Ideas of the American Society in Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 invokes two paradigms of America: the paradigm of America in the 1950s, and the Puritan paradigm of America. This paper will discuss the way these paradigms manifest themselves in the text, the relation between them, and the way the author uses them to postulate his conceptualization of America’s history and future.
The paradigm of America in the 1950s manifests itself predominantly in six different aspects of the novel. First, the book burning in the novel’s dystopian America comments on the American public’s perception of book burning in the 1950s. In the aftermath of the Nazi bonfires that consumed numerous books, and the anti-Semitic burnings of Jewish books in Communist Russia, book burning became the emblem of tyranny in the Western world. The majority of the American public at the time conceptualized the book burner as the evil “other” – the Nazi or the Communist – and accordingly perceived America as the champion of freedom, which struggles incessantly against book burners and what they stand for (Faragher, 809). This notion of Americanness as the opposing force to book burning is destabilized in the novel by the nearly unanimous approbation of book burning by both the fictional American authorities and the fictional American public. Bradbury even directly encourages the reader to draw parallels between the fictional book burning and contemporary events, noting in the Coda: “There is more than one way to burn a book” (Bradbury, 176). Bradbury does not reveal to which events he is referring, but this comment resonates strongly with topical events in America in the early 1950s: protests and lawsuits of religious and parental organizations against what they deemed obscene literature led to the establishment of the Gathings Committee, which demanded that publishers impose restrictions on the content of the paperback novels they intend to publish (Speer, 154-55); simultaneously, two prominent members of the McCarthy administration undertook a campaign to “purge United States Information Agency libraries of more than thirty thousand works by Communists, fellow-travelers and unwitting promoters of the Soviet cause” (Ward, 2).
Second, the character of Faber, the involuntarily retired English professor, may allude to the McCarthy administration’s persecution of academics: five years prior to the publication of the novel, charges of Communist activities were filed against six faculty members of the University of Washington (Schrecker, 93). Third, the predominance of mass culture, and particularly mass media, in the dystopian America of the novel, reflects the rapid ascendancy of mass culture in 1950s America: the fictional American public’s preference of comic books over more complex and ambiguous texts (Bradbury, 57) reflects the substantial increase in the sales of comic books (Faragher, 809) and the simultaneous decline in paperback sales (Speer, 154) in 1950s America; the fictional American public’s obsession with their TV parlours corresponds to the unprecedented popularity of mass media in 1950s America, to such a degree that, according to Maldwyn A. Jones, “television soon took up more American leisure time than any other activity, becoming for most people the preferred form of entertainment as well as the main source of information about what was going on in the world” (Jones, 593-4). Fourth, the incessant subway commercial for Denham’s products (Bradbury, 79) and Mildred’s fierce desire to purchase further components for her TV parlour (Bradbury, 20) manifest the striking increase in American consumerism following World War II (Faragher, 851). Fifth, the alienation that permeates the novel reflects the sense of estrangement that plagued the American middle class in the 1950s (Mills, 182-7). The novel’s different levels of alienation each seem to manifest a certain facet of estrangement in 1950s America: Montag’s alienation from Mildred, due to her obsession with mass media – “‘I can’t talk to my wife; she listens to the walls.’” (Bradbury, 82) – may be construed as Bradbury’s critique of mass media as one of the causes of the high divorce rates in 1950s America (Stevenson, 28); Clarisse’s sense of isolation from her fellow classmates – “‘Oh, they don’t miss me,’ she said. ‘I’m antisocial, they say.’” (Bradbury, 29) – may allude to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which was first published in the United States in 1951 and became a milestone in the discussion of the alienation of American youths; finally, the indifference of the fictional American public to the suffering of the people of other countries – “we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are” (Bradbury, 73) – may reflect the lack of concern of the 1950s American public for the plights of war-devastated Europe (Griffith, 23).
The sixth manifestation of the paradigm of 1950s America in the novel is the atomic bombing of the fictional American city. Following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Western liberals began to fear that humanity might utterly destroy itself. This fear was exacerbated by the revelation at the end of the 1940s that the Soviet Union had acquired the technology to create nuclear weapons (Hoskinson, 346). The American public was especially frightened by this intelligence, due to the United States’ Cold War with the Soviet Union. Bradbury incorporates this American fear into the novel, by retaining the contextual framework of America as the country that initiated atomic warfare – “‘we’ve started and won two atomic wars since 1990!’” (Bradbury, 73) – and adding a fictional tragic consequence: “Once the bomb release was yanked, it was over” (Bradbury, 158).
Towards the end of the novel, when Montag escapes into the wilderness, the text shifts from manifestations of the paradigm of America in the 1950s to manifestations of the Puritan paradigm of America. Montag’s escape corresponds to the Puritan journey to New England: like the Puritans, Montag exiles himself from a society that persecutes him, crosses a body of water, arrives at the virgin lands of America, and integrates into a new society founded on the very ideals that were the cause of his persecution. Furthermore, the sequence of scenes in which Montag emerges from the river that nearly drowned him and subsequently leads Granger and his companions towards a better future, invokes Moses’ crossing of the Red Sea and his guidance of the Israelites to the Promised Land. This Biblical allusion is consonant with the Puritan paradigm, because the Puritans perceived their journey to New England as a reenactment of the Exodus.
