poor village to the privileged city where she is housed, fed, and given material to work. Kira sews, as her mother once did, and learns the skills needed to produce The Singer’s Robe, a beautiful garment worn by the singer every year to tell the story of the society. Although Kira feels comfort and a slight joy, she also begins to doubt her luxury. Kira discovers that children are chosen as ‘the gifts’ for this society and are plucked from their homes in order to start their training. She is one of these gifts, chosen to create fabrics, chained metaphorically and literally to the work for the society. Kira comes to understand the horror that is her society, the jealousy that promoted the creation of ‘beasts’ and the evils that turn children into machines. Kira decides to remain in her position in the hopes of transforming her society, to let them see the potential goodness of life. Likewise, Jonah in The Giver discovers the falsehood his society lives in, an ignorant world without emotion. The Giver, who transmits the knowledge of human emotions to Jonah (because one person has to have the knowledge of the past), lives a traumatic, sad, and destitute life; he is forced to relive horrifying moments without anyone to talk to or comfort him. Yet Jonah finds this life to be better than one that is void of it all, one that can effortlessly kill a newborn child because it cannot feel the malice inherent in the act. Jonah’s realization that the community is murdering children and the elderly convince him that emotions are needed. In a heroic effort, Jonah decides to break free of the city so that the community members are forced to learn Jonah’s memories, to absorb true emotions; the Giver stays to help the community come to terms with the intense reality they have lived without for years. Jonah decides to gift the people of his society with real life and love and memory at the risk of losing the child Gabriel (whom he takes along with him) and dying (which he very well may have done anyway).
Guy Montag, the protagonist of Fahrenheit 451, is not a child. Rather, he seems to be a thirty something year old man living a life of contentedness and routine. He’s a fireman, which the reader realizes right at the beginning of the novel is something entirely different from what we understand the job to be. ‘The books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.’ Not the kind of firemen I like. Montag seems relatively happy in his life as a fireman, but we meet him as his life gets interrupted via Clarisse, a young girl who has ideas and questions that seem ridiculous and dismissive to Montag.’Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?’ Right away we like Clarisse and her forwardness, and although Montag wants to dismiss her as an overly curious child, he too is intrigued by her: ‘you think too many things,’ Montag tells her. But she is simply a being, curious of the world around her, not faltering in the face of a pressurized society. ‘Bet I know something else you don’t. There’s dew on the grass in the morning. And if you look, there’s a man in the moon.’ These images are sacred to humankind because they are so undeniable about our world- we wake up and feel the dew on the grass, we look up and see the shape in the moon we dream of as a man in childhood. But in this world such talismans are forgotten, and beings like Clarisse who dare to remember are ridiculed or surrendered. ‘Are you happy?’ Clarisse asks, and for the first time in Montag’s life, he sincerely asks himself that question. And the question plagues him.
The question actually sets him off on a tumultuous and dangerous slope of being. When Mildred, Montag’s wife, tries to commit suicide and then becomes fixed to the point of not remembering her suicide attempt, Clarisse’s question pulsates in his mind. Am I happy? He begins to realize that he in fact is not happy, that no one around him quite knows what happiness is without it being simulated or produced or given to them. Montag watches a woman burn alive with her books, a beautiful homage to the idea that literature contains life. Frantic after watching this woman’s death, Montag tries to communicate honestly with his wife, to lead her to the types of epiphanies he’s been having since meeting Clarisse. ‘There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there.’ But Mildred doesn’t understand, can’t push herself past the deep-rooted limitations of society. Instead, she encourages Montag to go back to work with Beatty, to forget his troublesome thoughts of the past couple of days and to go back to normal.
