While Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 may seem like outdated science-fiction, the novel is still relevant today. The novel focuses on the dangers of a society of extreme censorship, technological advancements, and empty social interactions. The problems evident in the novel are also the problems of today. As in the world depicted by Bradbury, a society characterized and defined by book-burning is one that frightens audiences today, for the fear of losing our history, our curiosity, and our humanity is surreal, but it is also becoming more likely. So, Fahrenheit 451 is a parable for the degradation of society’s morality, individuals’ curiosity, and civilization’s productivity.
If the world were to be ridden of books, Bradbury predicted a loss of morals would negatively affect our lives. Guy Montag, a fireman, makes this remark when asked the use of books: “They [books] just might stop us from making the same damn insane mistakes!” (Bradbury 70). Upon the bombing of the city, Granger, leader of the reclusive Book People, likens society to a phoenix (Bradbury 156), but unlike the phoenix, we learn from our mistakes, viz., George Santayana’s quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Similarly, Granger says of society, “‘[B]ut we’ve got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did’” (Bradbury 156). Bradbury believes that when disaster strikes, humans are able to endure, but only with the knowledge of the past. Without history, without books really, a civilization cannot make progress. In fact, Nihilist Friedrich Nietzsche examined the idea of the Übermensch (Superman), an individual that rises above the herd and creates new morals. Living in an environment that condemns free speech, reinforces conformity, and discourages intellectualism, Montag is the ideal Superman, the dissenter who, freed from the conventions of his peers, realizes the corruption of morals and thenceforth seeks to reform them. Where Nietzsche identified Christianity as a slave-morality, Montag identifies society with it, seeing as the technological society, dependent upon machines and automated devices, provides its people with everything they need, offering an easy way out of life. As the Superman, Montag needed to remove the contemporary values, and he planned on doing so by framing his fellow firemen and undermining the influence of the government (Bradbury 82-83, 123), which would prompt society to start over and start thinking; by doing so, Montag would create new morals, encouraging society to read again. Others, though, may argue on the contrary, stating that books are not the only source of learning, as experience is more valuable. Beatty also argues that “‘our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred’” (Bradbury 56). Through his quote, Beatty is positing that books cause conflicts and divide people. In defense of books, however, Harold Bloom agrees with the Book People that “memory (memorization!) is the key” (Bloom 235). Bloom, like other intellectuals of his day, believed that reading and memorizing books were the future of society. Authors like Shakespeare (ibid.), who wrote unforgettably about the truths of life, were worthy of memorization, because knowing their works–knowing how to use them properly–keeps us humble and reminds us of our place in the world. Books can cause conflict; however, it is constructive conflict that makes people think and talk. Books are not just good for communicating ideas; they teach us how to live. Authors like Plato, Marcus Aurelius, and Homer tell us about life, for just as Faber said, “‘[B]ooks show the pores in the face of life’” (Bradbury 79). Without books we would have no idea how one should think like Plato (Bradbury 144), how one should respond to life’s toils like Marcus Aurelius (Ibid.), or how one should cope with life like Schopenhauer (Bradbury 145). Writers put out information that causes both external and internal conflict, instigating fierce discussion, rousing cause for self-improvement. Not only do we reflect on big events like history or politics, but we turn inward and reflect on ourselves, learning from books on how we should live. The book people have built their own little society that thrives on books alone, which is clear evidence that a society can be built upon the morals of books. In order to navigate the twists and turns of life, books provide knowledge of history so that we may be guided (or not) by the paths of others.