Another manifestation of the Puritan paradigm is Montag’s preservation of the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Book of Revelation in his mind, to the extent that he becomes these texts: “‘Montag… you are the book of Ecclesiastes’” (Bradbury, 151). In this context, Granger’s promise – “We’ll pass the books on to our children” (Bradbury, 152-3) – resonates with John Winthrop’s declaration that the ultimate goal of the Puritan settlement of America is “to encrease the body of christie… that our selves and posterity may be the better preserved” (Winthrop, 14). If we accept the notion that a subject’s words are an extension of his body, then by preserving the words of God and his Son for the purpose of passing them on to future generations, Montag is realizing the Puritan aspiration to augment the body of Christ for posterity. Moreover, Montag’s quotations from the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Book of Revelation – “To everything there is a season… And on either side of the river was there a tree of life” (Bradbury, 165) – manifest the Puritan paradigm by alluding to Puritan captivity narratives, such as Mary Rowlandson’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. These narratives are saturated with Biblical quotations that compare the depicted events, which take place in America, to Biblical scenes, with the express purpose of promoting the Puritan vision of America as the new Promised Land.
Having discussed the manifestations of the two paradigms of America in the novel, I would now like to explore the relationship between them. I suggest that this relationship can be extrapolated from the novel’s invocation of various elements from collective American past: the Mechanical Hound’s pursuit of Montag may be construed as a subtle reference to the hunting of fugitive African American slaves by the dogs of slave owners, which, according to Jon T. Coleman, “helped police human property… intimidated slaves and chased down runaways” (Coleman, 483); Beatty’s claim that book burning “really got started around a thing called the Civil War” (Bradbury, 54) alludes to the American Civil War; the Firemen rulebook refers to a Founding Father of the United States: “First Fireman: Benjamin Franklin” (Bradbury, 34). These intimations of American past indicate that the fictional America of the novel began to deteriorate towards the depicted dystopian state of affairs long before the McCarthy administration or the mass culture of the 1950s. By implicating Benjamin Franklin as the pioneer book burner, the author is suggesting that the very establishment of the United States by the Founding Fathers was a crucial factor in America’s gradual decline. Consequently, the author’s representation of the Puritan paradigm, which preceded the Founding Fathers, as an antithesis to his dystopian America, may be interpreted as an appeal for America to return to its origins. We may therefore conjecture that the author postulates the Puritan paradigm as the last prelapsarian vision of America, whereas the paradigm of America in the 1950s is a late stage in the country’s downfall.
The novel culminates with the fulfillment of John Winthrop’s warning that “if wee shall deale falsely… wee shall shame the faces of many of god’s worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are goeing” (Winthrop, 15). The people of the dystopian America indeed deal falsely both towards themselves and towards others, and we may surmise that they are cursed by their destitute neighbors, who wage war on them. Finally, they are in fact consumed by flames. Bradbury cremates the manifestations of the paradigm of America in the 1950s, in order to rekindle the Puritan paradigm of America. He takes America back to square zero, and entrusts the task of resettling it to Montag and his companions, who will be the new American pioneers. The novel concludes with their procession towards the city, thereby echoing the Puritan dream of America as “a Citty upon a Hill” (Winthrop, 15). Bradbury leaves the narrative open-ended, with the suggestion that perhaps the rebuilt city will be more faithful to the original vision. Readers can only hope that this time around, Montag and his descendants will create a new and better America.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine books, 1982.
Coleman, Jon T. “Two by Two: Bringing Animals into American History.” Reviews in American History 33.4 (2005): 481-492.
Jones, Maldwyn A. The Limits of Liberty: American History, 1607-1992. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Ward, Geoffrey C. “Roy Cohn.” American Heritage Magazine 39.5 (1988). 2006. <http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1988/5/1988_5_12.shtml>.
Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity.” The American Intellectual Tradition. Eds. David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Faragher, John Mack, et al. Out of Many: a History of the American People. New Jeresy: Prentice-Hall, 1997.
Griffith, Robert, ed. Major problems in American History Since 1945: Documents and Essays. Lexington, Mass: D. C. Heath, 1992.
Hoskinson, Kevin. “The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury’s Cold War Novels.” Extrapolation 36.4 (1995): 346-359.
Mills, Charles Wright. White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951.
Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism: a Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
Speer, Lisa K. “Paperback Pornography: Mass Market Novels and Censorship in Post-War America.” Journal of American and Comparative Cultures 24 (2001): 153-60.
Stevenson, Betsey, and Justin Wolfers. “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 21.2 (2007): 27-52.
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