My college writing class has been challenging. I don't love the instructor or her teaching style, a lot of what I hear from my youthful classmates both concerns and saddens me and a lot of the subject matter runs between rubbing my like sandpaper on tender bare skin and stretching me out just past my capacity. But if I am honest, I have to say I am learning, and despite myself I think I am even becoming a better writer.
One assignment in my writing class was to read a Dystopian novel. A "Dystopia" is an intended Utopian (perfect, ideal) society gone wrong. The books we had to choose from were 1984, A Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451. I chose the last book, primarily because it is my oldest son's self-proclaimed "favorite novel," and also partly because it was the shortest. It's a story about a future America where books are illegal - illegal to own and illegal to read. The idea is that
One of the things in this future world that replaces reading and thinking is watching TV. Only in this future world the TV isn't a box on a table (like it was in 1953 when the book was written and television was just beginning to be commonplace in American homes,) in this future world the TVs were actually wall-sized, and the ideal was a four-walled TV screened parlor. Fahrenheit 451's protagonist has an unhappy wife because her parlor only had three screens.
The main character of the book is a fireman. But the firemen of the future aren't the ones who put out the fires, they are the ones who cause them. The firemen of the future's primary responsibility is to burn the books, and the homes they're found in. It's like thought police on steroids, I suppose.
I'm offering you this background because I'd like to share my essay with you. It holds a warning for our modern day society if you look closely. No, we don't have parlors that we walk into to be mindlessly entertained; we have pocket-sized parlors that we pull out of our pockets though. And I think some of author Ray Bradbury's concerns back in 1953 are well highlighted in our modern day 2015. (I see some of those same concerns coming to light out of the other two novels as well.) I'm going to share my whole essay below (even my citations). After the essay I am going to share a link to a 15-20 minute survey I am conducting to help me with my final big assignment in my writing class. It's a research project/ paper about the effect of technology and social media on relationships and families (I'm finding myself a little torn and concerned, with a healthy dash of guilt). The survey is anonymous, and I would really appreciate your help if you would take a few minutes to fill it out. (If you don't want to read the essay but are willing to help me out, feel free to page down to the bottom of this page and just click on the survey.)
Read the essay with an open mind, think a little deeper. I haven't gotten it back yes, so I can't tell you the grade. I'd love to hear your comments and feedback, (in the thoughts sense, not the critique sense,) so feel free to comment here or on Facebook if that's where you found the link. If you feel inclined, feel free to share.
No Fire Within
Ray Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012) was just twelve years old when he began writing “Buck Rogers stories on his toy-dial typewriter” (Mogen 3). So perhaps it was the burgeoning author inside of Bradbury who was so deeply disturbed and brought to tears by the sight of the Nazi book burnings that he saw via news reels in a darkened movie theater in Los Angeles, California, as a young teen in 1934 (Weller 198-199). Something about the scene certainly stayed with Bradbury, for in his 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, he created a dystopian society where all books had to be burned. Although censors and oppressors would seem like obvious villains in a world like the one Bradbury has created, the author’s criticism seems to be more pointed toward the alleged victims and their refusal to think for themselves—resulting in intentionally mindless endeavors, lack of empathy, conformity, and cowardice. Bradbury is far more critical of these resulting actions and characteristics and their participants than he is of those inflicting the oppressive laws and circumstances in Fahrenheit 451’s world.
It is in a perilous circumstance in which meet Bradbury’s character Mildred Montag. Completely unconscious as she enters the story, she has attempted suicide, yet again. However, after her husband Guy, Bradbury’s protagonist and guide through the novel, has had Mildred’s stomach pumped and her blood cleaned, she awakens the next morning as if absolutely nothing has happened the night before (14-19). Mildred represents a symptom of this dystopian population where suicide is so common among them that the treatment for it is routine. It is routine that actually rules Mildred’s world; she spends the bulk of her time daily allowing her mind to be assaulted with the cacophony of the screens in the family’s “parlor.” Mildred’s life has been overcome by her interest only in the fictional “family” who lives on the screen. So much so, that even her own relationship with her husband is but an empty shell of what a marriage should be. Something seems to have died inside of Mildred Montag who has stopped thinking for herself, perhaps even stopped thinking much at all. When Mildred’s husband, Guy, tries to open up to her and challenge her to consider that something might be wrong with their world, Mildred simply prefers to withdraw and return to the family on the screen. Even Mildred’s “friendships” in the story are not centered on real relationship, but rather centered about the mindless entertainment that is blaring in her parlor and the parlors of her friends. Mildred’s only seemingly strong desire is to save up and add the fourth screen (20), presumably because it will be easier to engage in the mindless watching of the family, and not require her to think deeply about what’s happening in the world around her. The character of Mildred really is a perfect model of someone who is entertaining herself to death, and Bradbury clearly takes issue with the decision to give more concern to an imaginary world rather than her real one.
