What is the Main Theme of Fahrenheit 451?
According to Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451‘s main theme isn’t censorship, it’s the loss of intellectual curiosity due to reliance on mass media and technology. It is people, not the state, who are to blame for the burning and banning of books.
In Fahrenheit 451 books become obsolete as people willingly replace them with TV and want them banned for “political correctness” (for example dog lovers offended by books about cats). Firemen become obsolete due to fireproof houses, and the firemen burn books for a living only after people abandon them. The firemen are doing work for the state because they have nothing else to do, society doesn’t need protection from fire, they want protection from knowledge.
Bradbury said to his autobiographer once, referring to people being the reason books became obsolete, “Fahrenheit 451 is less about Big Brother and more about Little Sister.” In other words, it is a criticism of the masses more than the state.
So to be clear, while many would consider government censorship by the state the theme of 451, Bradbury insisted it was a criticism of the abandoning of intellectualism for talking-point sized mass media and anti-intellectualism. Meanwhile, Bradbury’s own biographer is quick to point out that Ray often changed his mind. If we look at the times the book was written, and sift through Bradbury’s writing and interviews, we get keys that the book was a response to McCarthy and censoring by the state (but again he is criticizing the people and media who brought the man to power more than the man).
Themes of 451 include:
- Loss of intellectual curiosity due to mass media.
- The dangers of political correctness (censorship by prejudice people), like cat lovers offended by books about dogs.
- Censorship by the state, due to apathy on the part of people.
- The loss of jobs to technology.
- Rebellion against anti-intellectualism pushed by both big sister and big brother.
TIP: You can get another take on the themes from gradesaver.
Ray Bradbury discusses his love for books as it relates to Fahrenheit 451.
Is Censorship a Theme in Fahrenheit 451?
Although others, including an authorized biographer, refer to the main theme as Government censorship, Bradbury hadn’t mentioned censorship as a theme since an article he wrote for The Nation on May 2, 1953 while working on the book.
It’s likely that censorship was a theme at one point, but this was played down for the other theme (either during the writing process or after).
Since a 2007 interview later in his life Bradbury insisted publicly that Fahrenheit 451 is a story about how favoring brief factoids and rhetoric on television and other mass media, over more literature, can lead to the dumbing down of society.
Interestingly, Bradbury’s autobiographer pointed out that he was “a mass of contradictions”. Predicting flat-screen TV’s, ATMs, the demise of literary reading, and the rise of technology in our daily lives. Yet, he never drove a car or owned a computer, and “deeming the Internet a towering confluence of mostly inane chatter”. He wrote a book warning of the dangers of TV, but wrote a TV show. When asked about the contradiction he replied, “he only disliked bad TV”.
Given Bradbury’s own words and those of his biographer we can take Bradbury on his word for the main theme of the book, but we can’t ignore the signs pointing to government censorship being a theme at some point. A theme that perhaps became less important in retrospect for the author over time.
Other Inspirations for Fahrenheit 451
- Ideas Bradbury had about how people were favoring mass media, like television and talking heads, over literature.
- A Policeman stopping Bradbury and a friend in 1949. The police man stopped him for no reason. It got him thinking, “what would policeman do in the future if there was no crime”, this led to him thinking, “what would firemen do if houses didn’t catch on fire.”
- Ideas Bradbury had about fireman becoming obsolete as technology progressed and houses became fireproof.
- The McCarthy era in which the book was written. McCarthy was a Senator who publicly accused many Americans of being communists despite lacking solid proof or evidence. These accusations were televised and talked about on the media.
- The burning of the Library of Alexandria. Stories of the largest collection of the worlds knowledge burning in the Library of Alexandria (people debate if and when this actually happened).
- Hitler’s Book Burning. Bradbury mentions Hitler’s burning books during World War II in a later introduction to Fahrenheit 451, published in 1966.
- Stalin’s Book Burning. In the same introduction Bradbury mentions Stalin’s book burning.
Ray Bradbury discusses the history and meaning of Fahrenheit 451.
QUOTE: “Today, we don’t have to burn books anymore, because we don’t even teach reading in second, third and fourth grades,” he said. “We have graduating high schoolers that don’t even know how to read – that’s criminal.”- Ray Bradbury.