“It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.”
These are the opening lines of Ray Bradbury’s well-known dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, and etched in fire, they open as a haunting, doleful reminder of our personal inner arsonist. Bradbury envisions a future American society where books are outlawed, owning them criminalised, and where teams of “firemen” assist in systematic book-burnings to cleanse society of their harmful influence. At the same time, technological developments have made mass media and entertainment ever more present in daily life, substituting the loss of books. The novel follows the story of Guy Montag, one such “fireman” who, initially consumed by an intoxicating passion for book-burning, gradually becomes disillusioned with his work, recognising its senseless, true nature. His struggle to free himself from the grasp of state and society puts him at odds with his wife, Mildred - a vacuous, detached, insipid representative of Bradbury’s dystopian society - and his mentor, Captain Beatty, the novel’s chief antagonist.
Upon reading the novel, one finds oneself immersed, despite its futuristic setting, in the world of the 1950s - it is a vision of the future that belongs to the past. In its pages one may discern the book-burnings of the Nazi regime in the 30s and 40s; the Soviet political apparatus’s ferrous state censorship of art and artists during the period of “Socialist Realism”; the decline of the medium of radio, to be replaced by the exciting new medium of television; the tension of the Cold War and the looming fear of war and nuclear annihilation; and the growth of political persecution in America through the anti-Communist hidden hearings of the McCarthy era.
In the 1950s, book censorship in the United States was becoming increasingly common, as political and social trends resulted in books being banned due to their offensive content. Authors considered “subversive” or “pro-communist” were blacklisted as fears of the growing spectre of Communism and subsequent “Red Scares” became more widespread; books which undermined traditional religious views were also banned (Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was suppressed in states like Tennessee by the Butler Act, passed in 1925 until its repeal in 1967); and novels which promoted sexual or racial viewpoints contrary to those at the time were also liable to censorship. Bradbury’s novel itself was - revealing a rather amusing lack of self-reflection on behalf of the publishers, parents or teaching staff - subjected to redaction, expurgation, or outright banning of what was deemed offensive content.
The novel, drawing inspiration from the past and Bradbury’s present, looks to the future, envisioning a world plagued not only by rigorous censorship but also a spiritual crisis, where media and technology have alienated the people from their intellectual and emotional roots. Although the novel is often read as a criticism of censorship, state-based or otherwise (and this is not wrong), it is also about the dangers of an illiterate society infatuated with mass media.
Thin, hi-fi TV screens plaster the walls of every room, bombarding the characters and the reader with an avalanche of digital sensations, perpetuating the intellectual superficiality which is so self-evident in Bradbury’s society. Earbud technology enables citizens to separate themselves almost entirely from the physical world - Mildred, Montag’s wife spends the majority of her time in front of the parlour walls, a “Seashell radio” plugged in her ears, drowning out the rest of society. The denizens of Bradbury’s novel are, bar a few exceptions, hedonistic, self-absorbed, culturally and intellectually illiterate, and deeply unhappy, glued to their television screens and terrified of the dangerous, subversive ideas which books contain. Although technological advances have lead to miraculous improvements in the field of medicine, attempted suicide has become increasingly frequent, almost commonplace, a symptom of a society grappling with a spiritual void unable to be filled by materialism.
While the entirety of Bradbury’s dystopian vision has not necessarily come to pass, Fahrenheit 451 is surprisingly sibylline, predicting headphones, flat-panel televisions, the improvements in medicine and technology at the expense of the citizens’ mental health, and other such contemporary phenomena such as the growth of digital advertising. In our current world, where many of these themes are hyper-relevant, Bradbury’s portrayal is extremely resonant. Bradbury’s novel is not long - at 102 pages, it represents a bite-sized, digestible work, easily conquered by an evening’s worth of concentrated effort - but its rich, sensuously descriptive passages (if Bradbury were a painter he would be a Velazquez, rather than an impressionist Monet) and its mature, complex themes should provide some food for thought.
Alvaro R, Year 12