[Eller is an assistant professor at Northeast Louisiana University. In the following essay, he explores the historical climate that helped create Fahrenheit 451 and its protests against mindless conformity and censorship.]
Bradbury developed Fahrenheit 451 during the late 1940s and published it in 1950 just after World War II and during America's growing fear of communism. During World War II, Hitler and the Nazis had banned and burned hundreds of thousands of books. However, the Nazis went further; using new technologies, they attempted one of the largest mind control experiments in history by setting up state controlled schools and a propaganda machine which censored all ideas and information in the public media. To make matters worse, after the war the Soviet Union developed its own propaganda machine, created an atomic bomb, and invaded Eastern Europe. All this time, new technological innovations allowed these fascist states to more effectively destroy the books they didn't find agreeable and produce new forms of communication implanted with state-sanctioned ideas.
Finally, and most significantly for Bradbury, the U.S. government responded to its fear of growing communist influence with attempts to censor the media and its productions, including literature. In other words, it responded with the same tactics of tyranny implemented by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The McCarthy hearings in the early fifties attempted to rein in what it saw as communist sympathies among authors and Hollywood producers. The FBI investigated the potential disloyalty of U.S. citizens. The federal government began attempts to restrict the free speech of judges and university professors by requiring loyalty oaths.
Fahrenheit 451 appeared in this political climate of technologically supported suspicion and censorship, a climate which seemed to promise the possibility of the mass conformity in our citizenry. It is no surprise, then, that these concerns are central to the book's themes.
Montag and his wife, Mildred, live in what Bradbury imagines as the culture which might be produced if such trends continued. They live in a futuristic community that uses technology to control what they think and feel by controlling what they see and hear. They are encouraged to use sedatives to keep themselves docile and their senses dull. They have all the latest entertainment technology—three walls of their “living room” display soap operas, “seashell thimble” radios pump high fidelity sound directly into their ears, and two-hundred-foot billboards line the freeway, blocking out the natural landscape and replacing it with advertisements. There is one telling scene in which Montag attempts to read and remember the Book of Ecclesiastes while riding on the train to see Faber, his newfound teacher. He cannot, however, manage it because the train's sound system plays an advertisement for Denham's Dentifrice over and over: “Denham's does it” with a bouncy jingle that interferes with his ability to think and remember. Everywhere he goes in these controlled spaces the system is there to limit and shape what he thinks by feeding him sights and sounds.
Mildred is the end product of this system. Mildred, as does most of the community, immerses herself in the media provided for her to consume. Whenever she is not at the TV, she plugs in her earphones, always soaking up the artificial stimulus and messages someone else feeds to her. The result is that she is literally incapable of thought and remembering. When Montag questions her about an argument that the characters are having on the wall TV, she can't remember what it was about even though it happened only one minute past. When he is sick and asks Mildred to get him some aspirin, she leaves the room and then wanders back a few minutes later, not a thought in her head.
The situation is so serious for Mildred that she might as well be an empty shell, a corpse, or a machine herself. As it turns out, Mildred is literally on the verge of being a corpse, having almost overdosed on sedatives. Montag comes home after a satisfying book-burning, only to find that his house feels like a “mausoleum” and his wife “cold” and himself “with the feeling of a man who will die in the next hour for lack of air.” The oppressive atmosphere of death and emptiness is aggravated by the visit of the hospital “technicians” who come to the house to service Mildred. They treat her like an extension of the snakelike machine they use to “take out the old and put in the new.” He finds out that they act as causally as “handymen” doing a fix-it-up job because they clean out nine to ten stomachs a night. In other words, people are no more than extensions of machines; they are machines themselves. The “technicians” treat them appropriately, as either broken, like Mildred, or in good repair. Technology violates their humanity.
The most complete violation of humanity would be the replacement of the human with a machine in perfect conformity with the system which created it. This may not be possible with humans, but it makes the Mechanical Hound the perfect creature of the system. It makes the Hound a fail-safe against the possibility that a human member of the mass society will be tainted by individuality and independent thought. The Hound cannot be so tainted. It lacks the two key ingredients which might allow it individuality and independence—its own thoughts and true sensations. As Beatty says, “It doesn't think anything we don't want it to think... a fine bit of craftsmanship.” Later, Montag describes it as a thing in the world which “cannot touch the world.” It lacks the mind of its own and body that feels. This makes the Hound the best guardian of their way of life. As a result, when Montag grows more aware of how the system has deprived him of sensation and thought, the Hound grows more aware of Montag. The Hound may not be able to touch the world, but it recognizes the smell of thought, it recognizes that Montag does not belong to the same system it does.
