Study Guide

Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Historical Climate and Development of Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury developed Fahrenheit 451 during the late 1940s and published it in 1950 just after World War II and during America's growing fear of communism. During World War II, Hitler and the Nazis had banned and burned hundreds of thousands of books. However, the Nazis went further; using new technologies, they attempted one of the largest mind control experiments in history by setting up state controlled schools and a propaganda machine which censored all ideas and information in the public media. To make matters worse, after the war the Soviet Union developed its own propaganda machine, created an atomic bomb, and invaded Eastern Europe. All this time, new technological innovations allowed these fascist states to more effectively destroy the books they didn't find agreeable and produce new forms of communication implanted with state-sanctioned ideas.

Finally, and most significantly for Bradbury, the U.S. government responded to its fear of growing communist influence with attempts to censor the media and its productions, including literature. In other words, it responded with the same tactics of tyranny implemented by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The McCarthy hearings in the early fifties attempted to rein in what it saw as communist sympathies among authors and Hollywood producers. The FBI investigated the potential disloyalty of U.S. citizens. The federal government began attempts to restrict the free speech of judges and university professors by requiring loyalty oaths.

Fahrenheit 451 appeared in this political climate of technologically supported suspicion and censorship, a climate which seemed to promise the possibility of the mass conformity in our citizenry. It is no surprise, then, that these concerns are central to the book's themes.

Montag and his wife, Mildred, live in what Bradbury imagines as the culture which might be produced if such trends continued. They live in a futuristic community that uses technology to control what they think and feel by controlling what they see and hear. They are encouraged to use sedatives to keep themselves docile and their senses dull. They have all the latest entertainment technology—three walls of their "living room" display soap operas, "seashell thimble" radios pump high fidelity sound directly into their ears, and two-hundred-foot billboards line the freeway, blocking out the natural landscape and replacing it with advertisements. There is one telling scene in which Montag attempts to read and remember the Book of Ecclesiastes while riding on the train to see Faber, his newfound teacher. He cannot, however, manage it because the train's sound system plays an advertisement for Denham's Dentifrice over and over: "Denham's does it" with a bouncy jingle that interferes with his ability to think and remember. Everywhere he goes in these controlled spaces the system is there to limit and shape what he thinks by feeding him sights and sounds.

Mildred is the end product of this system. Mildred, as does most of the community, immerses herself in the media provided for her to consume. Whenever she is not at the TV, she plugs in her earphones, always soaking up the artificial stimulus and messages someone else feeds to her. The result is that she is literally incapable of thought and remembering. When Montag questions her about an argument that the characters are having on the wall TV, she can't remember what it was about even though it happened only one minute past. When he is sick and asks Mildred to get him some aspirin, she leaves the room and then wanders back a few minutes later, not a thought in her head.

The situation is so serious for Mildred that she might as well be an empty shell, a corpse, or a machine herself. As it turns out, Mildred is literally on the verge of being a corpse, having almost overdosed on sedatives. Montag comes home after a satisfying book-burning, only to find that his house feels like a "mausoleum" and his wife "cold" and himself "with the feeling of a man who will die in the next hour for lack of air." The oppressive atmosphere of death and emptiness is aggravated by the visit of the hospital "technicians" who come to the house to service Mildred. They treat her like an extension of the snakelike machine they use to "take out the old and put in the new." He finds out that they act as causally as "handymen" doing a fix-it-up job because they clean out nine to ten stomachs a night. In other words, people are no more than extensions of machines; they are machines themselves. The "technicians" treat them appropriately, as either broken, like Mildred, or in good repair. Technology violates their humanity.

The most complete violation of humanity would be the replacement of the human with a machine in perfect conformity with the system which created it. This may not be possible with humans, but it makes the Mechanical Hound the perfect creature of the system. It makes the Hound a fail-safe against the possibility that a human member of the mass society will be tainted by individuality and independent thought. The Hound cannot be so tainted. It lacks the two key ingredients which might allow it individuality and...

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Bradbury and Atwood: Exile as Rational Decision

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale depict the rational decision to go into exile, to leave one's native land, that is, the pre-exile condition. These novels present horrifying views of the near future where societal pressures enforce rigid limitations on individual freedom. Their alienated characters find their circumstances repugnant. Justice and freedom are denied them, along with the possibility for enriching their lives through intellectual pursuits. These speculative novels like Orwell's 1984 are dystopian in nature, showing how precarious are today's constitutional rights and how necessary it is to preserve these liberties for future generations. They depict ordinary people, caught in circumstances that they cannot control, people who resist oppression at the risk of their lives and who choose exile because it has to be better than their present, unbearable circumstances. Voluntary exile necessitates a journey into the unknown as an alternative to the certain repression of the present.

Both novels offer a bleak possible future for the United States. Bradbury, writing in the McCarthy era of the 1950s, envisions a time when people choose to sit by the hour watching television programs and where owning books is a crime. Atwood, in the 1980s, foresees a time when, in the wake of changes begun during the Reagan Administration, women are denied even the most basic rights of working and owning property. Both novels thus present "political" stances in the widest sense of the word. In her address on Amnesty International, Atwood defines the word "politics" and how it comes to be incorporated into a writer's work:

By 'politics' I do not mean how you voted in the last election, although that is included. I mean who is entitled to do what to whom, with impunity, who profits by it; and who therefore eats what. Such material enters a writer's work not because the writer is or is not consciously political but because a writer is an observer, a witness, and such observations are the air he breathes. They are the air all of us breathe, the only difference is that the author looks, and then writes down what he sees. What he sees will depend on how closely he looks and at what, but look he must.

To Atwood being "political" is part of the moral stance of the writer as truth teller. In his 1966 Introduction to Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury expresses moral outrage concerning bookburning: "when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one and the same flesh. Mind or body, put to the oven, is a sinful practice.…" He sees the necessity to guard constantly against such practices:

For while Senator McCarthy has long been dead, the Red Guard in China comes alive and idols are smashed, and books, all over again, are thrown into the furnace. So it will go, one generation printing, another generation burning, yet another remembering what is good to remember so as to print again.

Atwood stresses the qualities of authors which make them a danger to oppressive governments: "The writer, unless he is a mere word processor, retains three attributes that power-mad regimes cannot tolerate: a human imagination, in the many forms it may take; the power to communicate; and hope."

The novels by Bradbury and Atwood examine the personal response of an individual who is in conflict with the majority in his society and whose occupation is abhorrent to him. Fahrenheit 451 centers upon the personal crisis of Montag, a young fireman whose job consists of burning books. He finds his life increasingly meaningless and eventually comes to reject the too-simple, cliched values of his milieu. He experiences loneliness in a society where people are constantly entertained without time given to reflexion and personal development, activities often associated with the reading process. The more complicated nuances of the world of books are available to him only when he leaves his reductionistic society.…

In both novels the population is strictly regulated and the conduct of individuals is highly regimented. Indeed, in these repressive circumstances, it is not surprising that the protagonists would wish to flee, especially since, by the end of the novels, they have broken laws which would bring the death penalty if they were apprehended. "Mechanical Hounds" use scent to hunt down lawbreakers in Bradbury's fiction. The hounds tear apart their prey. Montag narrowly escapes this fate but the police do not admit being outwitted. They stage his death for the benefit of the huge television audience which follows the developing story of his evasion. The authorities murder an innocent derelict in Montag's place, so as not to disappoint the viewers and appear ineffectual. The authorities are motivated by the desire to maintain power at any cost and blatantly violate human rights.…

The major task of both Bradbury and Atwood is to portray convincingly in their futuristic novels how...

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