Some of humanity’s greatest attributes are his abilities to ask questions, to seek knowledge, and to acquire learning. Yet if our greatest invention, the book, were removed, our treasure chests of curiosity would be plundered. Clarisse McClellan is a 17-year-old girl who loves asking questions, so much so that her psychiatrist, “‘wants to know why I go out and hike around the forest and watch the birds and collect butterflies’” (Bradbury 20). She explains: “‘I tell them that sometimes I just sit and think.’” It is from these quotes that we see how thinking and thinkers are viewed. Like today, there is growing cynicism concerning intellectuals and, like Clarisse, thinkers are being judged as eccentric and are hence discouraged from independent thinking. Further, Professor Faber distinguishes leisure from contemplation, sloth from productivity (Bradbury 80). According to these characters, time to reflect on one’s self is important and should be valued above all other activities, for it is fulfilling and intellectually stimulating. Cynics like Beatty may protest, saying, “‘You ask Why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed, if you keep at it,’” and, “‘any man who tries to slide rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely’” (Bradbury 58). To people like him, “‘[T]he word intellectual … [is] the swear word it deserved to be” (Bradbury 55). Contrariwise, Beatty talks about the failings of school, remarking that the schools “‘cram them [students] full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information’” (Bradbury 58). A comment on today’s education, Beatty’s quote captures the loss of faith in learning, and in an Orwellian or totalitarian state of affairs, children are being taught to think uniformly at a young age, shaping them according to the state, removing all free will, all wonder. We must question what we are learning and why we are doing what we are doing. A woman did, after all, kill herself in the name of books (Bradbury 33), which prompts Montag to question what his life is about, causing him to enter his existential crisis. Montag is living, as Jean-Paul Sartre would say, in bad faith, signifying that Montag is not living true to himself, since he is stifling his own potential, placing his own boundaries that prevent his curiosity from growing. All of the adults of Fahrenheit 451 are still dependent kids in a sense, minus the inquisitive nature, inasmuch as they have no ideas of their own, their only ideas being those that have been hardwired into their brains by school. Symbolically, Montag represents the enlightened prisoner of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” insofar as, having grown up accustomed to the illusions of his government (the shadows), having been freed from the expectations of conformity (the shackles), having been exposed to the frightening reality of his day (the sun), and having returned to warn his fellow civilians (the herd), Montag is shunned and frowned upon, even threatened with arrest. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates, who, like the woman who burned herself, was condemned to death because he wanted to ask questions. Without our natural proclivity to inquire into the nature of things, much of life would remain unknown.
The world depicted in Fahrenheit 451, is closer than it appears. It is so close, in fact, that it may already be a reality right now in the 21st century. It is becoming more and more customary that conversations are becoming less and less productive insofar as it is considered antisocial when we wish to ask one another questions. Perhaps our idea of “social” has changed, as suggested by Clarisse on page 27: “‘It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn’t it? Social means talking to you about things like this … But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you?’” Whether we are sitting in school, watching sports from home, or having lunch with friends, empty talk seems to be everywhere, a pervasive phenomenon. Over the weekend I had lunch with some friends, and all they talked about were trivial matters and things and people they found annoying. Similarly, Montag’s wife Mildred, along with her friends, engage in dull, superficial talk, paralleled to our own conversations. For example, they talk about how “‘children are ruinous’” (Bradbury 92) and speak stereotypically and unknowingly about presidential candidates (Bradbury 93). We are, as Aristotle famously observed, ζωον πολιτικον, social animals, beings that desire connection; the Greeks referred to the non-Greek speakers as βαρβαρος, barbarians, because they were unintelligible. Nowadays, it feels as though our society has devolved back into this barbaric, unintelligible talk. It can be argued that our advancements in technology — not so much in books — have connected us, considering we can now contact old friends and relatives across the globe. In Bradbury’s society we can talk with one another via sea shells, we can watch interactive television, and we can marry whomever we please. Howbeit, just as we are growing our range to connect socially, we are simultaneously shrinking our genuine, face-to-face interactions, evidenced by the complete destruction of the ideal family. After constantly lionizing her parlor family, a digital drama, Mildred is snapped into reality when Montag questions, “‘Millie? Does the White Clown love you?’” and “‘does your ‘family’ love you, love you so very much, love you with all their heart and soul, Millie?’” (Bradbury 73). Montag gets no answer from a silent Mildred, who does not know what love really is. And concerning marriage, the profound joining of two lovers, Mildred seems not to care, shrugging it off as though it were nothing: she, in response to Montag’s lamentation, says, “‘It [marriage] doesn’t matter’” (Bradbury 40). This society, which we are in now, has eschewed the concept of love, the most vital concept in our lives. With all the recent innovations of our century, Bradbury cautions us not to get carried away, not to lose our connectedness, not to forget our humanity.
Ray Bradbury’s classic science-fiction book is not merely for entertainment; rather it is, like Neil Gaiman said, a “warning,” (xi), a cautionary tale, a wake-up call for society. The novel elicits shock not from the fiction within the story but the fact that it foreshadows some of the dangers of modern, technological society. Bradbury knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote of the impending stifling of morals, cessation of inquiry, and mechanization of humanity.