Mildred Montag’s predilection for mindless entertainment has also apparently birthed in her an overwhelming lack of empathy toward the world around her. From the way she passively mentions the tragic death of the neighbor, Clarisse (47), to the way she angrily dismisses her husband’s tales of the old woman who burned down with her home and her books (52), to the ultimate ease with which she turns her own husband in for hiding books (114), a complete lack of empathy and concern for others is revealed. However, Mildred’s lack of empathy is only one example of its widespread presence in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 dystopian world. Even protagonist Guy Montag, as a fireman, starts the novel joyfully swimming in a sea with no empathy. He and the other firemen have made a career of burning down the homes of those who have books, and he has enjoyed it. “Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by the flame… It never went away, that smile, it never went away…” (Bradbury 4). Though no one better personifies a complete lack of empathy than the firemen’s leader, Captain Beatty. Beatty’s commentary on Clarisse’s death is chilling, “The poor girl’s better off dead… Luckily queer ones like her don’t happen often. We know how to nip most of them in the bud, early” (Bradbury 60). There is no compassion, no care, from a man who could quote great philosophers and Holy Scriptures in chapter and verse. Beatty is completely unaffected by the books he has managed to read.
Despite all his knowledge, Beatty actually models far more than a lack of compassion and empathy. His character is the foremost proponent of perpetuating the injustice of the censorship and oppression happening in Bradbury’s imaginary world. Beatty is a fictitious example comparable to the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, in World War II. Goebbels is said to have “put German culture into a Nazi strait jacket” (Shirer 241), with his book burning which was intended to “free” the German people; likewise, Beatty saw himself and the firemen as the protectors of their society. “…we’re the Happiness Boys, the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought” (Bradbury 61-62), he assures Montag. Just as Goebbels was the Nazi party’s Minister of Propaganda, Beatty could be seen as Fahrenheit 451’s society’s “preacher of conformity.” He has the knowledge and opportunity to think for himself, but he not only refuses to do so, he actively sees to it that no one else should think for themselves either. Beatty willfully chooses to conform to a way of life that offers no freedom in thought at all.
Not all conformity comes from active and willful agreement like Captain Beatty’s in Fahrenheit 451. Even more disturbing is those who conform to this oppressive way of the world even when they know the mindset of it is wrong, even when they long to change their world. Although the character of Professor Faber is presented in a sympathetic light, he highlights how sad it is when a man chooses to live life under an oppression that he knows should not be so. When Montag first knocks on the professor’s door, “Faber peered out, looking very old in the light and very fragile, and very much afraid” (Bradbury 80). The Professor, a man who loves knowledge and books, has allowed himself to be bullied into the life of a recluse. “He’s not moved to active resistance because, as he tells Montag, he’s a coward” (Reid 58). Faber is man who knows many things but fails to really do anything with that knowledge. “One of the main functions Faber serves in the novel is to answer some of Montag’s questions and to give him ideas for how to change what he is doing” [emphasis mine] (Reid 58). The worst kind of cowardice is knowing what to do to create change and refusing to personally risk anything to make the change happen. Bradbury clearly highlights in Faber how ineffective knowledge and wisdom are without the actions necessary to back them up. Faber’s cowardice completely castrates his knowledge’s ability to create change.
Bradbury’s author heart is revealed in Guy Montag’s words to his wife as he realizes there is something sincerely wrong with the way he has responded to what’s happening in his world. Telling Mildred about the way the old woman’s house and books were burned down and her resulting choice to die, he says, “I thought about the books. And for the first time I realized that a man was behind each one of the books. A man had to think them up” (Bradbury 51-52). It’s Montag’s revelation that it is the destruction of independent thinking that has wronged his world more than just the destruction of books. Ironically it is with the external book-burning-fire that what Bradbury truly highlights is the lack of fire within his characters’ hearts. So entertained, so indifferent, so centered on self, Bradbury’s characters have lost all passion and purpose and have no fire in their hearts. Instead their hearts are filled with cowardice, conformity, lack of empathy and mindless pursuits. These are the evils of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian society that are highlighted through the characters in his novel. Fahrenheit 451 chronicles the internal crisis of Bradbury’s main character, fireman Guy Montag, as he awakens to the censorship and oppression that surrounds him. However, it isn’t with the affliction, or even those who impose the affliction, that Bradbury takes issue, but rather it is his characters’ responses to the oppression—or worse, their unquestioning cooperation with it. Perhaps it would behoove America’s modern day society to consider Bradbury’s warnings in Fahrenheit 451. Modern day “parlors” may be hand-held in purses and pockets rather than taking up walls in entire rooms, but the risk of being attached to and subdued by people on screens and entertained to a dangerous distraction is certainly a very real concern. One can only hope that this real-life, modern-day America is not standing atop of a very slippery slope.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451: The 50th Anniversary Edition. 2nd ed. New York: Random House Group, 1991. Print.
Mogen, David. "The Life behind the Myth: From Green Town to the Future." Ray Bradbury. Boston: Twayne, 1986. 1-13. Print.
Reid, Robin Anne. "Fahrenheit 451 (1953)." Ray Bradbury: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. 53-62. Print.
Shirer, William L. "Life in the Third Reich: 1933-37." The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. 231-76. Print.
Weller, Sam. "Fahrenheit 451." The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury. New York: William Morrow, 2005. 198-212. Print.
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