Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 addresses complex themes of censorship, freedom, and technology. Unlike most science fiction, Fahrenheit 451 does not view technology as a universal good. Rather, the novel explores the potential for technological advancement to make humans less free. Bradbury investigates these concepts with a straightforward writing style, employing several literary devices that add layers of meaning to the story.
Freedom of Thought vs. Censorship
The central theme of Fahrenheit 451 is the conflict between freedom of thought and censorship. The society that Bradbury depicts has voluntarily given up books and reading, and by and large the people do not feel oppressed or censored. The character of Captain Beatty provides a concise explanation for this phenomenon: the more people learn from books, Beatty tells Montag, the more confusion, uncertainty, and distress arises. Thus, the society decided that it would be safer to destroy the books—thus restricting their access to ideas—and occupy themselves with mindless entertainment.
Bradbury shows a society that is clearly in decline despite its technological advances. Montag’s wife Mildred, who serves as a stand-in for society at large, is obsessed with television, numbed by drugs, and suicidal. She is also frightened by new, unfamiliar ideas of any kind. The mindless entertainment has dulled her ability to think critically, and she lives in a state of fear and emotional distress.
Clarisse McClellan, the teenager who inspires Montag to question society, stands in direct opposition to Mildred and the other members of society. Clarisse questions the status quo and pursues knowledge for its own sake, and she is exuberant and full of life. The character of Clarisse offers hope for humanity explicitly because she demonstrates that it is still possible to have freedom of thought.
The Dark Side of Technology
Unlike many other works of science fiction, the society in Fahrenheit 451 is made worse by technology. In fact, all the technology described in the story is ultimately harmful to the people who interact with it. Montag’s flamethrower destroys knowledge and causes him to witness terrible things. The huge televisions hypnotize their viewers, resulting in parents with no emotional connection to their children and a population that cannot think for itself. Robotics are used to chase down and murder dissenters, and nuclear power ultimately destroys civilization itself.
In Fahrenheit 451, the only hope for the survival of the human race is a world without technology. The drifters that Montag meets with in the wilderness have memorized books, and they plan to use their memorized knowledge to rebuild society. Their plan involves only human brains and human bodies, which represent ideas and our physical ability to implement them, respectively.
The 1950s saw the initial rise of television as a mass medium for entertainment, and Bradbury was very suspicious of it. He saw television as a passive medium that required no critical thinking the way reading did, even light reading done just for amusement. His depiction of a society that has given up reading in favor of the easier, more mindless engagement with television is nightmarish: People have lost their connection to one another, spend their time in a drugged dreamland, and actively conspire to destroy great works of literature—all because they are constantly under the influence of television, which is designed to never disturb or challenge, only to entertain.
Obedience vs. Rebellion
In Fahrenheit 451, the society at large represents blind obedience and conformity. In fact, the characters of the novel even assist their own oppression by voluntarily banning books. Mildred, for example, actively avoids listening to or engaging with new ideas. Captain Beatty is a former book lover, but he, too, has concluded that books are dangerous and must be burned. Faber agrees with Montag's beliefs, but he is fearful of the repercussions of taking action (though he ultimately does so).
Montag represents rebellion. Despite the resistance and danger he faces, Montag questions societal norms and steals books. However, it's important to note that Montag's rebellion is not necessarily pure of heart. Many of his actions can be read as resulting from personal dissatisfaction, such as angrily lashing out at his wife and attempting to make others see his point of view. He does not share the knowledge he gains from the books he hoards, nor does he seem to consider how he might help others. When he flees the city, he saves himself not because he foresaw the nuclear war, but because his instinctive and self-destructive actions have forced him to run. This parallels his wife’s suicide attempts, which he holds in such contempt: Montag’s actions are not thoughtful and purposeful. They are emotional and shallow, showing that Montag is a much a part of society as anyone else.
The only people shown to be truly independent are the drifters led by Granger, who live outside of society. Away from the damaging influence of television and the watching eyes of their neighbors, they are able to live in true freedom—the freedom to think as they like.
Bradbury’s writing style is florid and energetic, giving a sense of urgency and desperation with lengthy sentences containing sub-clauses that crash into each other:
“Her face was slender and milk-white, and it was a kind of gentle hunger that touched over everything with a tireless curiosity. It was a look of almost pale surprise; the dark eyes were so fixed to the world that no move escaped them.”
Additionally, Bradbury uses two main devices to convey an emotional urgency to the reader.
Bradbury uses animal imagery when describing technology and actions in order to show the perverse lack of the natural in his fictional world—this is a society dominated by, and harmed by, a total reliance on technology over the natural, a perversion of the ‛natural order.’
For example, the opening paragraph describes his flamethrower as a ‛great python’:
“It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.”
Other imagery also compares technology to animals: the stomach pump is a snake and the helicopters in the sky are insects. Additionally, the weapon of death is the eight-legged Mechanical Hound. (Notably, there are no living animals in the novel.)
Repetition and Patterns
Fahrenheit 451 also deals in cycles and repeated patterns. The Firemen’s symbol is the Phoenix, which Granger eventually explains in this way:
“There was a silly damn bird called a Phoenix back before Christ: every few hundred years he built a pyre and burned himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we're doing the same thing, over and over, but we've got one damn thing the Phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did.”
The ending of the novel makes it clear that Bradbury views this process as a cycle. Humanity progresses and advances technology, then is destroyed by it, then recovers and repeats the pattern without retaining the knowledge of the previous failure. This cyclical imagery pops up elsewhere, most notably with Mildred’s repeated suicide attempts and inability to remember them as well as Montag’s revelation that he has repeatedly stolen books without doing anything with them.