Here’s Montag’s secret: he’s hidden books. In his own home and in other fireman’s homes. He’s kept them safe because of his intuition and curiosity. And due to Clarisse’s suspicious disappearance, due to Mildred’s inhumane qualities, Montag starts to think that what is in books is what humankind needs to be real again, to ponder at the silly things Clarisse spoke of. Montag randomly meets Faber, a retired literature professor, who Montag feels knows the secret of books. With this new friend and these new thoughts, Montag begins to despise the burning of books and to think of ways to uncover the mysteries of literature. Montag explains to Faber: ‘We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy. Something’s missing. I looked around. The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I’d burned. So I thought books might help.’ Yes, I want to scream at Montag, yes. Books have helped my life infinitely. I cannot imagine the wretched human I’d be today if I hadn’t read certain stories, if I hadn’t wept at the last pages of so many novels. But what Faber says resounds even more: ‘it’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the parlor families today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.’
Faber’s right; I often walk into nature and feel the same realization of being as I do when I read a tremendous passage. When I witness a gathering of joy. To think and to feel and to wonder- these are the abilities and blessings of being a human. And to have these stripped from me is unimaginable. To be the machines the characters in this book are horrifies me to the point of wanting to run into the next forest I see and roll around in the dirt until I weep with joy for being alive and wondering about death.
Eventually, the firemen (including Montag) show up in front of Montag’s house to burn the house and the books he’s hidden. In a dramatic and action-packed sequence of events, Montag kills Beatty by burning him alive. What was most interesting about this novel was the way Bradbury could use the knowledge of books against Montag and Faber; Beatty himself is well-read but uses certain quotations to convince Montag that knowledge is not worth the trouble it brings. Beatty tells Montag: ‘Any man who can take a TV apart and put it back together again is happier than any man who tries to slide rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just makes man feel bestial and lonely.’ And we cannot deny Beatty’s point. When we question life, when we read about being, we become more acquainted with annihilation and with human suffering. It is a melancholy exploration, a depressing dive into the truth. But how necessary it is to living.
Montag escapes the city and the search party looking for him by letting the river carry him away. And Bradbury’s amazing writing gets showcased in Montag’s monologues. Montag imagines his life: ‘the lights go out in the farmhouse until a very young and beautiful woman would sit in an unlit window braiding her hair. It would be hard to see her, but her face would be like the face of the girl so long ago in his past now, so very long ago, the girl who had known weather and never been burned by fireflies, the girl who had known what dandelions meant rubbed off on your chin. Then, she would be gone from the warm window and appear again upstairs in her moon-whitened room. In the morning he would not have needed sleep, for all the warm odors and sights of a complete country night would have rested and slept him while his eyes were wide and his mouth, when he thought to test it, was half a smile. And there at the bottom of the hayloft stair waiting for him, would be the incredible thing. He would step carefully down, in the pink light of early morning, so fully aware of the world that he would be afraid, and stand over the small miracle and at last bend to touch it. A cool glass of fresh milk, and a few apples and pears laid at the foot of the steps. This was all he wanted now. Some sign that the immense world would accept him and give him the long time he needed to think all the things that must be thought.’ !!!!!!!!!!! THIS PASSAGE. It hit me hard and hits me harder every time I reread it. This is the magic inherent in books, Montag. This is why the woman lit herself on fire along with her books. This is why we save them.
Montag learns further that the wonder to life does not have limits. At this point in the novel, it’s as if Bradbury is screaming at us: ‘DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU, TO US. See the world and don’t stop seeing it.’ And I love the threatening recommendations, the terrifying shake he’s given to us. ‘Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.’ And further, ‘Look at the world out there, my God, my God, look at it out there, outside me, out there beyond my face and the only way to really touch it is to put it where it’s finally me, where it’s in the blood, where it pumps around a thousand times ten thousand a day. I’ll get a hold of it so it’ll never run off. I’ll hold onto the world tight one day. I’ve got one finger on it now. That’s a beginning.’ !!! Again, Bradbury has knocked me flat. And his ruminations here about the endless possibilities of the true world echo Jonah and Kira’s discoveries as well: there exists a world in which we are free to do, think, and feel what we wish, to question it all, and to stumble in sadness and elate with joy. And most interesting of all? That world is the world we live in now. We simply have to live in it properly.