Monday, July 10, 2006

Why I can't stand "Classic Science Fiction"

The following are portions of a feminist critique of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 that I wrote for a recent science fiction class. Although Bradbury himself would be appalled at this interpretation, I think the criticism is valid.


Published in 1953, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 envisions a
dystopian future in which conformity and censorship are the norm.
Books are burned rather than read, and fireman Guy Montag is among
those who do the burning. In Bradbury's futuristic society,
nonconformity, individuality, and free thought are seen as sources of
needless social conflict. Guy's wife Mildred, a pill-popping
housewife who considers to the TV sets in the wall as her "family"
comes across to most readers as the epitome of an individual molded
into brainlessness by a society discourages individual expression.
However, Mildred's innate dissatisfaction, and failure to connect with
her husband can also be seen as the consequences of expectations of
female conformity in 1950s America, later recognized in Betty
Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.

Many have pointed to the publication of The Feminine Mystique in
1963, as the starting point for the contemporary women's movement. In
America during the mid-twentieth century, the ideal woman was
envisioned to be a domestic housewife who found meaning and identity
through her family. However, many women were finding that despite
achievement of this upper middle class dream, they felt empty, as if
they were leading meaningless lives. Society said otherwise, leading
many women to blame this problem on themselves, resulting in high
rates of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and suicide.

Similarly, in Fahrenheit 451, Mildred's personality is not only shaped by a censored society but by the expectations that keep her at
home. These completely separate gendered spheres contributed to the
social isolation and alienation felt by both Guy and Mildred. In
Mildred's case, her emotional estrangement comes not only from the
censored society but from her husband's expectations and reactions to
her experiences as a domestic housewife.

The reader's first introduction to Mildred finds her lying in bed
in the dark, plugged into headphones. "There had been no night in the
last two years that Mildred," had not been plugged into "great tides
of sound" which carried away from the physical world (12). Guy
stumbles and realizes that his wife has overdosed on pills. He finds
"her eyes all glass, and breath going in and out, softly, faintly…and
her not caring whether it came or went, went or came" (13). Poor
Mildred looks like a hollow empty doll, a description which will serve
as an allegory for Mildred's personality, at least in Guy's eyes.

By the next morning, Mildred is fine, if in denial. In response to
Guy's question about her overdose, Mildred says, "I wouldn't do a
thing like that…what would I want to go and do a silly thing like that
for?" (19). The reasons for her suicide attempt are never made clear.
Mildred is either unaware, or pretends that it never happened.

In any case, Guy doesn't spend much time, if any, investigating the
reasons behind Mildred's suicide attempt. He's too intrigued by
strange 17-year-old Clarisse and the reasons behind his job. Guy's
concerns are with Clarisse and his own life outside of the house and
not with his wife. As a result, it is not surprising that Mildred
tells Guy that the old woman he burned is "nothing to her," because to
Mildred, Guy was just doing his job and the old woman was a criminal
(51). To housewife Mildred, Guy's job has no relevance to her life,
other than what they can afford.

Just as Mildred shows little interest in what's troubling her
husband, Guy takes little interest in Mildred's daily life. Instead,
Guy just assumes that he knows and assumes that Mildred sits at home
all day, taking pills, watching TV, and connected to the headphones.
In particular, Guy is baffled by Mildred's connection to the TV,
referring them as "the uncles, the aunts, the cousins, the nieces, the
nephews, that lived in those walls, the gibbering pack of tree apes
that said nothing, nothing, nothing, and said it loud, loud, loud"
(44). The TV is nonsense to him, as books are to Mildred. Later when
Guy reads out loud a line from a book she responds, "What does it
mean? It doesn't mean anything!" (68).

Clearly, the two have problems connecting. After Guy returns from
burning the old woman, her books, and her house, he comes back in a
funk. Mildred is aware of this, and does the best she can to help her
husband, but Guy doesn't see her efforts that way.

She talked to him for what seemed a long while and she talked about this and she talked about that and it was only words, like the words he had once in a nursery at a friend's house, a two-year-old child building word patterns, talking jargon, making pretty sounds in the air. (42)

Yet, later that night, thinking about the old woman he burned alive, Guy implies that his estrangement from his wife was due to the fact that she was always
listening to the Seashell headphones. "Well, then, why didn't he buy
himself an audio-Seashell broadcasting station to talk to his wife
late at night, murmur, whisper, shout, scream, yell?" (42).

