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Fahrenheit 451: What Would Happen if Books Did Not Exist?

Book cover from Fahrenheit 451 (Joseph Moffat, n.d.)

The idea of books as the nucleus of social values and principles dates to Plato’s Republic because they have been a pivotal element of civilization since its origins. Fahrenheit 451 is one the most famous science-fiction books in literary history, and it explores the role of books in the construction of a community. The dystopia focuses on a tyrannical regime that builds its power by erasing books or any print material (Baker, 2005). Ray Bradbury succeeds in creating a contemporary myth about the dangers of technology and consumerism to warn of the consequences of discarding culture over mass culture.

Bradbury chose this topic to write his novel because of his love for books and libraries. For the author, writings represent freedom of speech and, for that reason, censorship is a political mechanism to promote conformism, consumerism, and cultural uniformity. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury presents high culture as the only opposition to mass culture and social alienation. From a historical point of view, the post-war world started some tendencies that continue to the present: mass culture spread throughout the globe and its outcomes were perceived everywhere. Even though some of its achievements were beneficial, mass culture overall constituted a departure from high culture. The loss of individual experience was one of the main consequences since media biased all aspects of social life (Baker, 2005).

Atypical Depression Illustration (Larissa Beyla Popanda, 2019)

In Bradbury’s work, books acquire human nature to the point that people who oppose the political regime learn the texts by heart. Therefore, they can never be lost or disappear. Bradbury intends to articulate that ethical and moral societies exist because of the principles inherited from books for centuries. Therefore, Bradbury establishes a parallelism between books and humanity: neither can live without the other because both need each other in a cultural symbiosis (Baker, 2005). In this way, not only does the author establish a dialectic relationship between his text and other ones, but he also creates a metaliterary book that discusses the relevance of its kind.

Throughout literature, books have been portrayed differently, from gifts to malicious weapons. The cultural heritage of books has made them an essential element of society. Therefore, the cultural and scientific foundations of civilization rest on them (Pearce, 2015). A community does not operate if it is not built on a social consensus, and this is only possible through the sharing of values and principles. In the same way, an individual cannot legitimately accept the social agreement if they are not free to do it. Bradbury draws into the spotlight the importance of self-assertiveness and agency to fight back against conformism and bureaucracy. The author presents a positive outlook with his work since the main character, Montag, experiences a radical change in his identity because he goes from belonging to a system that constantly and systemically burns books, to being one of the creators of the new civilization (Hoskinson, 1995). Therefore, Bradbury keeps a positive mindset regarding his social and existential concerns. As the plot unfolds, Montag is more dissatisfied with his life because he cannot find a reason for his existence. The emptiness that fills him is illustrated in the chasing scene when he runs away from the Mechanical Hound, a device whose purpose is to locate any print material. Bradbury’s description of the city landscape presents a space highly technological and devoid of any life, an image reinforced by the Mechanical Hound, a remote-controlled device with no emotions or desires of its own (Baker, 2005).

The dystopias of the 1950s are based on the discovery of an autonomous self that rebels completely against the regime that tries to alienate it. It is a recovery of the humanist values of the Renaissance as well as a search for the very thing that provides the vital centre of people, which, in the case of Fahrenheit 451, is literature. In these dystopias, it is impossible to change the system from within, so one can only fight or flee. In the novel, civilization can only be regained through the memorisation of books, and this only takes place through the bookmen found in the forest, which is why nature and the city are contrasted. For Bradbury, civilization can only emerge from contact with natural values far away from the consumerism that the city represents. Therefore, the author begins to form a utopia out of the dystopia since, in the end, he outlines his idea of an ideal civilization. Not only are books important, but nature also plays an essential role when establishing a new civilization since it provides a space for self-reflection distant from the consumer world of the city (Baker, 2005).

Loneliness in a Crowd (Graehawk, 2017)

An alienated society lacks the necessary ethical foundation to provide for everybody since it has not been built on a social consensus that assures rights to its citizens. However, the most important one is the right to be educated to achieve the feeling of self-fulfillment. A community formed by people who have not developed a sense of self or ideas is a target for demagogy and manipulation in politics and the sphere of personal relationships. Books are essential elements in society since they enable people to go beyond their direct experience to explore different areas of knowledge. Therefore, their erasure would sentence a whole community to a sense of loss and void that would result in a corrupt society dependent on consumerism or mass culture to find the essence of life. Bradbury's novel can be appreciated as a modern take on Plato's allegory of the cave since all characters are bound to the shadows that string them to the counterfeit world. They disregard and despise Montag, who, as a last resort, is the only one who contemplates his life as a result of manipulation and control. In Plato's allegory, people are chained in the depth of the cave being entertained by shadows that are reflected on the wall. Therefore, they do not feel the need to go outside and acknowledge the real world. When one of them manages to be unchained, he urges the rest to go outside to which the others respond with violence. Plato intends to explain the process of self-discovery and knowledge through this allegory while Bradbury pursues the same objective by creating a modern myth about resistance and alienation (Connor, 2004).

Fahrenheit 451 addresses the outcomes of a society that has lost the value of high culture and education. It denounces the dangers of disregarding ethical and moral values, freedom of speech, and agency. A civilization without culture is destinated to degrade itself to the extent where historical background and social awareness are lost. Bradbury warns of society's increasing selfishness and insensitivity, as it can be easily corrupted by tools designed to distance people from the truth. For him, books represent the oasis that can restore meaning to life for those that have succumbed to a lifestyle monopolised by superficiality and that have abandoned critical thinking and the search for their identity.

Bibliographical references

Baker, B. (2005). Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451. In D. Seed (Ed.), A Companion to Science Fiction (pp. 489–499). Blackwell Pub. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from Bradbury, R. (1993). Fahrenheit 451. HarperCollins. Connor, G.E. (2004). Spelunking with Ray Bradbury: The Allegory of the Cave in Fahrenheit 451. Extrapolation, 45(4), 408–418. Hoskinson, K. (1995). The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury’s Cold War Novels. Extrapolation, 36(4), 345–359. Pearce, B. (2015). The after-life of books: metaphors of reality. English Academy Review, 32(1), 10–22.

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Jun 11, 2023


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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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