Slippery Slope: Fahrenheit 451’s Dystopian Reality
Technology in the 1950s was just beginning to take up more of the leisure time of people’s lives; reading was becoming less of a portion of people’s day. Soap operas and radio shows replaced Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and all of the thought-provoking books that shaped the minds of millions of readers. People began to absorb empty messages from the fictional world of TV and radio, and in turn shroud the provocative themes that are found in books. This technology was beginning to interfere with people’s attention to the happenings of the present world. Fahrenheit 451 embodies the theme of a society in which the switch from contemplating books to mindlessly craving the instant satisfaction that comes from fast media has had a grave effect on its citizens. This book, written by Ray Bradbury in 1953, is a frightening alternative world that its not too different from our own, and as technology advances, the two become increasingly similar.
Bradbury has written about his own story, Fahrenheit 451, a number of times, and in an article called “The Day After Tomorrow: Why Science Fiction”, he tells a remembrance of a real world example of his book. He states:
“[…] in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog. […] The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleepwalking […]” (Bradbury 1953, 364).
This shows how his prediction of a future of brainless media addicts with no attention on events taking place in reality was quickly becoming true. The woman walking with her husband and dog is exactly like the society in Fahrenheit 451, and the “dainty cone” is eerily similar to the seashell radios that the citizens of the fictional society wear around the clock. In the novel, and in his article about it, Bradbury speaks at great lengths about how the increase in radio and television media is creating a society of mindless subjects. These citizens do not have deep thoughts, and only absorb the surface of things. A New York Times review of Fahrenheit 451 by Orville Prescott speaks about Bradbury goal in the novel. He states “his basic message is a plea for direct, personal experience rather than perpetual, synthetic entertainment; for individual thought, action and responsibility; for the great tradition of independent thinking and artistic achievement symbolized in books” (Prescott 1953, 217). Prescott expresses Bradbury’s message about preserving what Faber avowed were the essentials for a full life, quality of information, leisure to digest it, and the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the first two. Faber explains his thoughts to Montag when he states,
“Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details, […] the more ‘literary’ you are. […] The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.” (Bradbury 1953, 79)
Prescott mentions the “perpetual, synthetic entertainment” that plagues the society in the novel, and even in our present world. When Faber talks about books having quality and pores, he means that they are real and not fake like the entertainment that made people dull. The fabricated reality of Mildred’s TV family has no detail nor pores. The content that the TV and radio broadcast is extremely surface and shallow. Books, on the other hand, contain authentic life and features, while also being truthful of the real world by not dodging the bad that is inevitable in life. In the article, “Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Political Correctness, and Soft Totalitarianism” by Thomas Bertonneau, he states, “The written word supports objectivity, criticism, and analysis: it enlarges and depends awareness and thus supports the civic order of the modern republics” (Bertonneau 2011). He is testifying that written word is essential in society because of its encouragement of individual thought, and without it a society is not whole.
The fake TV family that Mildred attaches herself to is an example of the media that cuts people out of society. The woman in Bradbury’s article, “The Day After Tomorrow: Why Science Fiction”, is “sleepwalking”, and not contributing nor paying any attention to society. People are too concerned about receiving the instant gratification that comes from TV and Radio. Gilbert Highet, in his review of Fahrenheit 451, speaks about the tendencies of the people in Bradbury’s fictional society. He states,
“[…] [The book] is much more than an assertion that we ought not to burn unorthodox books. Its hero lives in an epoch in which all books are burned, simply because it is a bore and a disturbance to think, and people are happier watching TV all day long and going to bed with a miniature radio whispering and crooning in their earholes” (Highet 1954, 218).
People are always craving immediate satisfaction from everything that they do. They believe that it is making them happy, but in fact, it is only overwhelming the deep, hidden sorrow that many of the citizens feel. Literature has long been a source of guidance and deeper thought, but in this society, books are absent. In the case of Mildred, her trouble is hidden underneath the “happiness” that she gets from her TV family. One night after coming home to find his wife lying in bed, resembling a corpse, and thinks bout how the room is both not empty and indeed empty. His wife is tangibly there but her mind is lost in the seashell radio that sings her to sleep. On this night, it was not the radio that put her to sleep, but a lethal dose of sleeping pills. Yet, when Montag confronts her about it she refuses to believe that she attempted suicide, and, instead, tries to explain her TV show. Much later in the novel, a group of intellectuals meets Montag and one of the scholars, Granger, says to Montag, “’Welcome back from the dead’” (Bradbury 1953, 143). The dead could mean a couple of things. The group of intellectuals had been watching the chase on TV waiting for Montag to show up, and a fake Montag had just been murdered by a hound. In that case it could just be a joke, but it could also be interpreted deeper. The dead could mean the deeply troubled, fake, mindless people that inhabit the city that Montag just arrived from. The citizens are only happier on the surface, but, in reality, they are all dead on the inside.
