Set in the twenty-fourth century, Fahrenheit 451 introduces a new world in which the media controls the masses, and overpopulation and censorship have taken over. The individual is not accepted and the intellectual is considered an outlaw. Television (on huge screens) has replaced the common perception of family, and people plug small radios into their ears to escape the dreariness of everyday reality. (Wow . . . see anything familiar in that last sentence?)
In this setting, books are considered evil because they make people question and think. All intellectual curiosity and hunger for knowledge must be quelled for the good of the state — for conformity. Without ideas, everyone conforms, and as a result, everyone should be happy. When books and new ideas are available to people, conflict and unhappiness occur.
Fahrenheit 451 is explicit in its warnings and moral lessons aimed at the present. Bradbury believes that human society can easily become oppressive and regimented — unless it changes its present tendency toward censorship (suppression of an individual’s innate rights).
Bradbury also weaves in the theme of the corruption caused by excessive reliance on machines rather than humans. Since everything in this 24th century society is done through automation, humans have lost the ability to do even the simplest of tasks. Apathy and ignorance are the norm amongst the citizens and they pass their time watching boring television, programmed by the government, and taking pills to make them sleep and temporarily forget the miserable state of their existence. Some of the machines are described, and they are frightening. There is the Mechanical Hound that relentlessly pursuits and mauls a criminal who dares to have a book in his house. There is also the Big Flue into which all bodies are placed after death.
“Don’t step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchant, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy.” (57).
The problem with censorship is only those in power have access to knowledge, evidenced by Faber’s depth of literary knowledge, and claim it is there duty to make decisions for everyone. Faber reasons that if censorship is such a good thing then why are there so many suicides and why are they always at war. Books are banned in the society depicted in Fahrenheit 451.When they’re found, they’re burned, along with the homes of the books’ owners. But it’s important to remember that in the world of this novel, the suppression of books began as self-censorship. As Beatty explains to Montag, people didn’t stop reading books because a tyrannical government forced them to stop. They stopped reading books gradually over time as the culture around them grew faster, shallower, intellectually blander, and centered around minor thrills and instant gratification. In such a culture, books became shorter, magazine and newspaper articles became simpler, cartoon pictures and television became more prevalent, and entertainment replaced reflection and debate.
Another factor that contributes to the growth of censorship in Fahrenheit 451 are minorities and what we might call “special interest groups.” In order not to offend every imaginable group and sub-group—whether organised around ethnicity, religion, profession, geography, or affinity—every trace of controversy slowly vanished from public discourse, and magazines became “a nice blend of vanilla tapioca.” In time, the word “intellectual” became a swear word, and books came to be seen as a dangerous means for one person to lord his or her knowledge and learning over someone else. Books, and the critical thinking they encouraged, became seen as a direct threat to equality. By making widespread censorship a phenomenon that emerges from the culture itself—and not one that is simply imposed from above by the government—Bradbury is expressing a concern that the power of mass media can ultimately suppress free speech as thoroughly as any totalitarian regime.
Faber explains, “If the government is inefficient, top heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it.” (61). Perhaps Bradbury saw that schools would some day spend three days on the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence while spending weeks on cutting out golden stars for National Wildlife Week and other government promoted events. Throughout the novel, the reader is presented with a conflict between knowledge and ignorance. What does true happiness consist of? Is ignorance bliss, or do knowledge and learning provide true happiness? Montag, in his belief that knowledge reigns, fights against a society that embraces and celebrates ignorance.
The fireman’s responsibility is to burn books, and therefore destroy knowledge. Through these actions, the firemen promote ignorance to maintain the sameness of society. After befriending Clarisse, Montag finds himself unable to accept the status quo, believing life is more complete, true and satisfying when knowledge is welcomed into it. After making this discovery, Montag fights against ignorance, trying to help others welcome knowledge into their lives. For example, when his wife’s friends come over, he forces them to listen to poetry. Although they become extremely upset after listening to what he reads, they are able to experience true emotion. In Montag’s view, this emotion will give these women a fuller and more satisfying life.
Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Faber recognizes that lack of information is not the problem, knowing what to do with it is. What would he say about the Internet? Technology
Technology in Bradbury’s 24th century is highly advanced. Television screens take up entire parlor room walls and characters can speak directly to the listener, addressing him or her by name. Small seashell radios broadcast into people’s ears throughout the day. People rely on inventions such as the Mechanical Hound and the snake-like tool used to save Millie’s life after her suicide attempt. People drive cars at speeds of 150mph and above. Faber invents a small radio to be inserted in the ear through which he can communicate with Montag. Technology dominates society. Montag discusses this issue briefly with Clarisse and reflects on it as he opens up to the world of books. When he finally escapes his old life, the city is destroyed by atomic bombs (yet another example of negative technology), and Montag begins a simple life with very little technological tools as he sets out to rebuild society with Granger and the other intellectuals. Clearly, Bradbury is commenting on the negative influence of technological development in this world and the destructive potential of technology in our society.
Furthermore, the tool the medics use to pump Millie’s stomach is referred to as the Electric-Eyed Snake, and the tool the firmen use to hunt down book owners is the Mechanical Hound, both inanimate objects that appear to have lives of their own. Montag finds himself wondering, are they alive or dead? In truth, in Montag’s search for truth and knowledge, he is trying to give true life to his own existence and to prevent the cultural death of society.
Many people die in the novel. The old woman burns herself to death, Clarisse is killed by a speeding car, Montag kills Beatty with the flamethrower, and the Mechanical Hound kills an innocent man. Among all this destruction, Montag survives and is given new life, reborn after his trip down the river and after meeting Granger and taking the concoction to change his chemical balance. While Montag survives, the city and everyone he knew there are destroyed. Montag’s interest in knowledge and dedication to a new and better society saved him. Thus, Bradbury seems to suggest that life is dependent on knowledge and awareness. If we become idle and complacent, we might as well be dead.
This animal imagery expresses the importance of nature in life. The lack of nature, or the manipulation of nature (i.e. the development of the Mechanical Hound), causes death and destruction. The only time animal imagery is positive in the entire novel is when Montag gets out of the river and encounters a deer. At first he thinks it is a Hound, but then realizes his mistake. The deer is peaceful, beautiful, and an expression of nature. This image welcomes Montag into his new life.
However, whenever individuals start to question the purpose of such a life, and begin to look for answers in books or the natural world and express misgivings, they become threats. Their questions and actions might cause others to face the difficult questions that their culture is designed to distract them from. For that reason, in the society of Fahrenheit 451 people who express their individuality find themselves social outcasts at best, and at worst in real danger.
Clarisse McClellan represents free thought and individuality. She’s unlike anyone else Montag knows. She has little interest in the thrill-seeking of her peers. She’d rather talk, observe the natural world firsthand, and ask questions. She soon disappears (and is probably killed). Fahrenheit 451’s society is set up to snuff out individuality—characters who go against the general social conformity (Clarisse, Faber, Granger, and Montag) do so at great risk.