Fahrenheit 451 Analysis
- In Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, Ray Bradbury examines themes of totalitarianism and anti-intellectualism. These were quite familiar to readers of the time from the recent end of World War II and the fall of Nazi Germany.
- Bradbury emphasizes the state’s complete control over its people, from calling those who burn books “firemen,” as if they present a common good, to keeping the population dulled with narcotics and government-controlled television.
- The novel’s end shows that, while many can be swayed by authoritarianism and propaganda, others will think critically, remember the lessons of the past, and resist.
Last Updated on May 8, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 925
Ray Bradbury is one of the twentieth century’s science fiction masters, and Fahrenheit 451 exhibits many of the themes that recur in his works: the novel presents a dystopian, futuristic society, within which humanity—one way or another—has doomed itself, often because of overly rigid adherence to and acceptance of conformity. In many of Bradbury’s science fiction stories, it is the machine that is the culprit, albeit after much programming and input from humanity. In Fahrenheit 451, what damns humanity is humanity itself, and in particular the harmful ideas humans have internalized over time.
Because Bradbury so often sets stories in an unknowable future, at an indeterminate distance from the reader, it can be easy to forget the context in which Bradbury was actually writing. In the case of Fahrenheit 451, that context should not be forgotten. To the modern, Western reader, book burning is something that happens now only in remote dictatorships and could not possibly occur in the West. To Bradbury and his original readers in 1953, however, World War II had ended less than a decade earlier, and most would remember newsreels featuring piles of flaming books that were deemed dangerous and incinerated by the Nazis.
Fittingly, then, for a readership to whom World War II was still recent history, Fahrenheit 451 is about a society that has come to be afraid of ideas, of understanding, and of intellectualism. They have embraced censorship and the unquestionable power of the state in a way that closely resembles fascist Nazi Germany at its height. This is a society that is heading for disaster, and Bradbury uses recognizable cues to indicate this.
It is notable also that those who carry out the book-burning are known by a seemingly neutral title, “firemen.” A fireman is commonly understood as someone who is in the service of not only the state but also the people: a fireman works in society’s best interests. This is unquestionable, and by making the authors of censorship “firemen” within this society, the architects of the society have furnished them with a similar sort of immunity to criticism. It is a cunning and deliberate move.
The novel’s main character, Guy Montag, has been completely brainwashed by this idea. He is happy enough to be a fireman and utterly believes that he is doing a job which needs to be done. He does not seem to be an inherently bad person, nor does he believe there is anything sinister about burning books. Again, the question of Montag’s integrity would have found a ready analogy in the minds of Bradbury’s contemporary readers. Not all those who work in the interests of a dictatorship are bad people: the point of a dictatorship is that it is able to convince its people that it works in their best interests and is morally right.
Bradbury also shows the reader the means through which Montag and his wife, as well as their fellow citizens, are manipulated. The opium of the people, in this society, is literal; Montag regularly takes narcotics, as sanctioned by the state, and television serves as a mouthpiece for the government and its ideas. It is only when the monotonous regularity of Montag’s world is disturbed by shocking events, such as the death of his questioning neighbor, Clarisse, or the old woman whose devotion to her books is such that she chooses to die for them, that he begins to question what he has been told.
As Montag reexamines the stories he has been told about his own society’s history and comes to recognize that many of them are fictitious, he finds himself caught between two warring figures, Beatty and Faber, who represent opposing elements within this society. The choice of names here is significant. The chief fireman, Beatty, has a name which suggests beatings and violence; he is there to bludgeon Montag and the other firemen with the word of the state. Meanwhile, Faber, an English professor, shares his name with the publishing house Faber & Faber, which printed the works of such intellectual powerhouses as T. S. Eliot. Faber spreads the good word of literature and the truth of what books contain, while Beatty tries to beat this knowledge out of those who serve under him.
The society Bradbury depicts in this novel is, as is often the case with his work, a dispiriting and depressing one. Bradbury holds a mirror to humanity and shows the potential consequences of choosing to censor what people read and and conceal information for the benefit of the state. Fahrenheit 451 depicts a society that has deliberately repressed its history: its citizens do not know what happened the last time book burning was sanctioned by the state, or that this led to so much death and devastation.
The novel’s end, however, provides the reader with hope, reinforcing the idea that, although propaganda is extremely powerful, so too is the human mind and the capacity for self-analysis. A man like Montag can only be deluded for so long before something will jolt him out of his stupor and remind him that there is a world beyond television and drugs. When Montag escapes into the woods at the end, it is to a society of oral historians who have internalized the knowledge of past generations and are a living link to a world before. For as long as there are people like this, the literate, thinking world cannot die—and as long as we learn and remember the lessons of the past, we can avoid repeating it.
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