Analyze the symbolic use of setting in Fahrenheit 451.

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First, there is a notable lack of a physical governing authority; that is, the dystopian society is represented as being repressed and inundated with mass media, yet there is not a singular character to which authority can be ascribed. Even Captain Beatty submits to the same authority. This has been criticized by critics as a lapse on Bradbury’s part. But this is actually an intentional ploy to give a more ominous impression that this unknown, unseen authority is omnipresent. Perhaps prepared for such criticism, Bradbury also subtly conveys this idea through Captain Beatty, the character who most resembles an authoritative figure. Beatty is characterized as being one step ahead of Montag at all times, prepared for whatever action Montag will take almost as if Beatty were a mind reader. Just as Montag is beginning to become aware, Beatty asks him “Why? You got a guilty conscience about something?” (25) when Montag is worried about the Hound. Later, Beatty shows up at Montag’s house before Montag has even called in sick. Beatty, in response to Montag’s question of how he knew, replies “I’ve seen it all. You were going to call for a night off” (50).

Underlying tenets of the postmodern literary movement sought to question ideals already in place in society, such as conformity. With technology also on the rise, literature being produced reflected futuristic societies, such as Ray Bradbury’s depiction in Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury illustrates a deceptively utopian society, but at the expense of its citizens’ freedom where “Not everyone [is] born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal” (55). Firemen are no longer needed to put fires out, but to burn books so that the word “intellectual” remains the swear word it deserves to be. In postmodern literature, reality is not meant to be certain, but for the conformists in Bradbury’s society, “reality” is dictated through mass media inundation. Bradbury projects his fears of post war America’s rapidly advancing technology and industrialization as the ideals supporting Montag’s society. Montag discovers from Faber that “the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord” (83). Bradbury feared that mass media influence would deteriorate the desire for knowledge from books. Like other intellectuals who criticized American society at the time, Bradbury did not believe in a singular, even coherent reality nor certainly “reality” as represented by media.

Clarisse, an enlightened character meant to direct Montag on the correct path, tells Montag that she likes to listen to people talk—except that they don’t talk about anything. Montag is shocked and refutes Clarisse only for her to respond “they all say the same things and nobody says anything different from anyone else” (28). This is one of Montag’s first realizations that he is not an individual, only one man from the masses. Part of the reason everyone talks about the same reason is Bradbury’s representation of conformity to an exaggerated degree. At the same time, Bradbury uses this technique to show that conformity is a result of mass media influence, such as the wall-size TVs in every house. This influence culminates in the capture and death of “Montag.” Montag barely escapes the authorities after he has been caught with contraband (books) in his possession. Finally finding a sanctuary, Granger explains:

They’re faking. You threw them off at the river. They can’t admit it. They know they can hold their audience only so long. The show’s got to have a snap ending, quick! If they started searching the whole damn river it might take all night. So they’re sniffing for a scapegoat to end things with a bang. (141)

Also of note about this passage is that it is an example of Bradbury’s black humor, a staple literary technique used in postmodern literature. Though it is a serious matter of life or death, “Montag’s” capture becomes a distorted “reality” show. While many Americans, represented by Bradbury’s conformist society, were content in their complacency, many others were paranoid that another war loomed in spite of the victorious ending to World War II.

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