Media was able to take all of the individuality out of Bradbury’s society and create a land of apathetic zombies. Margaret Atwood spoke on the conforming nature of the censorship of reading and the overwhelming media in her article for the Guardian. She states,
“The very act of reading is considered detrimental to social order because it causes people to think, and then to distrust authorities. Instead of books the public is offered conformity via four-wall TV, with the sound piped directly into their heads via shell-shaped earbuds. […] Fahrenheit 451 predated Marshall McLuhan and his theories about how media shape people, not just the reverse. We interact with our creations, and they themselves act upon us” (Atwood 2011, 236).
Margaret reiterates the impact that technology has on Bradbury’s fictional society. Technology and the media can be very manipulative, and can inhibit emotions and thoughts. The city is a hub of suppression of people’s minds because of the conformity that is delivered by the media. Everyone in this society is hooked on the instant gratification of the media. When Montag tries to have a simple conversation with Mildred and her two friends, it is obvious how similar the women are. They are not informed with current events, they bring the conversation back to pop culture, and they only understand happiness. The media has shaped these women, and most likely the rest of the city, in such a way that when they are approached with something of substance, like Dover Beach, they are unable to process or take any meaning from it. Towards the end of the novel, Montag is chased by a mechanical hound, and floats down the river, escaping the hound, the city, and the suppression that is felt there. Bradbury describes Montag’s journey down the river when he states, “[…] the river was mild and leisurely, going away from the people who ate shadows for breakfast and steam for lunch and vapors for supper. The river was very real; it held him comfortably and gave him the time at last, the leisure, to consider this month, this year, and a lifetime of years” (Bradbury 1953, 134). The quote starts out by describing the tranquil river, sweeping him away from the lifeless, stock beings that he is leaving behind in the city. Montag comments on how real the nature feels, which is a stark contrast from the forged society that he is leaving. Most of all he has obtained Faber’s second rule of living a full life, the time to process thoughts and think deeper.
There are two explanations for the banning of books in Bradbury’s fictional world. One is the increase of fast media (Television and Radio), and the other is censorship. Both of these reasons cause the conformity of citizens in that society. In the “Coda” to Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury speaks about the issue when he states, “Fire Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by minorities, each ripping a page or paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the libraries closed forever” (Bradbury 1953, 210). In the remainder of the “Coda”, Bradbury writes about how, even in his writings and plays, he has dealt with what he terms the degutting of his work into a non-book. He talks about receiving mountains of mail about how he could change his work to be less insulting to a certain ethnicity, religion, or demographic, and how editors censor and reset mildly offensive books. Ironically, even Fahrenheit 451 received hate because of its content. In 2006, parents of a 15-year-old student that was assigned the novel wrote to the school system displaying his disgust. In an article by Kassia Micek, the mother is quoted saying, “’The book had a bunch of very bad language in it,’ […] ’It shouldn’t be in there because it’s offending people. … If they can’t find a book that uses clean words, they shouldn’t have a book at all’” (Micek 2006). The absurdity of this parent’s argument is laughable, and her husband adds, “’It’s just all kinds of filth,’ adding that he had not read Fahrenheit 451. ‘The words don’t need to be brought out in class. I want to get the book taken out of the class’” (Micek 2006). The ignorance of this couple is somewhat infuriating. The fact that they did not read the book and are criticizing it for its language is irrational. What they found wrong with the book was “discussion of being drunk, smoking cigarettes, violence, “dirty talk,” references to the Bible and using God’s name in vain” (Micek 2006). The student was 15 years-old, and had most likely heard those words previously, but her parents were still offended by them. This decline of self-expression and growth of knowledge is exactly why society is declining to an apathetic breed.
Bradbury is, of course, not the only author to encounter censorship in their work. Hundreds of books are, and have been, banned from schools around the world. However, books are not the only things being censored. People in today’s society have to constantly worry about having an opinion that is against the norm. What if the censorship of our thoughts and opinions (which is what makes us who we are) continues to grow and people are unable to express what they truly believe in? Captain Beatty explains how the censorship of books came about:
“Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers […]. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. […] Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. […] It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.” (Bradbury 1953, 54–5)
The pressure from minorities left the society without thoughtful literature. However, the comic books, which can be put in the same group as mindless TV and radio, stayed alive. Will the censorship in our current society leave us with media that has absolutely no substance?
Media is not the only thing that will be left without substance if the declining trend in society is kept up. Daily lives conversation and everything will be dry and meaningless. The mindless beings that are not adding to society are hampering the progress of civilizations. In the words of Bertonneau, “[…] any lapse from cultivated literacy in a critical, cue-giving nucleus of the educated population represents a lapse from civilization, a deterioration of the social scene, and an instance of decline towards new savagery” (Bertonneau 2011). The society in Bradbury’s novel has devolved to new savagery, a fully censored society that has no point but to provide the people with instant satisfaction.
Fahrenheit 451’s prediction of this society become our own is extremely accurate. While the situation is not to the quite the same, there are still many alarming connections that can be made between present society and the one Bradbury wrote about in 1953. In today’s society media has caused both conformity and censorship. There are many examples of the media takeover in our society, and this issue is becoming more and more of a problem. The popularity of contrived reality TV shows and the manipulation of news stories leads to messages with no substance, or substance that is meant to conform the minds and views of humans. Selective censorship is used to conform and please the dull-minded citizens of the present world. An article about the TV show, “The Biggest Loser”, written by a former contestant shows how the media is crooked.
