This year marks the 65th anniversary of the publication of “Fahrenheit 451,” a powerful and influential dystopian novel that remains a staple of high school reading lists. Recently, HBO aired a new adaptation starring Michael B. Jordan. The novel’s enduring popularity can be attributed to the grim fact that many of its concerns and implicit warnings are relevant today.
“Fahrenheit 451” takes place in an unnamed Midwestern city sometime after 2022, the year in which the U.S. “started and won two atomic wars” (p.69). It is a world in which books have been banned and when discovered by mechanical dogs programmed to sniff them out are burned by “firemen” like Montag.
Once one of the most ardent firemen, Montag, gradually starts to harbor doubts about his occupation and his life. The books that he and his compatriots have burned have been replaced by interactive screens that endlessly broadcast mindless game shows, treacly domestic dramas and what we now call “fake news.” As the literary critic Harold Bloom observed, Bradbury…had the foresight to see that the age of the Screen (movie, TV, computer) could destroy reading, If you cannot read Shakespeare and his peers, then you will forfeit memory and if you cannot remember, then you will not be able to think. (p.235).
Montag is married to a soulless woman who uses technology to avoid self-reflection and meaningful interaction with her husband. When Montag reveals that he has stashed forbidden books in their home, his wife betrays his trust and reports him. Montag is forced by the fire company’s captain to burn down his own house.
After evading arrest, Montag flees the city pursued by a massive manhunt. He sets out to find a cohort of fellow fugitives who have memorized great works of literature, philosophy and religion. As the novel ends, the city he fled is obliterated by an atomic bomb, signaling the start of yet another nuclear war.
A defining characteristic of dystopian literature is that the problems tormenting the future societies depicted were present in their embryonic stages in the time in which the works were written. Bradbury saw how Americans of his era—traumatized by the Cold War and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation—increasingly turned to radio, TV and movies for escape.
Today, technology plays a much greater role in the world than it did in the 1950’s. Several nations now have, or are close to acquiring, nuclear weapons, including those in volatile regions and those ruled by unpredictable despots. Many educators and employers are voicing their concerns about what they see as the diminished social and communication capabilities of a generation raised in an era of laptops, tablets and smart phones, but no generation seems to be deaf to the siren call of technology.
Margaret Atwood, the respected Canadian author of the dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” and many other works, understood our attraction to technology very well, and she hoped that people of every age would be smart enough to answer the eternal questions in Bradbury’s novel with wisdom and courage:
“Fahrenheit 451” predated Marshall McLuhan and his theories about how media shape people, not just the reverse. We interact with our creations and they themselves act upon us. Now that we’re in the midst of a new wave of innovative media technologies, it’s time to reread this classic, which poses the eternal questions: who and how do we want to be? (p. 237).
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Bradbury, R. (2013). Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Including History, Context, and Criticism (Edited by Jonathan R. Eller).