Fahrenheit 451. By Ray Bradbury.
Great literature teaches us about ourselves. Dystopian literature warns us of who we might become. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, we recognize who we’ve been and what we’ve become over the past seven decades. We didn’t heed Bradbury’s warning; we merely fulfilled his prophecy. Not only did he accurately predict back in 1953 the pervasive 21st-century technologies and habits that tend to detach us from reality and alienate us from one another — iPods and earbuds, “screen time” and binge-watching — he also predicted the unfortunate results of progressive educational trends, the opioid crisis, and the dominance of an entertainment culture that separates us from our moral purpose. Bradbury’s dystopia is a secular society that breaks with the cultural and historical past, disregards the wisdom of the ages, and criminalizes the possession of books — all books — because they may cause readers to question the status quo and consequently present a threat to political stability.
The novel takes its name from the temperature at which paper burns. The iconic twist of Fahrenheit 451 is the profession of the fireman, who no longer puts out fires but starts them. (Bradbury did not predict the rise of a political correctness that would necessitate calling these public servants firefighters.) These state-sanctioned arsonists carry out their duty to protect society not from the consuming flames of fire but from the malicious impact of books and their potentially grand messages. Guy Montag is one such fireman, one whom Bradbury uses as his tragic protagonist, one we recognize in all effective dystopian novels: the character who begins to question the status quo, later becomes a rebel, and then is hunted as a rogue.
It is through Montag’s wife, Mildred, however, that Bradbury demonstrates the sicknesses of his imagined society. He uses her character and her interactions with Montag to illustrate the typical citizen, detached and alienated, amused yet depressed. Mildred spends most of her waking hours immersed in an escapist virtual reality, binge-watching shows on giant flat-screen TVs that take up the entirety of three walls of her parlor. The characters in her favorite series have become a surrogate family to her; she refers to them as her aunts and uncles. She even believes that she herself has become a character in these shows — a sort of Hollywood niece.
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