Fahrenheit 451 has never been more relevant than it is today. The parlor walls that Ray Bradbury envisioned in his iconic story are similar to the large wall-mounted TV screens with continuous streaming content available for binge-watching. Video games have become immersive with Oculus and Metaverse. Many people (especially children) are addicted to video games, and some play them for a living. City planning often bolsters car culture, with the assumption that everyone has a car, which, majoritively, they do. People either rush to shops in cars through freeways to make good time or order in through Amazon, Instacart, and/or Doordash. A pedestrian walking to a grocery store is a rare sight indeed! As more and more books are made into movies, people prefer to consume the movie version rather than read the same book, which requires a lot more work and time. Movies lack richness, detail, and the nuances of a book, and there’s less power of imagination involved when everything is shown exactly as it is. Beatty summarizes this well when he says “Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending. Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume” (26). In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury demonstrates how mindless consumption of entertainment over the pure joy and fulfillment of reading and existing as one with nature leads to addiction to technology.
Through the striking contrast between Clarisse and Mildred, Bradbury exemplifies the difference between a book-lover aware of the world around her and an addict whose life revolves around technology. Mildred is always in bed, looking at her parlor wall, believing actors—who neither know nor care about her—to be her family. Montag, Milred's husband, walks home and despite the presence of his wife he finds the room empty. He expects to find “his wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold, like a body displayed on the lid of a tomb, her eyes fixed to the ceiling by invisible threads of steel, immovable. And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty” (5). This excerpt shows there’s no true connection between them, romantic or otherwise. It also shows that Mildred seeks gratification in cheap, superficial, unhealthy ways, and does not seem to be truly happy. When Mildred overdoses on sleeping tablets, it’s such a common problem that they don’t even need a doctor for it. The handymen say, “We get these cases nine or ten a night. Got so many, starting a few years ago, we had the special machines built. With the optical lens, of course, that was new; the rest is ancient. You don't need an M.D., case like this; all you need is two handymen, clean up the problem in half an hour” (6). This indicates people are deeply unhappy in this society. Mildred also says, “Books aren’t people, my family is people. They tell me things; I laugh, they laugh. And the colors!” (34). She seems to find television more tangible than books. It’s almost as if she believes that people on television have a personal connection to her and are her family. When Montag asks her, “Does your `family' love you, love you very much, love you with all their heart and soul, Millie?” (36), she’s unable to answer. She doesn’t want to acknowledge that the cast neither knows nor cares about her, and she’d rather remain in denial.
Clarisse, on the other hand, has a deep personal connection with nature, books, and people. She admits she rarely watches the parlor walls. Instead, Clarisse likes to "smell things and look at things, and sometimes stay up all night, walking, and watch the sun rise” (3). And for this, she is sent to a psychiatrist, because it’s not considered normal. She even admits that her uncle was once arrested “for being a pedestrian” (4), and once “jailed for two days” (3) for driving slowly on the highway to observe the scene around him. Clarisse loves being outside and being one with nature. She likes enjoying the small things that no one else pays attention to, like “walking in the center of the sidewalk with her head up and the few drops falling on her face” (9). “Rain even tastes good,” she says (9). In this book, Clarisse is a breath of fresh air compared to the jaded Mildred.
Bradbury uses the universal concept of book burning, which has always been a constant across multiple authoritarian regimes, because books foster independent thought—the dictator’s bane, and the seed of a democratic system. Therefore, burning books is how dictators enforce conformity. There have been instances of book burnings in China, the Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany, where the authoritarian regimes carried out large scale purges of authors, intellectuals, and teachers. Countless books and the ideas they contained have been destroyed. Closer to home, in the United States, book burnings were planned during the McCarthy era, when there was a red scare. Beatty explains the dictator’s perspective, and how this might have a populist basis when he says, “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it” (28). He says books create inequality because it makes some people seem smarter than others. If everyone can’t be intellectuals, then no one should be, thereby forcibly removing diversity. Beatty also says, “You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can't have our minorities upset and stirred” (29). So, according to him, if people are upset with a book, then burn it, thereby removing all freedom of expression, forcing everyone to conform. Bradbury imagines how life would be if no one is allowed to say, read, or write anything that might upset any small faction of people. Since there will always be people who disagree, no one is allowed to say, read, or write anything! In the end, there’s nothing to agree or disagree with. Everyone is oblivious to the world around them. There’s an imminent war, yet parlor walls are deemed more important. In this book, a thinking man is considered a dangerous thing who should be extinguished, and this has many parallels in real life.
When Bradbury likens the loss of books and knowledge to the dark ages, he establishes hope that humanity will be reborn and hints that memorization of books by thousands will serve as the medium for the rebirth. The book ends on a hopeful note, where groups of people memorize the words in books to “keep the knowledge we think we will need, intact and safe” (71). They hope that “when the war's over, perhaps we can be of some use in the world” (71). Granger summarizes this best when he compares humanity to the phoenix: “Every few hundred years he built a pyre and burned himself up. But every time he burnt himself up, he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again” (76). This shows that Bradbury hopes that humanity will remember their past mistakes through preserving knowledge, unlike a phoenix, and that’s why humanity will eventually stop making those mistakes in some distant future. Granger also says, “And when the war's over, someday, some year, the books can be written again, the people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know and we'll set it up in type until another Dark Age” (72). This hints at books being the medium to preserve knowledge and history in order that we don’t keep making the same mistakes repeatedly. He talks about the never-say-die spirit where humanity can be self-destructive, but they also don’t give up, and they try to resurrect from whatever is left behind. Books will be a crucial instrument for change.
Bradbury clearly shows that replacing books with technology has no redeeming quality. It makes people unhappy, conditioned to conform to the same way of thinking, and makes their life meaningless. Through addiction to technology, they lose all personal connection to nature, to people around them, and even to themselves. Their attention spans dwindle to the level that even conversations are too much to keep focus and they become completely apathetic. Burning books doesn’t bring equality, instead it makes everyone equally miserable, cut off from everything they could care about. Bradbury’s story shows why books must be preserved.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Ballantine Books, 1953. Buy the book here and help support Stone Soup in the process!
Bradbury, Ray, et al. Fahrenheit 451. Gallimard, 2020.