What is Bradbury’s main message in Fahrenheit 451?

Bradbury warns against the large-scale desensitization of society in Fahrenheit 451. Through the novel, he asserts that passive lifestyles consumed with modern conveniences such as TVs and cars can erode culture, critical thinking, emotional fulfillment, and happiness. He wants to make people reflect on the importance books, and the ideas they contain, have in giving purpose to life.

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One of the main messages in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is that people often trade a meaningful literary experience for the entertainment of television and that the trade often leaves them feeling empty.

Mildred stands as the epitome of this dystopian society which relies on television to fill free time. She and her friends spend the great majority of their time consumed with vapid shows, and they become so obsessed with screen time that they don't care about much else. When Montag tries to talk to them about their husbands going to war, they laugh off the conversation:

The three women fidgeted and looked nervously at the empty mud-coloured walls.

"I'm not worried," said Mrs. Phelps. "I'll let Pete do all the worrying." She giggled. "I'll let old Pete do all the worrying. Not me. I'm not worried."

"Yes," said Millie. "Let old Pete do the worrying."

"It's always someone else's husband dies, they say."

"I've heard that, too. I've never known any dead man killed in a war. Killed jumping off buildings, yes, like Gloria's husband last week, but from wars? No."

"Not from wars," said Mrs. Phelps.

In this brief conversation, the women can't help but grow anxious about the missing entertainment, their eyes turning to the now-empty walls in hopes that their show will return. After this exchange, their conversation quickly turns back to the programs they had watched the previous evening. They are unable to hold a sustained discussion about anything except a world of make-believe and fiction.

On one level, Mildred and her friends feel busy. With their schedule of entertainment, there is always something new to watch and do. Yet there is little to actually sustain them, because their lives are devoid of literature and meaning. When Mildred faces internal conflict, she becomes desperate. She lacks the inner strength of Clarisse, who is an avid reader. The contrasts in these two women is a powerful indication of the impact of quality literature on people's abilities to reason and to truly enjoy life.

This message could be extended in our society today to include other forms of screen time. Bradbury examined his society and determined that "people [were] being turned into morons by TV," and he therefore might be concerned about other forms of screen usage today: smart phones, laptops, tablets, gaming systems, and handheld gaming devices.

Research tells us that those who spend excessive amounts of time looking at screens are overall less happy and more depressed, reminding us of Mildred's suicide attempt in Fahrenheit 451. Thus, Bradbury's reminder to turn off our screens in order to live better lives is a message that has become increasingly important in a technologically diverse society.

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Bradbury's main message is that a society that wants to survive, thrive, and bring its people fulfillment must encourage them to wrestle with ideas. He indicts a society that puts all its emphasis on providing people with a superficial sense of happiness.

Beatty sums up the dystopic vision Bradbury opposes when he defends the importance of the book burning firemen:

The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we're the Happiness Boys, the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dyke. Hold steady. Don't let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world.

Bradbury, in contrast, argues that without some conflict, thought, melancholy, or philosophy a society is doomed. He illustrates this in two ways in the novel. First, average citizens like Mildred live lives of quiet desperation. Mildred gets so bored with a constant of diet of television drivel and a lack of meaningful activity that she attempts suicide. The "happy" society Beatty defends is filled with bored adults and violent teens who spend their time watching vacuous television shows or speeding around in cars. People exist in a dehumanized way rather than feeling fully, vibrantly alive.

Second, at the end of the novel, this society is literally destroyed in a nuclear war. By showing the consequences of banning them, Bradbury highlights the importance of books and critical thinking skills to a healthy society.

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Ray Bradbury wanted readers to understand the importance of reading and thinking.  One of his quotes that I think sums up much of what he was saying is, "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture.  Just get people to stop reading them." He set "Fahrenheit 451" in an unspecified, but not too distant, future.  He chose that setting so that people could relate better to the idea of what might happen if people get too caught up in themselves and get too lazy to think.  He speaks to the reader often through the characters of Beatty and Clarisse. Clarisse explains to Montag, in their conversations early in the story, how the society is caught up with speed and how they've become unfeeling.  Beatty tells Montag in the first part, how the society came to be the way it is and this is where it is most evident that Bradbury is speaking to the reader.  He warns of being too politically correct and thus watering down literature.  He warns against censorship. He warns the reader about what happens when people get in a hurry and only want the short version of something and thus miss the full flavor.  By having Beatty speak and showing what happens when people stop reading, Bradbury is encouraging the reader to read.  At the end of the story, Bradbury gives people a ray of hope that this trend can be stopped if only people are willing to fight for the right to read and think.

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Bradbury, as well as many science fiction writers, wrote his book in response to his observations of societal changes happening around him.  The number of cars on the roads had increased greatly, as had the number of TVs in people's living rooms.  Bradbury became increasingly concerned that we were becoming a numb society - interested in only what we could get faster and easier, interested in filling up our headswith meaningless noise.  If you research the time period he was writing in, you'll be able to make many connections to what he projected for the future in "Fahrenheit 451." 

Beyond societal commentary, I believe he is also making points about individuality and the person vs. society conflict.

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