The Future Revisited: Fahrenheit 451

I hadn’t planned to jump on the bandwagon of Ray Bradbury commentary, but I was intrigued by the slew of articles about the late author (see earlier post). I was also in the mood for some fast-paced fiction, and it made sense to pick up Fahrenheit 451.

I recalled very little about the novel since reading it over 25 years ago. Most of my memories were colored by the 1960s film version. The latter is largely devoid of the conservative motifs that run through the book. A good example of Bradbury’s outlook is the passage where the teenage girl Clarisse – a quiet rebel against the new society – talks with the main character Montag:

I’m afraid of children my own age. They kill each other. Did it always use to be that way? My uncle says no. Six of my friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of them died in car wrecks. I’m afraid of them and they don’t like me because I’m afraid. My uncle says his grandfather remembered when children didn’t kill each other. But that was a long time ago when they had things different. They believed in responsibility, my uncle says. Do you know, I’m responsible. I was spanked when I needed it, years ago. And I do all the shopping and housecleaning by hand.

Though Montag is one of the future’s book burning “firemen,” he struggles with the superficiality and hi-tech hedonism of his peers. Clarisse asks him why he has no children. Avoidance of offspring (through abortion and other means) is typical of modern women, like his wife. Those who do reproduce devote as little time as possible to mothering, depending on perpetual daycare instead.

Everyone knows about the censorship depicted in Fahrenheit 451, yet what Bradbury envisions is not book banning at the hands of right-wing fanatics. Rather, the laws against serious reading come about because of declining intellectual standards and rampant egalitarianism. Bradbury accurately predicts the cultural ravages of “political correctness” decades before it happened. According to Montag’s nemesis, Captain Beatty, who supports the new order:

Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities…. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean…. No wonder books stopped selling…. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course…. It didn’t come from the Government down…. Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick….

I won’t force meanings on Bradbury’s story that aren’t there. Our philosophies aren’t identical. But I appreciate the fact that he was consistent in his views, even when they were unpopular with the mass media, and that he was no mere contrarian. There is much in Fahrenheit 451 that makes it a frighteningly accurate forecast of how culture in the West has evolved in the half century since it was published.

This entry was posted in Literature, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.