Guy Montag in “Fahrenheit 451” is not consumed by terror as is poor Winston Smith in Orwell’s “1984”. Rather, his is a dull kind of loneliness, the constant nagging feeling that he is forever ‘missing something’. No one in Bradbury’s small and ignorant future is particularly evil. The government does not seem power-hungry and openly cruel as Big Brother in “1984”, neither does it seem as controlled and coldly efficient as in “Brave New World”. In fact, the government doesn’t seem to notice much at all. People law-break constantly for the mere thrill of it. The only crime worth punishing seems to be reading contraband books. Otherwise, people go on their way without any interference from the State whatsoever. If one doesn’t like to read in the first place, he or she would live a happy enough life in Bradbury’s world. On the surface, it doesn’t seem much like a dystopia at all.
But the thing that dystopian futures always seem to attack is human individuality and liberty. All dystopias are, in some way, a prison. In “Brave New World”, the prison seems to be unnatural preconditioning. In “1984”, the prison is terror. In “Fahrenheit 451”, the prison is ignorance. Huxley destroyed human individuality and true liberty in the fetal state, where Orwell did it by destroying history and eliminating love. Bradbury effects individuality and liberty by enforcing ignorance, and this by out-lawing reading (except technical or training manuals and comic books).
When we are children, it is usually enough to be told by our parents not to do something. Sometimes an explanation is forthcoming and sometimes not. Sometimes, as kids, we get the old ‘because I said so!’ if we ask why not. However, as adults, we want and are entitled to know why not. But as adults, we usually need to find the answer for ourselves. We have to find out why things are as they are, and we need to understand to fully agree. For instance, as adults we understand the importance of morals in society. We understand that it is wrong to steal and murder, but we also understand all the unwritten laws that are so often the foundational traditions of our culture. We stand in line, and we know that it is strictly against the unwritten laws to push ahead of someone else, because we understand fully and agree that it is appropriate, polite, and socially ordered to wait one’s turn. For those people who butt into line, they are met with instant disapproval and sometimes hostility. They are told in no uncertain terms what the ‘law’ is. Usually, to adapt and thrive in a culture, one must obey the unwritten rules. But who made these rules?
If someone offends me, why shouldn’t I offend them back and then hate them? They’ve hurt me. They deserve my hate. If I see an old woman lying wounded on the sidewalk, why should I stop to help her? Her problem isn’t my problem. Besides, I’m late for work. Why should I take the time to recycle or donate my old clothes? The earth’s resources will last for my lifetime, and why should I just give away clothes that I paid money for? Generally, there is no written law that says I must go to anyone’s aid. Also, I am free to buy a $750.00 dress, wear it once, and throw it in the garbage the next day. No one is going to stop me, but most people’s eyes will narrow at me if they discover that I stepped over an old woman laying hurt and bleeding because I didn’t want to miss a bus. These things are wrong, plain and simple. And we can think of a myriad of excuses for our awful behavior, but really, it comes down to “don’t be such a complete jerk!”
A few months ago I watched a television program called “What Would You Do?” It had actors in certain social situations behaving in offensive ways, and hidden cameras were posted to see what the reactions of ordinary citizens would be to this poor behavior. There were three or four different situations, but one that really effected me depicted a man and a woman on a ‘first date’ in a crowded pub. She got up to use the Ladies Room, and while she was away, the man took a substance out of his pocket and stirred it into her drink. It looked very much like he was dosing her. People saw what he did–it wasn’t hidden–and the journalists waited out of sight to see if anyone would speak out when she returned. Now, there is no law saying that one MUST speak out. However, our unwritten rules about common decency demand that we take some sort of action. Fortunately, most people warned her that he had put something in her drink. However, there were a few who did nothing at all, and that worried me. How many people have been raped, murdered, or both simply because someone could have said something, but didn’t? Anyway, this program speaks to an accepted set of standards that have been taught to us by our society. But what is morality and why do we have such a thing?
Morality, social decency, ethics…these things are more than just guidelines to live by. These are concepts that have been developed over centuries. Philosophers, theologians, artists, and politicians have argued back and forth for ages about what is right and what is wrong. We know from these arguments that there are things across cultures and borders that ought never to be done. Raping a baby is always wrong everywhere. There are other things that are not written into law, but are morally reprehensible–ignoring the old woman wounded on the sidewalk. There are certain things written into law in some cultures that are wrong, but are right at some times, such as the law against killing another person, except when war requires killing the enemy soldier. There are laws, and behind them there are arguments, and behind the arguments there are great minds, and behind the great minds is wisdom, and this wisdom is found written in books. We cannot build our knowledge unless we record it…in books.
I watched a television program on Discovery that discussed the most important achievements of Mankind. There was, of course, flight, the microchip, and the steam engine, but none of these made the top five. Not even the discovery of anesthetic or penicillin. What was the most profound of all human discoveries/inventions, aside from fire and the wheel, was the invention of farming, reading/writing, and the tradition of chronicling mankind’s learning. In essence, recording our history. It is because we can record our history for posterity that we can learn and then build on learning. Without a history of learning, we all start at the beginning.
That is where the citizens of Bradbury’s world find themselves. The teenagers speed around in cars and hit and run people on the roads. They do this because it is fun and thrilling. If they get caught–THAT is the crime. But why it is a crime, why it is not just legally wrong, but morally wrong to run someone over in the street and leave them to die, is not acknowledged by them. They have no basis on which to develop a set of principles. Reading creates depth, but these people are so shallow that they are simply unable to extend themselves enough to realize that the bombs dropping on them are not just on the television screen. They are actual bombs that can harm them. Montag is so intellectually despondent that he must rack his brain just to recall how he met his wife. For him, nothing is straight forward. Everything is a conundrum. He doesn’t have any tools, tools which we take for granted, to help him understand that the strange process he is going through is called “learning”.