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Imagine a culture where books are prohibited, where the basic rights illustrated in the First Amendment hold no weight and society is merely a brainwashed, mechanical population. According to Ray Bradbury, the author of Fahrenheit 451, this depiction is actually an exaggerated forecast for the American future – and in effect is happening around us every day. Simply reading his words can excite theories and arguments pertaining not only to the banning of books but to our government structure itself. Age-old debates about Communism and equality are stirred by the trials of characters in Bradbury’s unique world. By studying the protagonist, Guy Montag, and his personal challenges we can, in a sense, evaluate our own lives to see that we don’t make similar mistakes.
While the book is definitely a critique of society and of the government, readers are given many dominant themes to follow, and to find all of them requires several readings.
The main plot, following Montag, illustrates the importance of making mistakes in order to grow. For example, at the very end of the book Granger (an outspoken rebel to the book-banning laws) compares mankind to a phoenix that burns itself up and then rises out of its ashes over and over again. Man's advantage is his ability to recognize when he has made an error, so that eventually he will learn not to make that mistake anymore. Remembering the faults of the past is the task Granger and his group have set for themselves. They believe that individuals are not as important as the collective mass of culture and history. The symbol of the phoenix's rebirth refers not only to the cyclical nature of history and the collective rebirth of humankind but also to Montag's own spiritual resurrection.
Appropriately named, Guy is just a regular person who started out as a drone, following the dictations of his superficial leaders (his last name, Montag, is also ironic in that it is the name of a paper-manufacturing company). Eventually, however, he begins to realize that while reflecting the morals of equality in that no one was above the law, his society also takes away the power of an individual to make a difference. He starts out rash, inarticulate, self-obsessed, and too easily swayed. At times he is not even aware of why he does things, feeling that his hands are acting by themselves. These subconscious actions can be quite horrific, such as when he finds himself setting his supervisor on fire, but they also represent his deepest desires to rebel against the status quo and find a meaningful way to live.
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In a brief summary of Bradbury’s piece it must be noted exactly how this unyielding civilization developed as it did. Guy Montag’s boss, Captain Beatty, describes the problem by explaining that long ago, special-interest groups and other "minorities" began to object to books and literary works that offended them. This led to a sudden monotony in new stories, as writers tried to avoid slighting anybody and were afraid to voice strong opinions. The eerie fact about Bradbury’s work is that it hits a little too close to home: Schools worldwide are banning more and more books from their libraries and limiting the information that children are subjected to. This is a very evident form of brainwashing in that students only learn what teachers feel is suitable, a truth that is leaving growing amounts of people unprepared for their own futures and unable to cope with life when it hits them. Fahrenheit 451 shows one possible place for this prohibition to lead: eventual disregard for the written word and submission to the standards of an uneducated society.
Bradbury’s solid pace and good description paint vivid images in the reader’s mind and tell a daring story of change and self-discovery. Whether looking for a quick read or a thought-provoker, this book is a perfect demonstration of our right to read it (Fahrenheit 451 itself is a banned book). By asserting our literary freedom we all become a part of the greater good that is learning, and hopefully we will teach our children the same.