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Social Criticism Contained In Fahrenheit English Literature Essay

I was walking and talking with a writer friend […], when a police car pulled up and an officer stepped out to ask what we were doing. ‘Putting one foot in front of the other,’ I said […]. That was the wrong answer. The policeman repeated his question. […] I replied, ‘Breathing the air, talking, conversing, walking […], it’s illogical, you’re stopping us. If we had wanted to […] rob a shop, we would have driven up in a car […]. As you see, we have only our feet.’ ‘Walking, eh?’, said the officer […] ‘don’t do it again!’ (Bradbury 1993, p.57)

This encounter was the inspiration for a young Bradbury, who earned his living selling short stories, to write his novella “The Fireman”. But due to the tense political situation in America he had problems to make this story public. Nevertheless, an avant-garde publisher was delighted by the story and wanted to print it, upon condition that its author expanded it to a novel. At first, Bradbury doubted whether he could fulfill that, but finally, in 1953, he completed the novel “Fahrenheit 451” [1] with great enthusiasm for he stated that “I did not write Fahrenheit 451 – it wrote me” (Bradbury 1993, p.58). However, as Bradbury criticizes the political climate in the U.S., difficulties emerged again to find a publisher, who would print portions of Fahrenheit. Fortunately, a Chicago editor bought his manuscript to release it in three issues of his new magazine. It turned out that the young editor was Hugh Hefner, the publisher of “Playboy”.

This troublesome publication history of Fahrenheit markedly reflects the content of the novel because it is set in a world, where critical or dissident individuals are oppressed. Analogously, political resistance caused difficulties for Bradbury to level criticism against American society in his novel. On these grounds, this paper examines in which respects the topics of Fahrenheit contain criticism of society and how the fictional story refers to the sociopolitical circumstances of the 1950s in America.

2. Criticism of society in Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”

Within the main motives of the novel, Bradbury incorporated criticism of society. So, in the following, the socio-critical implications of the topics entertainment, technology, censorship and book burning will be carved out.

2.1 Entertainment

Entertainment plays an important role in Fahrenheit since it is employed to manipulate society. It is ubiquitous in any situation so that everyday life of the citizens is characterized by steady diversion. For instance, tiny Seashell Radio receivers are conceived as electronic equipment to fob minor news and toneless music off on the population. Mildred – the protagonist’s wife and a generic representative of society – even wears the Seashells while sleeping so she is completely captivated by the government’s propaganda. Moreover, in every living room, huge walls are installed which resemble a standard TV but span over several walls and broadcast three-dimensional footage. People watching these programs consider the actors to be familiar persons as they are able to interact with them. Mildred is strongly influenced by this entertainment medium since she is looking forward to reading out some missing lines in a scene, which have been mailed to her for participating in the program. Thus, she feels satisfied as “all look at [her] out of the three walls and [she] say[s] the lines” (Bradbury 1953, p.23). As the two statements “I think that’s fine” and “I sure do” (ibid) are the lines she has to read, Mildred subconsciously “indicate[s] her agreement with what is being said” (Booker, p.88).

Furthermore, omnipresent advertisements like two-hundred-foot-long billboards in the streets or the train radio prevent people from thinking by directing their attention toward repetitious slogans. In order to visit his confederate Faber, Montag goes by subway where he suddenly starts to scream “Shut up, shut up, shut up” (Bradbury 1953, p.73) when hearing a dentifrice advertisement, whereas the other passengers are “tapping their feet to the rhythm of Denham’s Dentifrice, Denham’s Dandy Dental Detergent, […] faintly twitching the words Dentifrice Dentifrice Dentifrice“ (ibid). Other devices that illustrate the biasing impact of entertainment in the novel are joke-boxes that repeat “the same jokes most of the time” (Bradbury 1953, p.32) and music walls in cafes on which “colored patters [are] running up and down” (ibid).

