What are society's values in Fahrenheit 451 and how are they acted upon by the characters in the novel?

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litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Society values conformity and obedience, and the characters that do not follow these rules, such as Clarisse and Montag, pay the price.

Fahrenheit 451 describes a futuristic dystopian society where the firemen start fires instead of putting them out.  Books are not allowed.  Instead, people watch television because it supports the mindless conformity their society embraces.  In this world, individuality is a sin.  Anyone who is different is considered dangerous.  Even walking down the street alone is considered curious, as Clarisse points out.  Happiness is watching television in a mindless stupor.  People go through life quickly, never slowing down to think and feel.  That is the way society wants it.  They are easier to control then.  Montag's wife Mildred's reaction to poetry demonstrates that. 

"Silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words," said Mrs. Bowles. "Why do people want to hurt people? Not enough hurt in the world, you've got to tease people with stuff like that! (Part Two)

In this society, violence and suicide are common because people are so disconnected from their real emotions.  When Clarisse asks him if he is happy, the question blows his mind.  Even though Montag is married, his wife scoffs at the idea of his being in love.  She only associates emotions with the artificial ones of the family on the television set.  Mildred is a good example of someone who follows society’s expectations perfectly.

Montag attempts to maintain the values of his society at first.  When Clarisse asks him if he is happy, he grows curious about what is in the books he is burning and faces a kind of cognitive dissonance that drives him into a deep depression.  His boss, Captain Beatty, knows exactly what is going on.  He knows what is in the books, but also buys into what society expects completely.

"Where's your common sense? None of those books agree with each other. You've been locked up here for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel. Snap out of it! The people in those books never lived. …” (Part One)

Beatty tries to talk Montag out of turning against society.  He believes that he is doing what is good for him, by saving him.  They do not take lightly to people who do not follow the rules.  If you go against society, they will destroy you.  However, Montag disagrees. He ends up killing Beatty and running away to a secret society of book lovers after his wife turns him in.  She commits suicide.

In a society where no one feels anything, and books aren’t allowed because they have too many feelings, developing feelings is a dangerous business.  Montag was asked by a brave young woman if he was happy.  He discovered that he wasn’t.  He got out just in time, before a society that wasn’t sustainably built on artificial happiness self-destructed.

kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Fahrenheit 451, the society values mindless forms of entertainment. This is shown primarily through the character of Mildred, who spends her days watching shows on the parlor walls and drives fast in the Beetle when she's feeling stressed. Mildred also provides an example of conformity, another highly prized value in this society. When Montag suggests that they read his hidden collection of books, for instance, Mildred is dead set against the idea. At the end of the story, she leaves Montag because he has rebelled against society, showing that she is a conformist by nature.

In addition, society values censorship—specifically, the destruction of books and book-learning. You can see this clearly through the character of Beatty. When Beaty visits Montag at home, for instance, he talks about how books have the power to offend and divide society. Moreover, as the fire chief, it is his job to ensure that all books are burned for this precise reason.

The remaining central characters, like Faber and Clarisse, act in direct opposition to these values, and this contributes to their characterization as social outcasts.