Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


Published by Diogenes, 2008


We are in a state that values entertainment above all and free thinking is punished. The people spend their time with videos, drugs and dangerous televised chases. All media are controlled by the government. It is illegal to own and read books in this state. Remaining books are burned and destroyed by firemen. Guy Montag however, the protagonist of “Fahrenheit 451”, still has books and, after meeting the young woman Clarisse, he starts to develop a growing interest in discrete thinking. He wants to read more books and find out more about the true conditions of the state he lives in. In doing so, Montag becomes increasingly careless until his own wife Mildred denounces him to his boss.

The title “Fahrenheit 451” refers to the temperature at which paper (supposedly) self-ignites. Burning books is central to the story and it is a seen as a positive thing in the novel. It is important to stress, however, that this was not dictated by a totalitarian regime. Instead, a referendum lead to the book banning. Originally, it was meant to approximate different levels of education among the public in order to find common ground.

This novel by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) was published in 1953 and it can be categorised as a dystopia, just like George Orwell’s “1984” or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”. It depicts a world, where dangerous tendencies of the author’s own time are exaggerated to an extreme. Bradbury thus explained that “Fahrenheit 451” should allude to the suppression of books by television.

In the year 2017 however, the novel seems alarmingly up-to-date. Due to the increasing importance of the internet, the book as a medium has taken an entirely new stance in society. In comparison to short video clips or easily consumable TV-series and films for a passive consumer, occupying oneself with a book has become a more active, dedicated endeavour. The concentrated reading of a book can thus turn into a sort of escape from the constant exposure to the media, just like Guy Montag experiences it in the novel. Books both serve as protection against the overstimulation of modern society and as an opportunity to take action and think for oneself.

In addition, Bradbury designs a state that appears to be totalitarian, but technically is not. There are still elections held and the people have chosen certain laws voluntarily, like the book ban for instance. The novel thus demonstrates how a society can end up enduring restrictions of free thought without radical change or dictators. In times, where the president of the United States repeatedly ignores the concept of truth and the legitimacy of the media are questioned by the government itself, dystopian novels like Bradbury’s suddenly seem horrifically realistic.

“Fahrenheit 451“ has therefore even become more relevant after the millennium. Therefore this novel, which can be more approachable than the dystopias of the early 20th century, especially to young people, will surely stay in our minds as a gruesome prognosis for the future.

Christina Schlögl

Signet Sunflower Foundation