Through the perpetual influence of the media, emotions and own thoughts are debarred from the public and also intellectualism and curiosity are repressed. Hence, the propaganda spread in the media maliciously deceives the citizens so that they are under the “illusion […of] hav[ing] a part in determining that ideology” (Booker, p. 88), although it is obvious that the “opportunity for creativity is dulled” (ibid) severely by the government. Even though the citizens are not compelled to adapt their selves to the state dogma, they do not revolt because they are manipulated by the anti-intellectualism spread in the media. Booker refers to this as a “brainwash [of the] audience into conformist behavior” (ibid). This attitude of the figures in Fahrenheit might be traced back to Bradbury’s biographical background because, during the Cold-War era, the dominance of mass media and entertainment increased immensely. On that score, American officials were convinced that “if people could be persuaded that what they were getting was what they wanted – increasingly simple and sensational entertainment, information reduced to headlines […] – then they could be controlled” (Charles, p. 13).

Such control is also exercised at school since the educational system described in Fahrenheit heavily relies on mass media and sports to prevent critical discussions. For instance, Clarisse reports Montag on her school life in which she has to attend sports lessons like basketball or running as well as TV-classes, where “they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing” (Bradbury 1953, p.31). Correspondingly, Zipes argues that, in Fahrenheit, schooling serves “to exhaust the young so that they are tame, but the frustration felt by the young is then expressed in their ‘fun’ outside school, which always turns into violence” (p.7).

The literary conception of media consumption habits in Fahrenheit reflects Bradbury’s critical opinion concerning the role of television in society. Since the early days of television in the 1950s, new media has been crowding out traditional reading as a popular form of entertainment. Thus, in the face of the pupils’ declining reading ability, schools abandoned text-based teaching methods and increasingly used television in classrooms. This development is seized in Montag’s America, where entertainment, especially television, “stupef[ies] the populace by saturating their minds with useless information” (Booker, p.88). Consequently, the educational system in Fahrenheit tends to “cram [the pupils] so full of non-combustible data, chock them so full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information […]. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with” (Bradbury 1953, p. 57f.).

Bradbury wants to show the repercussions of excessive entertainment by describing a world in which people lose personal contacts and nearly bear no relation to reality so that the government can manipulate the populace without any restraint. In this regard, the problem of alienation and loneliness caused by the permanent distraction of the media “is not really with the system, but with the people” (Booker, p.89) who are forced into line subconsciously because of the propaganda broadcasted all the time. Accordingly, Beatty states that “any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again […] is happier than any man who tries to […] equate the universe, which just won’t be […] equated without making man feel bestial and lonely” (Bradbury 1953, p. 58).

2.2 Technology

Media does not form the only highly developed issue in Fahrenheit. Besides, the topic of technology is of importance. Although technology closely relates to entertainment in some respect, it must be considered a separate aspect that stands out due to several futuristic elements. Science in general is on a high level in Fahrenheit since houses are built out of a fireproof material, subways run under the city and banks are open all night due to robot tellers in attendance.

Besides that, sundry science-fiction inventions prevail in Bradbury’s novel, such as the Mechanical Hound. It is an electronic animal that injects morphine into someone’s leg and is employed to seek out a person who is wanted by firemen. What distinguishes it is that Montag wonders whether it is alive or not. Correspondingly, the Mechanical Hound is referred to as “the dead beast, the living beast” (Bradbury 1953, p.26). Montag flees the Mechanical Hound after his house has been burnt and he has killed Beatty. The pursuit is broadcasted on TV and as Montag can escape, the footage shows the death of another person, who is pretended as him. By that, the propaganda aims to prove society that rebels have no chance to protest and get killed in case they take flight. According to Zipes, the Mechanical Hound “represents all the imaginative technological skills of American society transformed into a ruthless monster and [is] used to obliterate dissenting humanity” (p.9).