Guy is completely unaware of his wife's attempts to connect with him.
Even though Mildred has tried to talk to her him, Guy sees his wife
as uncaring about everything except for her technology. Instead, Guy
wonders how his wife got "so empty?" (44). He blames their inability
to connect on the wall TVs, likening them to "a wall between him and
Mildred," because "No matter when he came in, the walls were always
talking to Mildred" (44). However, as shown earlier, when Mildred
tries to talk to her husband, he doesn't really listen. No wonder
Mildred feels that the TVs are her "family" (49) because at least they
respond (20).

This is not to say that Guy isn't correct about what's wrong with
Mildred. He recognizes that there was "another Mildred, that was a
Mildred so deep inside this one, and so bothered, really bothered,
that the two women had never met" (Bradbury, 52). But Guy is unaware
of how his own actions have contributed to alienation between the
couple. As we've seen, Mildred's feelings are not of great concern to
him, except when their interactions confirm his suspicions about the
effects of their censored society.

Friedan also recognized this growing problem among American women.
If a woman had a problem in the 1950's and 1960's, she knew that
something must be wrong with her marriage, or herself. Other women
were satisfied with their lives, she thought…She was so ashamed to
admit her dissatisfaction that she never knew how many other women
shared it. If she tried to tell her husband, he didn't understand
what she was talking about. She did not really understand it herself.
(Friedan, 19)

Mildred, may have in fact been aware of her problem. Again, it is
never clear why Mildred attempted suicide, and Guy spends little time
investigating the reasons behind it. However, regardless of whether
Mildred was aware or not, Guy gives her no reason to confide in him.
When Mildred tries to talk to her husband, he doesn't listen, so why
should she bother talking to him about a problem that Friedan termed
"the problem with no name?" (Friedan, 15).

Never does Guy ask Mildred about her day at any point throughout the
book. Instead she has make her husband notice that she too, has a
life, worthy of relating. "I had a nice evening," she says suddenly,
interrupting his complaints, the morning after Guy's melancholy about
the burning the old woman, an evening partially spent talking to a
husband who hadn't even been listening (49).

Even as Guy awakens to the effects of the censored society, he
remains just as firmly as ever in his mindset toward Mildred. Later
on in the novel, Guy criticizes his wife and her girlfriends for their
interactions with the wall TV. "Oh God, the way they jabber about
people and their own children and themselves and the way they talk
about their husbands and the way they talk about war, dammit, I stand
here and I can't believe it!" (98). But what other place, what other
escape is left for women in this world?

And it's not just Mildred who has this problem. When Guy finds his
wife near death, Guy calls for a medical team, and is surprised when
non-doctors arrive with a machine. They inform him bluntly, that
these cases happen often, "nine or ten a night" (15). In fact, they
had "Got so many, starting a few years ago, we had the special
machines built" (15). In this society, the suicide problem is so
endemic, that it is not even considered to be a major concern anymore.

Granted, clearly this censored society oppresses freedom of thought
from everyone, but for women, they are also oppressed by competing
strands of societal expectations of the ideal woman and a denigration
of their domestic experience.

A reflection of the time in which Fahrenheit 451 was written, Mildred evinces the 1950s domestic ideal of woman as housewife. Bradbury
recognized the discontent and alienation of Mildred, just as Friedan
would ten years later with with the pubication of The Feminine
. Though Guy attributed this disaffection as a problem of
society, Guy never stops to question how his own actions contribute to
Mildred's unhappiness, or of how Mildred's particular experience is
different from his own.
See also a general commentary of mine on "classic sci" here.


At 3:49 AM, Blogger Ragnell said...

Wow. Back when I first read that, I only ever saw Mildred through Guy's eyes. It sounds like maybe the direct characterization of Mildred was more indirect characterization of Guy than anything else.

At 10:37 AM, Blogger alau said...

I think that Mildred's characterization was done inadvertantly too. If you read Bradbury's essay in the back of the 50th anniversary edition, he goes on a lengthy rant about feminists and people of color trying to make stories more political correct.

I only picked up on it because I happened to be reading the Feminist Mystique at the same time.

At 3:06 AM, Blogger Ragnell said...

Just because he had a beef with Feminism doesn't mean he was incapable of writing the nuances of a housewife's dysfunctional relationship with her husband. If a character's actions don't line up with the in-story narrator's stated opinion, it's probably because the narrator has a skewed viewpoint on purpose.

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