FARENHEIT 451: Harbinger of the Future
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Among the intelligentsia of the late Nineteenth Century were those who believed that science and technology would create utopia, heaven on earth, in the future. The devastation caused by tanks, poison gas, and the development of more efficient automatic weapons and artillery pieces during World War I, followed by World War II, the horrors of Zyklon B and the arrival of the Atomic Age, diminished that view. Science and technology could as readily foster hell on earth.
Among the various dystopias envisioned by science fiction writers are Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s 1951 novel Fahrenheit 451.
In Bradbury’s nightmare world, the citizenry has mortgaged its collective soul to a bogus definition of happiness, consisting of mindlessness and cheap thrills. The characters waste their lives mesmerized by wall-sized interactive TV screens that blast nonstop bloody violence in the form of clowns chopping off one another’s arms and legs and demolition derbies with multiple casualties.
This population of vapid automatons is personified by “Mildred,” the wife of “Guy Montag,” himself one of the “firemen” whose duty it is to seek out any remaining books and burn them. Each community has a fire station, complete with a staff that sets fires and a mechanical hound that can sniff out radicals, dissidents, the literate and inject them with poison. The novel is the story of Montag’s transformation from book burner to book rescuer. Montag’s spiritual metamorphosis is as radical as was that of St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus.
One fine day, Montag encounters “Clarisse,” a teenage neighbor, who has been branded as “different” and antisocial by school authorities because of her habit of walking in the forest, watching birds and butterflies, loving the rain.
Despite himself, Montag is captivated by Clarisse’s openness and spontaneity. He is ripe for transformation, having been traumatized by an elderly lady’s self-immolation before his horrified eyes, as she chose fiery death rather than stand by and watch her precious books be tossed to the flames.
In the world of Fahrenheit 451, all too accurately approximating the contemporary United States of America, conversation consists of word patterns, jargon, pretty sounds. Citizens go about day and night with seashells, thimble sized radios, buzzing away in their ears, frittering away empty lives with meaningless prattle, with fun.
Education consists of sports and rote memorization, and children, forced to spend nine out of every ten days in school, are never permitted to ask questions. After school activities consist of shouting, frenzied dancing and bullying. Clarisse reminisces that there was once a time when children did not kill one another. It is illegal to possess or read books, and history has been rewritten, turning wise Ben Franklin into a book burner.
Clarisse laments, “People don’t talk about anything.” Instead, they prattle on endlessly about trifles and trivia. Bradbury compares the populace to “A gibbering pack of tree apes that say nothing and say it loudly.” Music pounds people into submission. Driving 95 MPH, running down rabbits, dogs, even people, is a socially acceptable form of catharsis. Special technicians prowl neighborhoods, pumping the stomachs and recycling the poisoned blood of nine to ten attempted suicides a night.
As the novel opens, Montag finds Mildred passed out and near death from an overdose of medications. After being drained and refilled by the technicians, she giggles the entire incident off next morning. “Why would I do a thing like that?” Beattie, Montag’s supervisor and mentor, senses his diminishing commitment and drums a pep talk into him, laden with totalitarian gibberish.
The noise level, the continual electronic bombardment, the obsessive shielding of the inhabitants of Bradbury’s world from any semblance of reality are reminiscent of Pandemonium, the city of all demons in Milton’s Paradise Lost, where constant uproar renders the completion of any thought on the part of its reptilian dwellers impossible.
As his inner self rejects the artificial society that he is less and less a part of, Montag saves a Bible from the flames. Riding on the subway, he attempts in vain to read and understand the words of Matthew VI, “Consider the lilies of the field,” all the while bombarded by a PA blasting musical ads for Denham’s Dentifrice that lulls his fellow passengers into a hypnotic ecstasy of toe tapping and finger snapping.
In the end, Montag’s redemption is completed when, after turning his flame-thrower upon Beattie in a hideous form of suicide by cop (or by fireman) and obliterating the mechanical hound as it injects its toxic needle into his calf, he escapes across the river to join a group of rebels in the wilderness. Each member devotes his life to the memorization of a single book, in order to preserve it, hoping for a future renaissance.
Nuclear war breaks out, and from their wilderness sanctuary, the rebels witness the obliteration of the society they have fled.
When one views the contemporary scene in the light of Bradbury’s novel, it is easy to see parallels: TV, movies and video games dominated by vivid portrayals of violence; a national obsession with spectator sports; network news focused upon the antics of celebrities and athletes; public education that has down played critical thinking skills in favor of rote memorization; legions who seek escape into a drug-induced haze.
Today, books are burned by indifference, lassitude and stubborn, self-induced ignorance. Fahrenheit 451 is a parable for our times. Bradbury thunders with the voice of an Old Testament prophet. Alas, few societies heed the voices of their prophets. And, yes, children now kill one another.