Introductory Lecture and Objectives
Critically acclaimed for its satirical exploration of ideas as well as crackling, fast-moving prose, Fahrenheit 451 is that rare book at once completely of its time and eerily prescient of the contemporary issues with which modern readers grapple. Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, developed from author Ray Bradbury’s shorter first draft entitled The Fire Man, in turn fashioned from an early short story. The resulting 1953 novel is a masterpiece of science fiction, sounding alarms to the dangers of conformity, censorship, and, most importantly, the consequences of waning intellectual curiosity.
It is inevitable to make the connection between Bradbury’s book-burning firemen and the piles of smoldering texts ignited by the Nazis during World War II, but Fahrenheit 451 is anything but jingoistic in its embrace of American ideals and the promises of freedom and human dignity. It was during the writing and publication of Bradbury’s work that Senator Joseph McCarthy and his ilk were at their most active, accusing thousands of Americans of being Communists or Communist sympathizers, especially those who worked in Hollywood, union organizers, and government employees. During this “Red Scare,” a blacklist was maintained of entertainers suspected of Communist sympathy, ruining the careers and lives of many; Americans turned on one another in an effort to avoid persecution themselves. Through the blacklist and the McCarthy hearings, it could be argued that any loss of individualism threatened by Communism was answered by something equally odious in American culture.
But perhaps, as Captain Beatty tells us, it really all began when the zipper displaced the button, starting a domino effect that sped up our lives and eroded any “leisure time” in which we could simply think. In Fahrenheit 451, cars rush by 200-foot-long billboards at 130 miles per hour, far too fast for occupants to observe or enjoy their natural surroundings. Grass and rose gardens are perceived only as green and pink blurs, respectively. At home, blaring TV walls drown out any attempt at conversation, and suburban homes have lost their porches and gardens, spaces designed to invite connection and observation. Even when Montag dares to defy the law and memorize a portion of the Bible, the blaring advertisement jingles on the subway render him incapable of finishing his task.
As with most dystopian novels, Bradbury features technology prominently and disparagingly; it has removed us from the natural world, separated us from one another, and contributed to both the hectic pace of our lives and the conformity which threatens our very humanity. These are critical ideas to contemplate and discuss, especially for those modern readers saturated by media and crammed “full of noncombustible data,” stuffed full of nonsense, and kept feeling “brilliant” with irrelevant information. Indeed, the intervening years since 1953 have delivered many of the advances Bradbury could only imagine. This point of connection, while unsettling, offers an excellent entry point to the modern reader able and willing to remove the ear buds, stop texting, and stay off the Internet long enough to fully enjoy the novel’s complex message cloaked in a popular genre better known for spawning hit movies than for critiquing society.
In fact, the astounding prose is bright enough to keep the reader dazzled by rich allusions, brilliant metaphors, intrigue, and heart-stopping suspense. As a thing, the book is so enjoyable that it reminds us, very pointedly, that the act of reading itself is a right we too often take for granted. It is not a police state which we should fear the most, but instead the deliberate replacement of complex thought and potentially uncomfortable conversations with entertainment so barbless there is no risk of offense.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain, using themes, plot points, and characters from the book, how Fahrenheit 451 explores the concepts of conformity and difference and their effects on society.
2. Describe how and why censorship evolved in this society, and discuss the role of apathy in creating state control.
3. Identify the dystopian elements throughout the novel, and explain how Bradbury uses them to set the mood for the book and frame the story.
4. Compare and contrast Clarisse and Mildred, and identify the ideas and typologies each represents in general society.
5. Compare how technology functions in modern society to how it functions in the novel, and determine how technology affects the quality of life in each.
6. Identify and discuss how Bradbury employs literary allusions in the novel.
7. Investigate which actions the novel appears to condone in the face of an oppressive society.