A Plea for Quiet – and for Peace: Consistent Life Ethic Themes in Fahrenheit 451
by John Whitehead
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian science fiction novel, turns 70 years old this October. The novel has been described as being about censorship, which is an accurate but limited characterization. The book contains other themes, some of which may interest consistent life ethic activists.
The novel imagines a future United States in which owning and reading books is a crime and any books discovered by the authorities are burned by a branch of the security forces known as “Firemen.”
The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman who becomes disillusioned with his way of life and the anti-book policies he enforces. Montag eventually allies with dissidents who try to preserve books and knowledge. All this leads to an inevitable confrontation with his colleagues.
Along with its concern about the evils of censorship, Fahrenheit 451 contains two less obvious but significant themes, one about the importance of reflection and another about the devaluation of human life.
Stimulation Over Reflection
The censorship regime in Fahrenheit 451 has revealing characteristics. The dystopian government notably suppresses books as such: not books by any particular author or about any particular subject or expressing any particular ideology but all books.
Montag and the book-reading dissidents he encounters are similarly value-neutral about the books they preserve. One dissident, the retired schoolteacher Faber, enthuses over obtaining a copy of the Bible even though he acknowledges that he is not religious. Other books being preserved by the novel’s resistance movement are varied and contradictory in their content and significance, ranging from Plato to Buddhist thought to Bertrand Russell.
What the authorities are trying to stamp out—and the resistance is trying to preserve—is not any particular heterodox thought but thought in general, of which books are the prime representative.
Another distinct characteristic of the censorship regime is that it exists, in a sense, by popular demand, or at least through a kind of vicious circle between the people and their rulers.
The future United States imagined by Bradbury is a society of near-constant electronically produced stimulation. People listen to streams of news and music through the “Seashells,” miniature radios that fit in their ears. Television screens are floor-to-ceiling length, for maximum effect; three walls within Montag’s house are occupied by such screens and his vapid wife Mildred aspires to install a fourth wall-screen. Commercials play over the PA system on the subway, and so on.
During a scene when Mildred and her friends watch TV, we get a sense of the contemporary entertainment:
On one wall a woman smiled and drank orange juice simultaneously . . . In the other walls an x-ray of the same woman revealed the contracting journey of the refreshing beverage on its way to her delighted stomach! Abruptly the room took off on a rocket flight into the clouds, it plunged into a lime-green sea where blue fish ate red and yellow fish. A minute later, Three White Cartoon Clowns chopped off each other’s limbs to the accompaniment of immense incoming tides of laughter. Two minutes more and the room whipped out of town to the jet cars wildly circling an arena, bashing and backing up and bashing each other again. Montag saw a number of bodies fly in the air (pp. 93-94 [all page numbers are from the 1991 Ballantine Del Ray edition]).
In a society where ever-more-vivid and overwhelming entertainment is delivered at any ever-increasing pace, people are incapable of sustained interest in something that requires time, patience, and concentration, such as a book. As a result, reading becomes suspect, something eccentrics or contrarians do. The government then steps in to suppress the bizarre practice of reading, in accord with its own interests in keeping the people passive.
The insidious force here is not technology per se but rather the exaltation of stimulation at the expense of quiet and reflection. In 2023, when access to an online world of social media posts is only as far as our mobile phones, when earbuds do the work of the Seashells, and TVs can take up much of a wall, the relevance of this aspect of Fahrenheit 451 is hard to miss.
Life Is Cheap
The death of reflection and critical thought in Fahrenheit 451 ties into the theme of how life is devalued.
The novel’s dystopian United States is marked by pervasive violence. The most obvious violence is the repressive violence visited by the authorities on dissidents. This aspect of the story was provoked partly by Bradbury’s experience of being harassed by a Los Angeles police officer (an incident that also inspired his story “The Pedestrian.”)
However, violence also comes from private citizens. People, especially teenagers, drive too fast for the thrill of it—in one key scene, a group of joy-riding teenagers almost kill Montag. Some pursue even more dangerous activities. As a teenager comments, “Six of my friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of them died in car wrecks” (p. 30).
Another type of violence comes up when Montag confronts Mildred’s similarly vacuous friends. Reproaching Mrs. Bowles, who jokes about her lack of interest in her own children, Montag mentions “the dozen abortions you’ve had” (p. 101).
These different types of casual private violence are presumably meant to be symptoms of a society in which no one thinks about life or their responsibilities to others in anything but the most superficial of ways.
Fahrenheit 451 also addresses the violence of war, although this topic stays in the background until the end. A possible war between the United States and other nations looms over the characters for much the book, foreshadowed in the frequent presence of military planes overhead. Toward the novel’s climax, war moves inescapably from the background to the foreground of the story, leading to (for me, at least) the book’s most riveting and frightening passages.
Contemplating the situation, one member of the book-loving resistance expresses the hope that by preserving human knowledge and culture they can help humanity reach a point where we “dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up” (p. 164).
The connection between the anti-war theme and what has come before is easy to draw. The same ignorance, passivity, and irresponsibility that keeps people from reading also keeps them from paying attention to world events and from speaking out against the war before it came. An unreflective, unthinking public can give a war-mongering government the blank check it needs. As one official comments, “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war” (p. 61).
The connections among Fahrenheit 451’s themes about censorship, public ignorance, and war are especially striking when one considers the historical context in which Bradbury wrote the book. In 1953, the Cold War was in one of its coldest periods, with the United States and Soviet Union embroiled in a bloody proxy war in Korea. Meanwhile, fears of Communist subversion were intense in the United States, and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy was then at the height of his influence. Bradbury’s novel echoed this real-world combination of events and trends.
As Bradbury later recalled, “The threat of atomic war was very fresh in my mind when I wrote the novel . . . We all were living in anticipation of being hurt or destroyed by this device. And the hydrogen bomb was in the process of being invented. It was a threat to all of us and I wrote the book under the cloud of this concept.”
He later thought the book’s war threat was an unnecessary addition, but I think it adds a very powerful extra significance to Fahrenheit 451.
Seventy years later, violent threats to life, whether from police repression, abortion, war, or other dangers, remain pressing problems in the United States and elsewhere. Such a dangerous world calls for people willing to engage in reflection, study, and criticism and to raise their voices against violence. Reading books is a good place to start.
For more of our book reviews, see:
Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-life Movement Before Roe v. Wade