After unifying a divided China, the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi burned all pre-existing books and buried 460 scholars alive to legitimize his rule by manipulating public opinion. Likewise, in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, the futuristic American government controls its society through tight censorship accompanied by the burning of books. The protagonist Guy Montag, firmly believing that people should be free from government censorship and have access to real knowledge, makes desperate yet dangerous efforts to realize his dream. Through Montag’s acts of justice, Bradbury effectively warns the readers of the hazards of mass media culture and conveys his aspiration for an “analog renaissance.”
In the novel, Bradbury portrays a dystopia where the government controls the citizens through strict censorship and surveillance. The government regards book reading as a severe crime, and consequently, it employs “firemen,” assigning them the ironic job of burning books and the houses of people that possess them; Montag is one of them. When Montag asks his employer Beatty why firemen were created, Beatty explains that firemen were “given the new job, as…the focus of [the people’s] understandable and rightful dread of being inferior; official censors, judges, and executors” (56). He elaborates that they were repositioned to meet society’s demand, which aimed to make everyone “equal” by blocking access to books and their knowledge. Beatty concurs with the government’s disillusion with books, claiming that they disturb social equilibrium by creating a gap in the people’s level of knowledge. Adamantly asserting that books are “loaded gun[s] in the house next door,” Beatty asks, “Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?” (56).
With the help of firemen, the society succeeds in gaining equality and conformity at the expenses of individuality and creativity. As a result, people become completely immersed in the mass media and insensitive to the government’s censorship. Montag’s wife Mildred is a typical example; spending most of her time watching “parlor wall” televisions and talking with “parlor families” in soap operas that do not require complex thinking, Mildred values her “parlor families” more than Montag (78, 90). She and her hedonistic friends are so occupied with watching soap operas that they are indifferent, even ignorant, about their family members and the ongoing war.
Montag used to be an ordinary fireman, but he goes through a major inner change after encountering Clarisse. Clarisse has the very opposite characteristics of Mildred and the others because unlike them, she is inquisitive, self-examining, and thoughtful; she is an “antisocial” minority marked by society (26). When she meets Montag, she tells him, “You’re one of the few who put up with me. That’s why I think it’s so strange you’re a fireman, it just doesn’t seem right for you” (21). This illustrates how Clarisse hints that Montag is also different from others, and this conversation functions as a catalyst that makes Montag doubt his identity as a fireman. And after seeing a woman burn herself in her house full of books during one of his missions, he cries out, "There must be something in books…to make a woman stay in a burning house…You don't stay for nothing" (48). Through these two events, Montag becomes aware of the injustice in burning books and decides to change from a fireman to a revolutionary, from a passive consumer to an active consumer that fights for the invigoration of true communication and the freedom to share legitimate knowledge from books.
In order to accomplish his objectives, Montag goes against his duty as a fireman, hides books in his house, and joins a secret intellectual society where people like Montag preserve and share rare books. Montag also hears about the true value of books from a former English professor named Faber—“Number one…quality of information. Number two: leisure to digest it. And number three; the right to carry out actions based on what [people] learn” (81). Faber and other book-lovers firmly believe that books provide accurate knowledge and make people raise questions and take actions. However, some of Montag’s methods are very extreme and unpredictable. For example, he exposes his books and reads poetry to his ignorant wife and her friends, which results in his arrest. Even when he is arrested, he manages to escape by burning Beatty alive with his flamethrower. However, at the end of the novel, Montag barely survives a nuclear bomb dropped on his hometown and sees “[Mildred] leaning toward the great shimmering walls of color and motion…where the family…sa[ys] her name and smile[s] at her and sa[ys] nothing of the bomb” (152). This ending accentuates the author’s critical view on censorship making people insipient to the point where they are not aware of their own deaths. It also tells the readers that Montag fails to eradicate the injustice completely, implying that efforts of the minorities are not enough to overthrow the unjust social system.
The government goes beyond Qin Shi Huangdi in that it isolates and brainwashes its citizens. Similarly, Montag is comparable to a Qin scholar in that he goes against the status quo but faces persecution. Nevertheless, Montag’s inner and outer conflicts dramatically illustrate the book’s central themes. The novel accurately predicts our modern society where people are mesmerized by the mass media including television and Social Networking Services although it was published in the 1950s. The novel then goes further and denounces the mass media culture tightly censored by the government in which people are passively “fed” information without any criticism whatsoever. Through Montag, the author expresses his worries about the absence of the book culture in which readers can engage in active communication by autonomously consuming information and knowledge. Thus, Bradbury ultimately advocates his perception of justice by proposing a renaissance: a renaissance from the ironically unsociable digital world to a humane analog world of books.