Historical Climate and Development of Fahrenheit 451

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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 independence—its own thoughts and true sensations. As Beatty says, "It doesn't think anything we don't want it to think … a fine bit of craftsmanship." Later, Montag describes it as a thing in the world which "cannot touch the world." It lacks the mind of its own and body that feels. This makes the Hound the best guardian of their way of life. As a result, when Montag grows more aware of how the system has deprived him of sensation and thought, the Hound grows more aware of Montag. The Hound may not be able to touch the world, but it recognizes the smell of thought, it recognizes that Montag does not belong to the same system it does.

All is not lost, though. Montag's teachers lead him out of this controlled and sterile world. Clarisse, the young seventeen-year-old "oddball," is his first teacher. Clarisse prods him back into experiencing the outside world's sensations, especially smells as simple as "apricots" and "strawberries," "old leaves" and "cinnamon," smells which up to now have always been dominated by the odor of kerosene. She entices him out of the insulated "walls" of their house and into the rain, away from the rule books and 3-D comics whose content is strictly controlled so as to ensure that everything is agreeable—that is, all packaged to promote conformity and consumerism. She ignores his authority by openly questioning whether he can even think and challenges his smug superiority by seeing through his "mask" of happiness and into his deeper discontent. She tells him how she eavesdrops on others and finds that young "people don't talk about anything" except to trade the brand names of clothes and cars. She points out that the two-hundred-foot billboards hide the real world. She teaches him that he and everyone else are subject to the dictates of others, that their thoughts and experiences are controlled.

When Clarisse "disappears," Captain Beatty, Montag's superior, ironically becomes his "teacher." Even though Beatty's purpose is to bring Montag back into conformity with the system, he drives Montag farther away during his "history lesson" on the origins and purpose of the firemen book-burners. Beatty tells him that the condition of the world and the rejection of "books" and their ideas was a "mass" phenomenon. Not only did the population find it easier to read condensed versions of literature and digests rather than whole works, but it was also more "agreeable." Books are notorious for their slippery and contradictory ideas. It becomes easier and safer to do away with them altogether; this is the job of the fireman. Over time, substitutions displaced books altogether: photography and film, rule books, sports, and trivial information. Fill them up with "non-combustible" stuff so they feel "absolutely brilliant" but lack any thought which may have "two sides … no philosophy or sociology," says Beatty. Then we can have a perfect tyranny of technology over the comfortable and thoughtless. The problem, however, is that if books are the way to "melancholy" and unhappiness, then why is Mildred so deeply depressed and Montag so angry?

Montag's third "teacher" explains the source of their unhappiness. Faber, the old college English teacher, argues that the "telivisor" is irresistible. Furthermore, if you "drop a seed" (take a sedative) and turn on the televisor, "It grows you any shape it wishes. [It] becomes and is the truth." It makes a people into what it wants them to be, a conforming mass all acting in unison. Perhaps the most frightening image in the book makes this idea of thoughtless masses under the direction of technology concrete for us. At the end of the chase scene when the Mechanical Hound closes in and Montag approaches the river, the broadcaster asks the whole population to rise and go to the door and everybody look out at the street at the same time. Montag has a vision of the population acting in near perfect unison under the direction of a technological device—a truly frightening vision of humans turned into conforming automatons.

Faber argues, however, that books have a "quality" or "texture of information." Books have a depth of imaginative experience and completeness of information which the media soaps lack. This "texture of information," along with the leisure time to absorb it and the freedom to act on what it allows us to discover, is what Montag needs to make him, if not happy, then at least satisfied. In a sense, Montag's awakening sensations, his growing awareness of smells other than kerosene, his new appreciation for rain and the light of the moon, symbolize the "quality" found in books. Throughout the book, we get hints about this. After his wife's mishap with the sedatives, he feels suffocated and empty, and in a fit of desire for something more, he throws the sealed windows of the bedroom to let the moon's light fill the room. When he is trying to memorize the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Denham's Dentifrice advertisement interferes, he has this urge to run out of the train and experience anything, any sensation, even if its the pain of a pounding heart and lungs gasping for air. When he lay in his bed the night of the old woman's burning, he feels that he "never … quite … touched … anything." Parallel to his yearning for the "texture of information" in books, he has a yearning for deeper and richer bodily experiences and sensations.

All in all, the idea is that if Montag is to escape the technological cocoon which the culture has built for him, he must do it in mind and body, in books and sensations. This is no new idea, that the mind and body are one. If this is true, then it is also true that if you control the experiences of the body so, too, will the mind be controlled. And vise-versa, if you control the depth of ideas and smooth out the "texture of information" in the media, the body will lose its ability to absorb a wide range of sensation. We see this effect on Montag when he finally climbs up out of the river. Having been deprived of deep and textured sensations most of his life, he was "crushed" by the "tidal wave of smell and sound." He experiences an onslaught of odor: musk, cardamom, ragweed, moss, blood, cloves, and warm dust. The narrator tells us, "enough to feed on for a lifetime"; there are "lakes of smelling and feeling and touching."

