It Was A Pleasure To Burn
“It was a pleasure to burn.” Why does Bradbury start Fahrenheit 451 in this way, as though it would be more pleasurable to burn books rather than read them?
First of all, from a purely literary perspective, Ray Bradbury chose to open the novel “Fahrenheit 451” with the words “It was a pleasure to burn” to immediately capture the attention of the reader and draw him or her into the story quickly. This is a short, compelling sentence that piques one’s interest; the reader wants to know why it’s “…a pleasure to burn” and subsequently delves into the story wholeheartedly. This is what happened to me the first time I read this story.
Secondly, Bradbury’s opening line causes the reader to gain a glimpse into the mindset of the firemen, those who set fires by burning banned books and the homes that house them. This simple sentence presents concisely and clearly how these firemen are thinking as they wield their kerosene filled flame throwers as if they are the ultimate destructive force. This sentence gives the reader a taste of evil actions and a peek into evil thought processes.
The sentence is unassuming and unadorned. However, it conveys an act of violence against a citizen that is anything but unassuming and unadorned. This act of burning is representative of a totalitarian government’s control of its citizens. The act of burning, conducted by the government against its own, is a flamboyant display meant to discourage dissent from the populace.
Ray Bradbury uses these six simple words to reveal to the reader, right at the beginning of the novel, that the government is more powerful and citizens oppose it at their peril. The burning of books, homes, and people who refuse to leave their burning homes is definitely not unadorned drama. It is drama manufactured by the government to make a point to its citizenry that it will not tolerate books and that those who have and hide them, and then are found out, will pay dearly.
Therefore, burning is theatre created by the totalitarian government. The central characters on the stage are the firemen who advance the aims of the government that pays them. The citizens desiring books to read are the pawns in the game/story. The powers that be want to make the point that it is a pleasure for the firemen and the totalitarian government to see that those opposed to it are reduced to ashes. Nonetheless, the essence of the story is that there is one firemen who has a conscience and who no longer finds it “…a pleasure to burn.”
"Ignorance is bliss" is a common saying, and if you can put yourself in Montag's shoes, or any of the firemen like him, it's not hard to see how good it might feel. How simple an existence, right? No need to think, to be challenged, no need for complications or gray areas, everything in the world in front of Montag's kerosene flame thrower is black and white.
Burn them, purge them, purify the society. This is the fireman's unofficial mantra, or could be anyway. And this is how they are able to go home and sleep well at night, how Montag is so seemingly content, at least in the beginning, and why Bradbury chooses the perfect six words to start the story with:
It was a pleasure to burn.
Yet another way to think about this is to think about how intoxicating it would be to have the authority, fear and respect Montag did. There were those in Nazi uniforms (and countless other governments, actually) who did horrible things, not because they were born immoral, but because the power they held was addictive and pleasurable and it corrupted their souls.