All is not lost, though. Montag's teachers lead him out of this controlled and sterile world. Clarisse, the young seventeen-year-old “oddball,” is his first teacher. Clarisse prods him back into experiencing the outside world's sensations, especially smells as simple as “apricots” and “strawberries,” “old leaves” and “cinnamon,” smells which up to now have always been dominated by the odor of kerosene. She entices him out of the insulated “walls” of their house and into the rain, away from the rule books and 3-D comics whose content is strictly controlled so as to ensure that everything is agreeable—that is, all packaged to promote conformity and consumerism. She ignores his authority by openly questioning whether he can even think and challenges his smug superiority by seeing through his “mask” of happiness and into his deeper discontent. She tells him how she eavesdrops on others and finds that young “people don't talk about anything” except to trade the brand names of clothes and cars. She points out that the two-hundred-foot billboards hide the real world. She teaches him that he and everyone else are subject to the dictates of others, that their thoughts and experiences are controlled.
When Clarisse “disappears,” Captain Beatty, Montag's superior, ironically becomes his “teacher.” Even though Beatty's purpose is to bring Montag back into conformity with the system, he drives Montag farther away during his “history lesson” on the origins and purpose of the firemen book-burners. Beatty tells him that the condition of the world and the rejection of “books” and their ideas was a “mass” phenomenon. Not only did the population find it easier to read condensed versions of literature and digests rather than whole works, but it was also more “agreeable.” Books are notorious for their slippery and contradictory ideas. It becomes easier and safer to do away with them altogether; this is the job of the fireman. Over time, substitutions displaced books altogether: photography and film, rule books, sports, and trivial information. Fill them up with “non-combustible” stuff so they feel “absolutely brilliant” but lack any thought which may have “two sides... no philosophy or sociology,” says Beatty. Then we can have a perfect tyranny of technology over the comfortable and thoughtless. The problem, however, is that if books are the way to “melancholy” and unhappiness, then why is Mildred so deeply depressed and Montag so angry?
Montag's third “teacher” explains the source of their unhappiness. Faber, the old college English teacher, argues that the “telivisor” is irresistible. Furthermore, if you “drop a seed” (take a sedative) and turn on the televisor, “[It] grows you any shape it wishes. It becomes and is the truth.” It makes a people into what it wants them to be, a conforming mass all acting in unison. Perhaps the most frightening image in the book makes this idea of thoughtless masses under the direction of technology concrete for us. At the end of the chase scene when the Mechanical Hound closes in and Montag approaches the river, the broadcaster asks the whole population to rise and go to the door and everybody look out at the street at the same time. Montag has a vision of the population acting in near perfect unison under the direction of a technological device—a truly frightening vision of humans turned into conforming automatons.
Faber argues, however, that books have a “quality” or “texture of information.” Books have a depth of imaginative experience and completeness of information which the media soaps lack. This “texture of information,” along with the leisure time to absorb it and the freedom to act on what it allows us to discover, is what Montag needs to make him, if not happy, then at least satisfied. In a sense, Montag's awakening sensations, his growing awareness of smells other than kerosene, his new appreciation for rain and the light of the moon, symbolize the “quality” found in books. Throughout the book, we get hints about this. After his wife's mishap with the sedatives, he feels suffocated and empty, and in a fit of desire for something more, he throws the sealed windows of the bedroom to let the moon's light fill the room. When he is trying to memorize the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Denham's Dentifrice advertisement interferes, he has this urge to run out of the train and experience anything, any sensation, even if its the pain of a pounding heart and lungs gasping for air. When he lay in his bed the night of the old woman's burning, he feels that he “never... quite... touched... anything.” Parallel to his yearning for the “texture of information” in books, he has a yearning for deeper and richer bodily experiences and sensations.
All in all, the idea is that if Montag is to escape the technological cocoon which the culture has built up him, he must do it in mind and body, in books and sensations. This is no new idea, that the mind and body are one. If this is true, then it is also true that if you control the experiences of the body so, too, will the mind be controlled. And vise-versa, if you control the depth of ideas and smooth out the “texture of information” in the media, the body will lose its ability to absorb a wide range of sensation. We see this effect on Montag when he finally climbs up out of the river. Having been deprived of deep and textured sensations most of his life, he was “crushed” by the “tidal wave of smell and sound.” He experiences an onslaught of odor: musk, cardamom, ragweed, moss, blood, cloves, and warm dust. The narrator tells us, “enough to feed on for a lifetime.... lakes of smelling and feeling and touching.”
It is both the mind and the body of the population which the prevailing union of politics and technology has repressed in Montag's culture. The book people Montag discovers at the end of the novel show that you must abandon the system and get “outside” the technological cocoon. You must internalize the conflicting, richly textured information and ideas of books before you can be an individual not subject to the repressive conformity of the masses. The book people are literally outside in nature as well as figuratively outsiders alienated from the culture. They have literally internalized books as well as figuratively become “book covers.” They have brought the book and the body, thought and sensation together. Maybe this is why Bradbury was so outraged by the book burnings in Nazis Germany. Maybe this is why he says “that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one and the same flesh.”