It is both the mind and the body of the population which the prevailing union of politics and technology has repressed in Montag's culture. The book people Montag discovers at the end of the novel show that you must abandon the system and get "outside" the technological cocoon. You must internalize the conflicting, richly textured information and ideas of books before you can be an individual not subject to the repressive conformity of the masses. The book people are literally outside in nature as well as figuratively outsiders alienated from the culture. They have literally internalized books as well as figuratively become "book covers." They have brought the book and the body, thought and sensation together. Maybe this is why Bradbury was so outraged by the book burnings in Nazis Germany. Maybe this is why he says "that 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."

Source: Edward E. Eller, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale 1997. Eller is an assistant professor at Northeast Louisiana University.

Bradbury and Atwood: Exile as Rational Decision

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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 the abridgement of freedom evolved in the United States. As such, the novels are strong political statements warning of the consequences of what seem dangerous trends to the authors. One has only to look at the statistics for television watching, witness the decline of interest in reading among our students, and read current reports about ecological damage to verify the gravity of the dangers this country faces at the present time. In the world of Fahrenheit 451 people have given up thinking for mindless pursuits. No revolution or coup d'etat brings about the loss of freedom. Rather, individual laziness precipitates a gradual erosion. This evolution takes place long before the birth of Montag, who grows up in a society where books are proscribed. His superior, a fireman, explains the trend of increasing simplification as the result of the influence of the mass media: "Things began to have mass.… And because they had mass, they became simpler.… Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths." In a vast generalization which is itself a simplification, he tells how the modern era brought a movement to speed up and condense everything:

Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.… Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume.… Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there's your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.

The rich value of books is thus denied when they are reduced to brief summaries. Happiness to this fireman comes from eliminating all dissension, especially that caused by books: "'Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator.'" Yet this society does not produce happiness. Montag is perpetually lonely and his wife attempts suicide.

Whereas Atwood's society ceremonializes violence, in Bradbury's book the society eliminates all cause for unhappiness and sweeps unpleasantness away, including those which are an integral part of the human condition: "'Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he's on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man's a speck of black dust. Let's not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.'" Television concerns itself with the ephemeral present and thus follows the trend toward forgetting the past. Books by their very essence preserve and memorialize those who have lived before. Bradbury would probably agree with Atwood's comments that all repressive governments eliminate authors because they are so dangerous. The fireman views fire as a means of purging and cleansing emotions in his society. Political dissension is eliminated by giving only one side of the argument. War is not even talked about. People are reduced to thinking about simple facts, meaningless data: "Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy." Through simplifying and reducing ideas, he feels that the firemen produce happiness for the society: "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 dike. Hold steady. Don't let the torrent of melancholy and dreary philosophy drown our world."

Balancing this reductionist apology are the views of another character in the novel, a retired English professor who "had been thrown out upon the world forty years ago when the last liberal arts college shut for lack of students and patronage." He traces the lack of reading to apathy: "Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord. Your firemen provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but it's a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line. So few want to be rebels anymore. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily." The professor's personal experience bears witness to the gradual nature of the transition from a reading to a non-reading culture. One day, there are simply no more students:

That was a year I came to class at the start of the new semester and found only one student to sign up for Drama from Aeschylus to O'Neill. You see? How like a beautiful statue of ice it was, melting in the sun. I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them. And then the Government, seeing how advantageous it was to have people reading only about passionate lips and the fist in the stomach, circled the situation with your fire-eaters.…

In both novels books represent important artifacts of the past and the act of reading becomes a heroic gesture. This is not surprising since both authors are avid readers and have described the importance of books in their lives. In fact, Fahrenheit 451 was written in the UCLA library.

One of the most crucial passages in the novel shows a woman willing to die for her books. Montag is stunned when she sets fire to her library and immolates herself along with her precious volumes. This experience causes Montag to question what there is in books that is worth dying for and ultimately leads to his becoming a preserver of books instead of a destroyer.…

Each novel ends with the protagonist's escape and the beginning of his exile from repression. There is some ambiguity, however, since the alternative order is not elaborated on. Montag watches his city being destroyed by a nuclear explosion. He joins a group of vagabonds who memorize the books with which they have escaped. No attempt is made to follow his further development in these difficult circumstances or to predict the course the future holds for society or the survivors. The implication is clear, however, that intellectual freedom is worth the inconvenience of life outside the modern city. Because he left, Montag survives the death of the mindless masses who stayed behind.

The appeal of these two highly acclaimed novels stems from the main characters' difficult situation in a repressive future in the United States. The plausible explanations given by both Bradbury and Atwood for the ghastly turn taken by American society in the futures they portray serves as a vivid reminder that freedom must be vigilantly guarded in order to be maintained. Apathy and fear create unlivable societies from which only a few courageous souls dare escape. "Ordinary" says one of the cruel Aunts of The Handmaid's Tale "is what you are used to." The main characters never are able to accept the "ordinariness" of the repression which surrounds them. They are among the few who are willing to risk the difficult path of exile.

Source: Diane S. Wood, "Bradbury and Atwood: Exile as Rational Decision," in The Literature of Emigration and Exile, edited by James Whitlark and Wendall Aycock, Texas Tech University Press, 1992, pp. 131-42.

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Critical Overview