I’m not going to rehash the story of this well-known dystopian novel but only give a quick synopsis. Guy Montag is a married fireman living in a future age in America. But in this future America firemen do not put out fires, they start them, throwing kerosene on piles of books found in homes and lighting them on fire. The firemen respond to nosy individuals who turn their neighbors over to the authorities, so to speak, on suspicion of reading books, which is illegal. In this future age human beings watch TV on full-screen walls and listen to music in little pods in their ears (does any of this sound strangely, terrifyingly familiar?). Early in the novel Guy meets a young girl, Clarisse, who speaks to him of an earlier age in which people used to read and write books. This sparks a curiosity in Guy to know what is in books to have the age they live in ban them from being read, so on one call to set a fire to an old woman’s books, he steals one, adding it to a small collection he already has hidden away in his home. Eventually, he is discovered for his betrayal and he must flee to save himself, and in doing so, meets a group of people in the forest who are repositories of the most beloved and classic texts of the human race and the knowledge contained therein. It ends with Guy and this group journeying back toward the city, hoping for a new day, a better world, different from the one in which they’ve been living.
What fascinated and disturbed me about this novel was the cold, stifled, unmoved, almost void atmosphere the characters live in, but that is the point of a dystopian novel, pointing out the flaws and poking the holes in the hopes of a utopia that man has dreamed of since ancient times, as witnessed by Plato’s own fantasy of a perfect city-state ruled by a philosopher-king in The Republic. Remember, even Plato wished to banish the poets. And in this future America, banishing not just poets but all writers and their books has been accomplished. The coldness of this world is being seen in our own times with the advancement of technology which is causing us to lead more solitary and, in many ways, limited lives, lives where personal communication and intimacy is being lost more and more, where our privacy and right to free speech and expression is becoming more and more contracted, thanks to a disastrous, endless quest for absolute security by the American government and the limitless power of multinational corporations running the world, which no one in the government wishes to curb because they either own their own or are bribed by the others, and few people seem to notice or care.
What is frightening about this novel is the fact that it is more extremely prescient of the age we are living in now, only sixty years after its publication, and the world we will be living in soon. A world in which communication will be even more, if not entirely electronic and technologically oriented, and the face-to-face contact, which seems to be fading more and more with the juggernaut of social media and texting (which has even eliminated the need for voice-to-voice contact) will barely exist, if at all. Witness the very poor communication and lack of intimacy between Guy and his wife, Mildred, throughout the first part of the novel, as she is so absorbed in the “reality TV” with which she can interact, and with the sounds emanating from the pods in her ears, that she barely “hears” her husband or responds to him. Intimacy, it seems, of any sort, is a lost art and a chore in this novel.
Though the purpose of technology is to make our lives easier and better, it comes at a real cost, a dangerous, apocalyptic cost—the cost of human individuality and human contact and intimacy. But, for most of the population under the age of fifty today it seems that that is a price worth paying for the technology that only appears to make their lives better, but unexpectedly and unsuspectingly destroys the humanity they were born with. This is one of the novel’s points, not just about how humans pin false hopes on a grand utopian future that cannot exist like those described in late-nineteenth-century novels, during the first wave of socialist and anarchist dreams. Technology has become an ideology in its own right. There are those who believe in it uncritically, mindlessly thinking it can advance the human race without creating any dramatic, detrimental repercussions; there are those who fear it and outright want no part of it, whether because they are of an older generation or just naturally averse to it, and then there are those who look on it with great reservation. These latter know that, from what we’ve already seen, technology, as the most concrete and tangible of ideologies, has been created by man, a being with free will, which allows him to follow his own mind and desires, self-serving or not as they may be, and so do good or evil as he will, and he has been given a genetic makeup determined by Fate, which, if it is by nature “good,” then he will be prone to do good, and if it is by nature without moral conscience, then he will do evil, unless he is in some way prevented from doing so.
Technology, as depicted in Fahrenheit 451, crushes and dissolves the emotions and passions in individuals and the race as a whole that make us human, real, and honest. The technology of the music pods and the all-wall TVs in the story are there for mind-numbing entertainment purposes, to prevent the people from thinking and feeling, from even committing suicide, an idea that can be found in books, but not in this entertainment which whitewashes the truth about the world these characters are living in right out of existence. In a utopia and its dystopian other, individuals do not exist, but rather only the herd, the unthinking masses, akin to the fascist, Nazi, socialist, and communist herds of the twentieth century, which still exist to this day in many places.
A society must have peace, law, and order in order to be preserved, to continue on at a steady pace toward progress, and retain the freedom and power it has attained. The best way to do this is to brainwash the masses in order to achieve a tacit, unobserved complicity wherein they do as they are told for the preservation of society and its continued progress and peace. But how is this achieved? By teaching only one ideology so that all can share and believe in the same singular beliefs and values, which would eliminate lawlessness (one hopes entirely) and allow for the continued fulfillment of the needs and desires of those in control of the minds and bodies of the masses. And so for Bradbury, in 451, this is achieved by declaring the reading of books illegal and punishable by the humiliation of being seen as an outcast in this one-track-minded society and having those books burned in a spectacle of smoke and fire. To burn books is to eliminate the multiplicity of ideas and dreams and the very passions of humanity from being learned and considered deeply by the masses, thus preventing any possibility of dissent from the singular ideology inculcated in them. Society’s peace and preservation is also achieved by giving the masses only unemotional, thoughtless visual entertainment and soothing music to lull them to sleep (the latter further symbolizing how “unconsciousness” they already are and are meant to remain) during their few leisure hours when they are not slaving away at low-paying, rote, meaningless jobs that also keep their minds and spirits from showing any resemblance to human thought, passion, or emotion.
In the end, Fahrenheit 451 is a novel worth reading. It may not have the power of other classic fiction, a story that is truly driven in its narrative by the hand of a master novelist or characters that one can wholly relate to (though, in this case, excluding Guy as the protagonist, dystopian fiction is not a genre in which you are meant to find more than one or two “human” characters to which you can relate), but it is still a powerful read because it does what the books in this book are burned for—offers readers ideas, ideas full of warnings concerning the potential for a frighteningly limiting, entrapping future that we have already begun building and are allowing to be created.
This is a novel of dissent, and Guy, a figure of dissent. And Bradbury wants us to react in the same manner to society’s terrifying, dangerous march of progress toward a future in which everything that makes us human will be stripped from us, inside and out, without a second thought or the least hesitation by those who are in control, and whom we permit to keep and gain control, if we do not look up from our smartphones and iPads, and take our earbuds out of our ears to use our voice (which we have begun to lose already) and say, “No, this is too much! I will not let this happen! I will not be turned into a mindless member of the herd and lose my individuality, my humanity!”