As Bradbury’s novel can be seen as a reflection of the 1950’s in America, the Mechanical Hound takes up the fear of robots during this time. In the 1940’s, the first robots were built after the invention of the computer by Zuse in 1941. Subsequently, they became a popular concept during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, when automated machines were first used to support factory operators. Nevertheless, many Americans feared the nature of robots and were afraid that they might take control over human beings. Referring to this anxiety, Bradbury arouses criticism on the fast pace in which technologies have developed so that people lose control about the way their lives are determined by new electronic equipment. In Fahrenheit, a “computer system […] keep[s] track of each and every citizen” (Zipes, p.8) to ensure that everybody behaves in a politically correct way and does not develop an own opinion.

In Bradbury’s novel, “technology [is also …] used in the field of medicine to deaden the senses while keeping people alive as machines” (Zipes, p.6). For example, Mildred is treated by two men with two machines after taking an overdose of sleeping pills. One machine slides into her stomach “like a black cobra down an echoing well” (Bradbury 1953, p.18) and pulls out all the content. The second machine “pump[s] all of the blood from the body and replace[s] it with fresh blood and serum” (ibid). As this process of revival is very versed, Montag asks the operators how often they use these machines. It turns out that every night they are employed for at least nine times. Carrying someone else’s blood is an extraordinary perception for Montag so he is shocked at hearing that so many people take an overdose and must be rescued by blood transfusion.

Another way of using technology can be spotted in the communication between Montag and his mentor Faber, who has built a bullet that enables a permanent contact between them. It is a tiny device that cannot be observed since it is placed in the ear and resembles a Seashell Radio. Due to this invention, Faber can counsel Montag on his reactions and answers in every precarious situation that is brought by the fact that Montag owns books. So “here technology is employed to […] emancipatory and humanistic interests” (Zipes, p.7).

Throughout the entire novel, war is omnipresent. Radio broadcasts wrong information about current attacks or force-levels and warns that war can erupt at any moment even though jet bombers are flying above the city several times a day. The populace in Fahrenheit started and won two atomic wars (Bradbury 1953, p. 68) and a third one destroys the city at the end of the novel. By that, Bradbury wants to criticize the rapid nuclear arms race during the Cold War (Zipes, p.7), after seeing the consequences of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The Cold-War era lasted from 1947 until 1991 and was characterized by a constant political tension between the Soviet Union and the Western world (Greiner). This tense situation was attributable to the strong dichotomy of political ideologies and the fear that this conflict could escalate and lead into a nuclear war was very widespread, particularly in the United States. A historical event that affected Bradbury in this context was the Korean War from 1950 until 1953. It was a proxy war between the Eastern and the Western Block in which the U.N supported the Republic of Korea, whereas the People’s Republic of Korea achieved assistance by the Soviet Union (Hickey).

2.3 Limitation of fundamental rights

Despite the fact that governmental activities are not described in detail, their impact on society and daily life is apparent in regard to manifest restraints: In Fahrenheit, the freedoms of information, expression and press are severely restricted.

For instance, the people acting in the novel are not informed about the true situation concerning the atomic war because government deludes them through its censorship. This delusion has far-reaching consequences, namely the destruction of the city by an atomic bomb at the end of the story since propaganda has hindered individuals to foresee their imminent destruction (Bradbury 1953, p.140).

Similar to the government in Fahrenheit, the “Office of Censorship” heavily censored reporting on warfare during the Second World War. At that, information which could be useful for the opponent should not be broadcasted neither on TV nor radio. In this connection, the office was also responsible for concealing the existence of atomic bombs so the American population did not know about them before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Hanyok).

The parallel between history and the fiction in Fahrenheit continues in the 1950s with respect to the delusion about weapons of war. Thereby, the stifling atmosphere delineated in the novel comments on the intellectually oppressive climate in America. Although the Bill of Rights guarantees all Americans the freedoms of speech and press as a constitutional right, “censorship was at these times allowed and enforced by the United States government” (Bruck, p.10). By means of “prior restraint”, which was considered a de-facto-censorship, government could injure First Amendment rights and control the publishing of unwelcome ideas (Pfister, p.141 f.). For example, in 1950, the magazine “Scientific America” was forced to censor an article about a Hydrogen-bomb. The magazine’s publisher argued that only facts, which have been public before, were part of the article and that only a few lines referred to construction details of the bomb. Moreover, he brought forward the argument that the Americans needed this information in order to form an intelligent judgment. Nevertheless, “Scientific America” was constrained to publish a redacted version of the article and had to destroy the original run of the issue (Swanberg).

