To some, the literary canon is considered a collection of the finest works throughout literature’s history, whilst to others it can be considered an assortment of boring books that provide no meaningful impact. I’m here today to acknowledge the importance of the literary canon and the relevance these classic novels still have in today’s society. The literary canon refers to a collection of works worthy of being passed to the next generation. Books presented in the canon contain quintessential plots and characters, universal themes and innovative literary features. Canon novels possessing these often unique deserve to be shared across generations. Conversely these qualities expose the canon to scrutiny and demand each piece continue to justify it’s place. Literary critics debate the involvement of the canon in school curricula.
Whilst time does not allow to discuss every novel that has inclusion within the literary canon, I have delved deeply into an important classic which exposes the reader to the world of fine thought provoking literature and I will contrast this with a film which displays the same themes.
Although set in drastically different times, both Fahrenheit 451 and The Book Thief display how important books are in society. Set in a dystopian future, Fahrenheit 451 follows Montag, a fireman whose job is not to extinguish fires but to ignite them, by the burning of books. The Book Thief reveals a passionate young ten-year-old girl; Liesel Meminger who craves reading but is trapped in an unforgivable time. Set in Germany, World War Two, intrigued by books, she wants to learn about everything.
Books are illegal in Fahrenheit 451 and any books found are burned on the spot. On one occasion, books were found to belong to an elderly woman. The woman refused to leave her books to burn in the flames so the firemen simply let her burn with them. The Fire Captain, Beatty is known to be a well-educated man who once read books but has since conformed to the pressures of society. Beatty states ‘It was pretty silly, quoting poetry around free and easy like that. It was the act of a silly damn snob. Give a man a few lines of verse and he thinks he’s the Lord of all Creation. You think you can walk on water with your books. Well, the world can get by just fine without them.” pg. 111. Beatty along with the rest of society believes books are dangerous and cause more confusion and distress than wisdom. Fearful of failing to conform, Montag’s wife, Mildred surrounds herself with mindless entertainment. Mildred rejects Montag’s urge to read to her and teach her about the books he has read. She instead states “Books aren’t people. You read and I look around, but there isn’t anybody! Now, my ‘family’ is people. They tell me things; I laugh, they laugh! And the colors!” pg. 69. Mildred has succumbed to the mindless brainwashing and lemming like she follows her television ‘family’ and society, completely excluding Montag.
Montag is a complex character who wishes to be more than just another pawn in his society. From the very first sentence: “It was a pleasure to burn.”, Montag is seen to be content with burning books, but as the novel continues, Montag meets Clarisse, the odd girl, who rattles his peaceful life. Clarisse questions Montag and forces him to look inside himself for what is missing. Finally, Montag begins to think for himself, rather than merely accepting information society has given him. He contradicts the societal norms and teams up with Faber, an English professor, to resist the burning of books.
Bradbury uses multiple creative literary devices throughout Fahrenheit 451, that deserve the recognition of generations to come. Animal imagery is a recurring motive in Fahrenheit 451. Montag refers to the machine used to pump Mildred’s stomach as a snake, the earpiece she wears as a praying mantis, the helicopters as insects and the mechanical hound at the fire station. The hound is a robotic dog that the firemen utilise to hunt fugitives (also known as people who read and hide books). The hound is a representation of the government’s totalitarian censorship, used to destroy books and belittle people who contradict the desired societal norms. Hounds are currently used by firefighters to find the injured, not hunt down innocent people. The animal imagery is a link to destructive technology and an autocratic government. By relating technology to nature, Bradbury has created an imitation of nature and the natural order in a world where no such thing exists. Foreshadowing is utilised throughout the novel to create a sense of anticipation. Montag is seen constantly looking up to a ventilator grille in his home, leaving the reader to wonder what is behind it. Later it is revealed that Montag has been stealing books from houses he has been ordered to burn.
A main theme in both Fahrenheit 451 and The Book Thief is censorship. Books are burned because of the knowledge they bestow to the reader. In Fahrenheit 451 this is all books, for society fears what will be learnt if different opinions are introduced. People are controlled by their screens; Mildred spends her days sitting surrounded by three television screens and forgets that she tries to take her own life because the screens control her thoughts. The Book Thief shows the burning of books as a celebration of loyalty to Hitler. By burning books, the willingness to follow Hitler blindly is represented. The only books Germans were allowed to read or the only thing they were allowed to learn about was Hitler. Such censorship, manipulates and brainwashes as illustrated when Liesel starts believing that they are winning the war and that Hitler is good. Only once Max, a Jew Liesel and her family are hiding, engages her to think deeper does she starts to question her society, much like Montag and Clarisse. Liesel begins to steal (or as she refers to it “borrow”) books from the mayor’s wife who she becomes very close to. Liesel updates her dictionary using the words she has learnt from the books she “borrows”.
Throughout the novel and film, it becomes increasingly evident of the downgrade of each society. Without books, interactions become stagnated and sterile, people no longer talk to each other, no longer walk around nor laugh together. Instead, people enclose themselves to the pressures forced upon them, they try to be like everyone else and ignore the burning desire to do more… be more.
Both works have evidently shown that classic literature is necessary in society, in particular the sharing of themes of autocratic manipulation, redaction and control encourages the reader to develop awareness of self and awareness of the need to criticize, analyse and source information from as many sources as possible. Only through sharing history and engaging ideas can we ensure that we do not blindly find our society led down unpalatable roads.