Fahrenheit 451 Themes

The main themes of Fahrenheit 451 are personal autonomy, attention and distraction, and knowledge and censorship.

  • Personal autonomy: After meeting Clarisse, Montag, who has previously allowed external influences to control the course of his life, becomes aware of the possibility of personal choice.
  • Attention and distraction: Montag's society encourages its citizens to remain in a state of constant distraction. When Montag flees the city, he is able to attend to his thoughts and sensations for the first time.
  • Knowledge and censorship: As a burner of books, Montag comes to find that knowledge brings internal conflict as well as freedom.

Themes

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Last Reviewed on March 11, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907

Personal Autonomy

When the story begins, Montag is a metaphorical "cog" in the authoritarian system—he goes to work every day, working with firemen who look just like him, doing the job he's told to do without ever asking any questions. His father was a fireman, and his father's father was one before him. At one moment of tension between him and his wife, Mildred, he tells her he never had a choice but to become one himself: "in my sleep, I ran after them."

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When Montag meets Clarisse, he is shaken by her "otherness"—she's unlike anybody he's ever met before, which itself is a revelation to Montag. He is not only astonished by the ways that Clarisse is different, but by the very fact that she's different at all. The possibility of choosing one's own path had never occurred to him, and it is only meeting her that introduces the concept of personal choice and preference to his consciousness.

Montag's own life is so automated that, at times, the text suggests that his body moves independently of his brain. He is so disassociated from his own conscious decisions that his hands do things of their own accord:

Montag had done nothing. His hand had done it all, his hand, with a brain of its own, with a conscience and a curiosity in each trembling finger, had turned thief. Now, it plunged the book back under his arm, pressed it tight to sweating armpit.

In part 3, when Montag and Beatty face off with the flamethrower, Montag again passively notices that "his hands" have undone the safety. Living his entire life according to external influence for so long has completely divested him of his ability to feel in command of his own experience, even when it originates with his actions.

Attention and Distraction

The people living in the world of Fahrenheit 451 are constantly distracted and are encouraged to maintain a speed of life that leaves them no time to ask any questions. This is especially well-illustrated through the characters of Mildred and Clarisse.

Mildred, a model citizen, is so attached to the parlor walls that she keeps her seashell earpieces in at all times. She reads lips instead of hearing other people's voices and prefers the company of the people onscreen to any real-life activity. When she drives, she drives fast enough to terrify Montag. She'd rather not stop to think about anything unpleasant. The reader's first introduction to Mildred is through her attempted overdose on sleeping pills, which implies that the shallowness of this existence is much less fulfilling than Mildred's conduct would suggest.

Clarisse, by contrast, is remarkable for her appreciation of slowness and uncertainty. She prefers to hike and walk and explore the natural world. She likes to think, and wonder, and ask difficult questions with challenging—even unknowable—answers. For Clarisse, the space to wonder and to ask a question is more valuable than the certainty of an uncomplicated answer.

When Montag is fleeing the authorities at the end of the novel, he experiences life without distraction for the first time. Free from the constant overstimulation of a city moving at double-speed, he consciously experiences his senses for the first time in the narrative: the overwhelming darkness, the small sounds emerging from his quiet surroundings, the earthy smell of hay. This is the first time he can hear himself think, and he finds himself finally wondering in the infinite way that Clarisse did—about himself, about the world, and about the universe, with no particular need for an answer.

Knowledge and Censorship

When Captain Beatty visits Montag's house in part 1, he tells him how books came to be illegal. Though the story is sometimes interpreted to be about censorship, and book-burning is a very powerful symbol of censorship in any society, Beatty's monologue reveals that there is something more complex at play in the world of the novel.

Books, he reveals, are not illegal because the government decided they should be; they're illegal because they made the people unhappy. To them, knowledge is a blessing, but also a burden—happiness can only come from a lack of conflict, and disciplines like philosophy and sociology promote melancholy. "The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we're the Happiness Boys . . . We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought."

Later, when Montag visits Faber, he tells him something similar: that the texture and detail of books show life's "pores"—they force introspection and conflict in a world that values ease and the frictionless efficiency of lived experience:

So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless. We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers instead of growing on good rain and black loam.

Montag's own experience validates this perspective—it's not until he meets Clarisse and she asks him if he is happy that he even considers the notion that he might not be. As he makes more space in himself for knowledge, he also makes more space in himself for dissatisfaction. The corollary, though, is that he is also able to live with more authenticity and curiosity. Now that he finally knows how much there is to contemplate, he is able to explore his own capacity for wonder.

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