In addition, further measures of censorship and infringement are briefly worded in the novel. In order to prevent people from communicating, the government eliminated the porches from all houses (Bradbury 1953, p.59) and closed all Liberal Arts Colleges (Bradbury 1953, p.69).

Heretofore, this paper analyzed the methods with which the government in Fahrenheit brings the population into line. Hence, the treatment of those, who do not adapt to this enforced conformity, will be examined.

On the one hand there are individuals, who do not adapt their selves to the rules, like Clarisse McClellan. She likes asking questions and deliberating about everything. Even her hobbies – going hiking in the mountains, bird watching and collecting butterflies (Bradbury 1953, p.25) – are very suspicious because it is exceptional that someone is interested in something that has nothing to do with media. Owing to her unadjusted personality, Clarisse has to see a psychiatrist who should investigate why she is rather doing things on her own than participating in car races with her friends (Bradbury 1953, p. 25). Despite her chatty attitude, Clarisse is considered to be antisocial, treated like a stranger and excluded from society.

On the other hand, those who offensively defy the system are punished immediately. As soon as the firemen are informed about somebody who owns books, they march out to burn the books together with the person’s home. Thereupon, convicted book owners are sent “to the asylum” (Bradbury 1953, p.34). In order to avoid the menacing exile, critics set up a hidden camp on a deserted riverside (Bradbury 1953, p.130). Viewed in this light, people who “deviate from what is normal place themselves outside the protection of society” (Charles, p.13).

In Fahrenheit, Bradbury depicts an atmosphere of insecurity and lack of faith between the characters. Dissident individuals have to live in constant scare of denunciation and ban. As an example, Mildred betrays Montag to the firemen on account of the fact that he owns books (Bradbury 1953, p. 103).

This practice of political condemnation relates to the atmosphere in the United States during the late 40’s and early 50’s. Several evolutions of the Cold War, such as the detonation of an atomic bomb by the Soviets in 1949, led to an increasing anti-Communist hysteria in America. Reflecting the decreasing faith within society, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) set itself to purify America of any Communistic activities in the course of the “Second Red Scare”. For example, in 1947, the HUAC inquired whether a group of Hollywood screenwriters called the “Hollywood Ten” supported Communist propaganda. The accused, mainly directors, radio commentators and actors, were blacklisted and boycotted by their studios. These proceedings led to the social isolation of the artists so that they did not succeed in finding new jobs (Emmons, p.xviii; Georgakas).

A further wave of Communist persecution in the U.S. went down in history as “McCarthyism”. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy delivered a speech in which he asserted that the State Department wittingly employed communists. This speech made McCarthy nationally famous and is considered to be the opening act of a long-lasting period of Communist repression. Americans were able to watch Senate hearings on TV in which McCarthy exposed alleged Communists. These public inquiries created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust that left many Americans unsure, whether to confide in their neighbors, public officials or media figures (Emmons, p.xxi).

2.4 Book burning

The hardest sanction of censorship in Fahrenheit is the ban of all books. Owning books is a capital offence that is cursed with burning the books and arresting their readers (Bradbury 1953, p.34). The high relevance of this aspect is already suggested by the title of Bradbury’s main work: Fahrenheit 451 is the exact temperature at which book paper catches fire. On top of that, it is a striking feature that, in the novel, the firemen’s job is to burn books instead of slacking a fire (Bradbury 1953, p.9).

In Fahrenheit, book burning is propagandistically justified by “technology, mass exploitation and minority pressure” (Bradbury 1953, p.54). More precisely, captain Beatty reports that book burning started when modern technologies like photography, radio and television were invented and displaced books (Bradbury 1953, p.51). Furthermore, he blames the huge population to be a factor which caused the book burnings. He argues that the bigger a population is, the bigger the minorities are. Consequently, authors had to stop dealing with controversial issues in order not to offend any minority group.

