Ray Bradbury’s 1953 Fahrenheit 451 is one of few works of science fiction deemed worthy by public schools in the U.S. (Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, and Shelley’s Frankenstein being the other most common works taught). A book highlighting the cultural depravity of modern American life, certainly the average lifestyle as of 2013 has done little if anything to fill the void. The written word slipping in popularity in favor of screen entertainment, cultural values in turn seeing their common denominator lowered, there may be no better sci-fi novel to standardize.
Confirming the tradition of dystopian literature made popular by Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 is set at an unstated time in America’s future in a social environment that defies our cultural norm. Books, those promoters and propagators of dissent, have been outlawed. The main character is Guy Montag, a fireman whose job it is to burn books, and subsequently the homes of those caught with the contraband. Satisfied with his work, Montag’s relationship with his wife is, however, less content. Mildred a vacant soul, she spends her days in front of their massive three-walled telescreen with her favorite soap operas, interacting despondently with Guy and taking medication indifferent to the consequences. A near-death experience of Mildred’s, coupled with a startling occurrence at the home of a book hoarder, however, begin to open Montag’s eyes to aspects of his world he was not aware of. The lesson, however, may be too late.
Given such a premise, Bradbury’s choice of themes seems crystal clear. And by and large it is. Censorship, thought suppression, inviolable control—any such label you put on the severe restriction of basic human rights covers the subject matter of Bradbury’s concern given the politics of the era. (Interestingly enough, as of 2009 Fahrenheit 451 still appears on the American Library Association list of banned/challenged books.) What has become more obvious with the passing of time is additional thematic material inherent to the story, particularly that idealized by Mildred. The degree of intelligence required to digest American soap operas and reality shows close to null, the West’s increasing penchant to take the easy road—to vegify itself under the lights of unilateral amusement—remains popular, leading one to wonder: where is it all headed? Like Mildred, are we to alienate ourselves so completely that reality loses significance? It is a question pertinent in Bradbury’s time that has only become more important in ours.
But for as far as the premise extends extra-textually, there remain some unresolved problems innate to the novel. Bradbury imbues the text with a sense of emotional urgency that nicely draws the reader onward, but there is nothing of the sort plot-wise. High school students with little reading experience may be curious how the story ends, but most adults who have read a book or two will have a good idea how it will develop after the first forty or so pages, and at about the halfway point, will know how things turn out—only the details perhaps differing slightly. In other words, Fahrenheit 451 is a book that makes an important statement, it’s just not certain whether the statement has been couched in a story that fully engages the reader; step by step the plot unravels as one expects, killing much of the drama. By contrast, readers never know what the outcome of Winston Smith will be in Nineteen Eighty-four until reading the complete novel. Thus, it must be along other lines that Bradbury’s novel engages the reader.
A straight-forward book that presents its worldview in direct, literary fashion, that impetus can be found in the style which the book is written. Fahrenheit 451 a rich, emotionally detailed story, Bradbury really digs into the head of Montag. Utilizing a stream-of-consciousness narrative, readers are privy to the man’s thoughts as he encounters neighbors, deals with his wife, spends time with his conformist boss and colleagues, and meets dissidents secretly keeping books—all of whom represent varying views of the value of censorship and the role of books and media in society, but are refracted through Montag’s evolving thoughts. Bradbury an accomplished writer, the novel’s narrative style is something to be recommended, and what keeps the wheels of story moving steadily forward.
In the end, Fahrenheit 451 is an important work of science fiction for its commentary on culture, society, and the power of the government which oversees them. A voice in support of free speech, the ban on books Bradbury envisions has not come to pass. What has happened (at least as perceived by myself, which is open to debate) is the continued decline of society. Mildred an intelligently depicted analogy of the cultural and spiritual emptiness pervading post-modern society, Bradbury’s statement in the novel seems to transcend censorship and attack individual themselves, challenging them to examine their world and take part in aspects of life less base. With media continuing to produce dumbed-down material year after year, the gauntlet seems well thrown.