“People need to remember that we signed up for a TV show and that’s exactly what it is … a TV show. They want the drama, the tears, the fights, the tears, the triumphs and the tears. Producers would push you to cry because that’s what makes good TV” (Costello 2014).
People are watching these shows and taking the messages for face value instead of questioning and thinking about the validity of the images. Not only does the selective censorship cause a species of brainless, instant satisfaction- seeking humans, it also conforms people to the mindset of wanting nothing more than the “drama and tears” that Costello speaks about in his piece.
The facade of, not only reality TV shows, but also media news outlets censors the viewer from what is actually happening. Whether it be something as simple as people forging the weigh-ins of a reality TV show, or the news outlet manipulating or being overly bias about a story to please or protect its viewers, censorship and misrepresentation of true facts damages our society. In the novel, the media is a tool used by the government to control its citizens, and keep them from thinking too outside of the box. In an article by Dean Garrison, he defines this phenomenon perfectly when he states, “The 4th branch of the government is what I like to call ‘state-run’ media because they are instrumental in swaying the opinion of the American people” (Garrison 2013). He says this in the reaction of CNN being accused of faking war footage to entertain and, mainly, sway their viewers.
The video that displays this manipulation of the truth shows a fake Syrian activist telling his crew members to get the gunfire sounds ready. This influence of the media catches the eye of those unable to think independently, and question the validity of the vassal that provides them with information about the world around them. Unfortunately, when lies are staged to an adept standard it is hard, or even impossible, to know what is going on in the world without physically witnessing for oneself. The fact that technology has grown to such a level that a person could have their whole view on reality skewed by manufactured news crews and television shows is exactly what Bradbury foresaw in his eye-opening novel.
Fahrenheit 451 is filled with themes and messages, and although 60 years old, is still accurately depicting the technology and media takeover of our lives. The fast paced, censored and falsified media has taken over society by replacing both books and the leisure time to sit and ponder life. No deep thoughts, or even completely artificial thoughts, can come from a news station or reality TV show, and without these thoughts people become dull and mindless. This conforms the people to be exactly like everyone else in the society, addicted to the seashell radio and TV, and not thinking about anything outside of that. The rise in media, conformity, and censorship all play off of each other, making society crueler.
I started this piece thinking extremely analytical of both the critic and the novel. I introduced either a part of Fahrenheit 451 or a quote from a critic, and only added a little bit of my commentary on the topic. I talked about how it was so similar to our real world, but only added one example of the censorship of Fahrenheit 451. When I sat down with my group, we talked about how I could possibly use my own voice with some help from present-day examples of Bradbury’s society. I then added some examples of the contrived media that causes people to conform to a censored, unrealistic view of society. I still must say I am most proud of my analytical writing of the book, and the book’s critics, that I used a majority of in the beginning of the piece. This was something that I was hoping to improve in my writing “toolbox,” and taking an ambitious shot at analytical writing was the only way I could start to progress.
I would like to first thank my workshop group, Marissa and Tiffany, for helping me find my way with my approach to the prompt. I struggled at first to find the right balance of analyzing and tying the critics’ remarks to Bradbury’s text, while adding my opinion to the conversation. My workshop group helped me find a way to add more of my voice by talking about the world we live in now. Thank you to Professor Harris for answering questions that I had about my piece almost every time we met for class! His wisdom and knowledge in this type of critical writing was exceptionally helpful to mastering this piece to the best of my ability. Finally, thank you to my ninth grade English professor, Mr. Wilfinger, whose love for Bradbury’s hypothetical world encouraged me to revisit the age-old novel, and dive deeper into the meaning of Bradbury’s message.
Atwood, Margaret. 2011. “Fahrenheit 451.” Guardian. 236–7.
Bertonneau, Thomas F. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/3825
Bradbury, Ray. 1953. “The Day After Tomorrow: Why Science Fiction.” The Nation. 364–6.
Bradbury, Ray. 1953. “Coda.” Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks.
Costello, Cosi. 2014. Accessed May 1, 2016. “Former Biggest Loser contestant Andrew ‘Cosi’ Costello reveals the truth about the weight loss show.” http://www.couriermail.com.au/entertainment/television/former-biggest-loser-contestant-andrew-cosi-costello-reveals-the-truth-about-the-weight-loss-show/story-fnihmx90-1226820498768#?sv=9cc6e09ed28cdee1bf04df120e3bd360
Garrison, Dean. 2013. Accesed May 6, 2016. “CNN Caught Faking War Footage AGAIN, This Time in Syria.” http://freedomoutpost.com/cnn-caught-faking-war-footage-time-syria/
Highet, Gilbert. 1954. “New Wine, Old Bottles.” Harper’s. 218–9.
Micek, Kassia. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://www.yourhoustonnews.com/archives/parent-criticizes-book-fahrenheit/article_b1136698-3645-5bd3-9911-717d8d5c241a.html
Prescott, Orville. 1953. “Books of the Times.” New York Times. 216–7.