Beyond that, an important reason for books to be excluded from society is that they are considered to cause unhappiness. Propaganda declares that people could not deal with literature without being unhappy or feeling lonely (Bradbury 1953, p.57).

In his essay “Burning Bright”, Bradbury points out that he related the motive of book burning in Fahrenheit to historical events, particularly to the book burnings that had been carried out by the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s (Bradbury 1993, p.58). At that time, books of Jewish and “degenerated” artists were first blacklisted and then burnt (Lischeid, p.105f.). On May 10, 1933 more than 25,000 books were burnt by German students because “the German Student Association’s Main Office for Press and Propaganda proclaimed a nationwide Action against the Un-German Spirit” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). Especially works by Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, H.G. Wells and Erich Maria Remarque affected (Charles, p14) since they were considered a “threat to the state-enforced conformity” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). In this point, the Nazi book burnings resemble the ones in Fahrenheit because, in both cases, the motivation of destroying books is to forcefully maintain an idea of man that is predefined by ideology.

”Where they burn books, they will end in burning human beings”, Heinrich Heine wrote in 1821, one century before the Third Reich. History has “proved this to be a true prediction” (Charles, p.15): First the Nazis burnt Jewish and “degenerate” books and later they started to burn “Un-German” individuals in concentrations camps. In Fahrenheit, a parallel to this development can be perceived. An old book-owning woman is burnt alive for she refuses to leave her house when firemen arrive to set her house on fire (Bradbury 1953, p.38f.). Montag is the only one who exhibits a guilty conscience about burning a woman alive and starts wondering about the books’ distinctiveness and the reasons why you might die for them.

By using the book burning motive Bradbury criticizes the hard means which are applied to control the thoughts of the citizens as well as the locking up individuals who do not adapt to the common rules (Bradbury 1953, p.34). But in the end of the novel, the author’s outlook is not solely hopeless. When the city is destroyed, the book lovers are the only ones who survive so it is up to them to rebuild a civilization that neither persecutes intellectuals nor infringes personal freedoms.

3. Conclusion

Since Bradbury’s novel is more than 50 years old today, the question, whether its social criticism is still valid today, emerges.

To start with, the futuristic media described in Fahrenheit “envisioned the popularity of headset radios, […] interactive TV and live new broadcasts” (Bruck, p.58) that are in style today. But for the main part of his novel, Bradbury intended to put a critical focus on entertainment and the resulting alienation within society. In this context, the currently discussed effects of excessive media consumption are comparable to those described in Fahrenheit. For example, persons who are addicted to computer games give up all their personal contacts. Connected with the media, the novel also addresses the manipulative use of it that persists down to the present day. For instance, advertising still tries to influence people and most of them are not aware of it. Another point of Bradbury’s media criticism refers to the use of television in classes and the lacking education of adolescents. As most of the young people today rather use modern media in their leisure than spending their time reading books, Bradbury was right in foreseeing that the reading levels will drop.

However, concerning the fear of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War, the social criticism in Fahrenheit is not up to date anymore. Cold War ended in 1990 and the U.N. pursues a disarmament policy to reduce the number of high tech weapons. But what is frightening about those weapons today is the question to which extent they would pose a threat to mankind if they fell into the hands of terrorists.

In his novel, Bradbury also criticized the infringement of the expression of opinion as he envisioned a world where dissident individuals were punished. Today, such an oppressive climate still prevails in North Korea and other totalitarian regimes that enforce censorship. But in America, everybody is free to say what she is thinking. The book burnings mentioned in the novel represent a strong measure of governmental censorship, whereas in modern-day America, the American Library Association promotes intellectual freedom (American Library Association). But nevertheless, some scandalous books are still banned from schools and public libraries

So all in all, the social criticism contained in Fahrenheit is still valid today to a large extent.

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