Ray Bradbury’s famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, is about Guy Montag, a man who burns books for a living in an uncultured dystopian future. Set in the United States during an unspecified distant time period, people have become utterly consumed with modern media and advanced technology. Through a cultural lens, Fahrenheit 451 is a tragic story about the loss of individuality and the growing deficit of expressive culturalism.
In 1953, Bradbury rebelliously wrote Fahrenheit 451 in a turbulent time in American history. During this time, the Red Scare could easily destroy the lives of Americans who wouldn’t conform. Oaths of loyalty and irrational fears ruled American culture. Bradbury used science fiction to explore a feeling which he had begun to have about American culture. Bradbury originally claimed that it was simply a fictitious story that he had developed when in reality, he was inspired to write Fahrenheit 451 by the direction in which he felt that humanity was moving and that it was an exaggerated reflection of what it already was. Fahrenheit 451 was a product of its time.
The novel’s protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman who’s job is to burn books to appease the ignorant public. Society has become a cesspool of idiocy and materialism, everybody loves television, driving too fast, and opposing anything that promotes intelligence. They do not enjoy nature, deep thinking, reading books, or thinking independently. Shallowness and superficiality have reached an all-time high.
Guy Montag is much like everybody else, but his life changes when he meets a 17-year-old girl named Clarisse. Clarisse is different from most people in Bradbury’s world, she is more intuitive. She enjoys nature, people, and thinking. She prompts Guy to evaluate his life and work, through simple questions from Clarisse, Guy begins to realize the emptiness of his life. After a series of disturbing events (including the death of Clarisse at the hands of a speeding car), Guy begins to actively seek a solution to his dissatisfaction with life, beginning with books. Guy will only become more critical of society from this point in the novel.
The dysfunctional society portrayed in Fahrenheit 451 is loosely comparable to many societies existing today. Large tech corporations are constantly gaining momentum in the modern world. The increasing influence of technology has begun to pull people away from each other. Humans become addicted to the immediate gratification that technology provides for us. All of the entertainment and knowledge we desire is more accessible than ever before. For many people, it is easier to be isolated in their own digital world rather than make connections with others. A perfect example is Guy’s wife, Mildred, who is utterly consumed by technology, and does not seem at all interested in anything besides it.
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Of course, in 1953, America was far from where it is now in terms of technological advancements. But the increasing popularity and influence of the television and radio were enough for Bradbury to see the direction that the world was moving in. Very few would question what they believed was a good thing. Bradbury could not have known that in 2018, Fahrenheit 451 would be closer to reality than ever (Robbins 56), and as time progresses, the differences will likely become smaller and smaller.
In 1953, Bradbury wrote the novel to express his disgust of conformity: Something that is still very prevalent today. Conformity has always existed, and in 1953, many Americans believed it was a vital issue. During the Cold War, most people felt very uneasy if somebody stood apart from the crowd. Standing out made a person seem to be a worthy candidate for an accusation of being a Russian spy. Bradbury was frustrated that everybody simply followed each other. Originality had become so limited because everybody just followed the lifestyle trends of everybody else, all of whom were just following the very few who created these trends originally. This is still the way things work in modern-day America.
While Russian spies are no longer a major concern for the American public, conformity is still everywhere. In Fahrenheit 451, people will not accept the existence of books and will be outraged if any literature meets a fate other than incineration. This thinking is similar to some middle-eastern cultures, where non-conformists are met with intense anger or are simply killed. This is because it is easier for them to use a primitive and instinctual approach to a problem rather than accept the differences in their landscape. Luckily, in progressive cultures, differences are often celebrated, but this has become a type of conformity in itself. The magnitude of the conformity in Bradbury’s novel is saddening.
It was difficult being an American intellectual during the Red Scare because even the Office of Education created a program of “Zeal for Democracy” that attempted to distort and bias education (through purges and biased material) that created a hoard of young children who were overly fearful of Communism. Fahrenheit 451 helped to throw the dehumanizing Communist witch-hunts back in the face of overzealous patriots by painting a world that had been extrapolated out with leaders like Joseph McCarthy. The mass spectacle of the accusations and trials, thanks to the mass culture movement, only served to make the “us vs. them” polarity more resilient. All of this came at a time when Americans needed to come together to have a civilized discourse on the validity of differing opinions. Fahrenheit 451 helped to call out those Americans who allowed the government to reign supreme during the McCarthy Cold War years.
In a contemporary sense, the novel helps to caution American’s against extreme and sensational political movements that obscure true democracy. Fahrenheit 451 allows 21st-century readers a chance to step back from our heavily inundated advertising culture. The novel is so relevant today because we have seen an even stronger trend toward self-absorption with social media. This growth creates a false feeling of virtual friendship, which devalues true human connection; this is something that anti-isolationists would have railed against. In the same vein, the sensational 24-hour news networks that have taken a hold of rational political discourse as predicted by Bradbury have felt pushback. The novel allows us to evaluate the militaristic world as it is today, to see the similarities and potential outcomes of unrestrained aggression. The crises and ongoing violence in the Middle East force Americans today to live in that constantly violent culture that Montag despised. Most importantly to Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 helps us realize that the public’s willingness to support the decline of reading and library usage will lead to a hedonistic and ignorant society (Okonma 81). This has manifested even more today, with the current rate of technology and varying ways that students are seeking information. In a tangible sense, “forty-one percent of states report declining state funding for U.S. public libraries in the fiscal year 2009” (Clark 30) with some budgets being slashed up to 30%. Contemporary America is really the beneficiary of the world that Bradbury was satirizing. Bradbury is suggesting we be wary of the future, becoming Mildred Montag will be easier than ever before.