“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”–Ray Bradbury
“Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water,* sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lambadown the middle of its street. On either side of the river grew the tree of life* that produces fruit twelve times a year, once each month; the leaves of the trees serve as medicine for the nations.”–Revelation 22:1-2
“There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens.”–Ecclesiastes 3:1
Review and Thoughts
Fahreneit 451 by Ray Bradbury is actually my favorite dystopic novel. It is simple, realistic, and I could probably make a good argument that we are currently living in this media driven society. I’ve taught this book numerous times, and I love talking about it and drawing comparisons. My students always found it fascinating that our current society is so similar to the society in the novel.
The story famously begins with a fireman named Guy Montag meeting a young teenager name Clarisse McClellan. He is drawn to her because she seems different from everyone else he knows. She is vibrant and happy, outside walking around. This is uncommon in the world in which he lives. Here people consume media. They watch television as much as possible. They never walk. When they travel, they move from place to place with “seashells” or ear buds
in their ears. There is no silence. There is no thought. Clarisse, however, is the reason Montag starts to recognize there may be something wrong with his world.
When we meet Montag’s wife, we find out why he was so enthralled with Clarisse for she is her foil. She is numb, quiet, and thoughtless. In fact, our first introduction to her is right after she has attempted suicide. Montag calls who he needs to come and save her and by the next morning she has forgotten everything. She spends her life watching television and calls the characters her family. It seems that this is how most people are living in this version of the future.
Clarisse challenges Montag to think about his job. In a world where firemen are no longer needed to put out fires, Montag enforces the law of the land, which has banned books. One particular instance changes Montag and makes him question the status quo. When he shows up to burn the books at one woman’s house, she refuses to leave her books and chooses to die in the fire along with them.
Montag is able to steal a book and brings it home. While dealing with his confusion he calls out of work. His fire captain, Beatty comes to visit and explains the history of how the book burning began. His explanation is interesting because it is so logical. Books cause controversy. People don’t want that. Everyone wants to be happy. Beatty says, “Ask yourself, what do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these?” Beatty concludes that books make people think and bring up things that are hard to deal with, so they have just eliminated them completely.
At this point in the story, Montag is even more confused. He leaves to find an old English professor he once met named Faber. Together, they come up with a plan to take down the firemen and for Montag to take his book to someone who can reprint it.
Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned for Montag and the firemen show up at his house to burn his book. Mildred has left him. Clarisse has been killed. Everyone has turned against him except Faber. Montag runs away narrowly escaping the mechanical hound that has been sent by the firemen to kill him.
There is hope at the end of the novel. Montag finds a few men who are travelers who have memorized books. Montag has memorized parts of his own book and they take him in. The book leaves us with hope for them men finding something better than the society Montag has left behind.
One of the major themes that is pushed when reading the novel is one of censorship. In Beatty’s long discussion with Montag he says, “Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.” This attitude is very fashionable in our own contemporary society. People are so worried about being politically correct, it has created a society of fear. Bradbury gives a stern warning to the future about what we might look like if its citizens fail to allow literature in their lives.
More importantly, according to Bradbury himself, he is concerned with society’s obsession with media, especially television. He writes this book as a warning about what we might look like. I find it fascinating that his predictions for what television will look like are so accurately depicted. Mildred calls the characters on television her “family”. The TVs cover entire walls in homes. People interact with their televisions the way Mildred does. It’s regrettably become the norm that these things occur today. Read any statistics about TV viewing in families and it’s obvious that children are being raised by TV families. Young adults admit to binge watching Netflix for hours on end, which is probably more time spent with “the box” than with the people in their families. You’d have to be blind to miss the giant flat screen televisions that people now feel are a necessity in the home (especially during football season!). Also, interactive contests have become quite popular. Voting online or through text messages to pick your favorite contestant is much like the interaction that Mildred has as well. There are countless examples that demonstrate the effect of TV in Montag’s world, and sadly they are even worse in our own!
Most importantly, I think we can learn a lot about Truth when we look at the people in Fahrenheit 451. Montag is someone who followed the crowd, never thinking for himself, and never realizing that what he might be doing is wrong. When Clarisse challenges him and wakes him from his mundane life, he is able to see anew and question the status quo. He begins to think for himself and for the first time realizes that perhaps things could be better. His first attempts at reading are feeble. He tries to memorize a section from the Bible, but is so distracted by the commercial playing, he cannot focus. He learns he must tune out the outside influence. Unfortunately, when he tries to talk to others about it, they can’t handle what Truth he has discovered for himself. When he talks to Mildred’s friends, he learns that they voted for the president because he was good looking and that they despise children, and the one who does have children puts them in front of the TV all day. He can’t rationalize with them. Both parties become frustrated and the discussion ends poorly.
The beauty and hope in the book is derived from the small group of people who are trying desperately to continue the Truth that they know. They are underground. They seek each other out. And some are even willing to die for what they believe. Isn’t it interesting that the martyred old lady is the one who sets Montag on his path of finding Truth? And in turn, Montag is willing to risk his very life to carry the Truth he has found? This is almost a parallel of what our church is predicted to become by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.” Though I know Bradbury did not intend the novel to be a parallel to the Church, one cannot help but notice the connections.
This is a beautiful novel with almost a poetic language. It deserves to be in the canon of contemporary classic literature. And how beautiful to be able to have meaningful discussion about the novel, not just because of its dystopian characteristics, but because of the parallel of Montag to the average sinner. How much we have to learn!
- Montag’s wife, Mildred, commits suicide at the beginning of the story. Some men come and take out her blood and clean it and she lives. She does not remember trying to kill herself.
- Montag sees an old woman burned alive with her books.
- Clarisse is killed.
- Discuss television watching habits with your family. What are some good things about TV viewing? What are some bad things about TV viewing? What could be done to cut down time with the TV and add more time with family?
- Montag can’t concentrate when he is trying to read the Bible because he hears the constant noise from the commercial. How is this like our lives? How do we hear constant “noise”? How does this hurt our relationship with others? With God?
- Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Bowles talk about the upcoming elections. They mention that they are voting for the candidate who is better looking, and that is all they are basing their votes on. How is this like our celebrity driven society today?
- Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Bowles talk about how disgusting children are. How is this like society’s attitude toward children today?
- Read the following article: “Television and Your Soul”
- Use this free lesson plan: Movie Night: Why Media Matters. This is for Youth Ministers from the John Paul the Great University
- Read the following article: “Why Catholics Should Care About the News Media Crisis”
- Review this resource from the Center For Media Literacy about the Catholic Church’s Challenge.
General Teaching Resources.
- Lesson 1: A Look at Dystopia and a Comparison to Today
- Lesson 2: A Look at Censorship
- Lesson 3: A Look at Television Watching
(The above resources are lessons and power points I used very successfully for many years with my students.)