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In this essay, I would evaluate the topic of censorship when seen through the background of an independent novel. The book of my choice is Fahrenheit 451 which is a mix of fantasy and fiction written by Ray Bradbury. The subject deals with a dystopian American social order of the future which is erratically consumed by profligacy and self-indulgence. As a result, the ruling elite considers the dissemination of intelligent ideas as a burden for a society that prompts it to wage a formal war against all works of literature including the Bible (Dennis, p. 12).
In order to suppress intellectual thoughts, the ruling elite has enlisted the support of firemen whose job is to seize books that have been deemed illegal, and burn them down (Bradbury, p. 6). Since most people belonging to this era have little understanding or respect for the importance of books, they do not question the decisions of the ruling elite. Censorship, thus, becomes the norm of the times (the period in this 1951 novel has been set somewhere in the 1990s).
Significance of censorship
In this novel, I would take a closer look into how the instrument of censorship as documented in the novel, becomes a catalyst for wielding unlimited government control. Ironically, the novel was written in a period when the United States and its allied Western governments had upped the ante against Communism while clambering up a wall of accusations that tried to expose Soviet-style governments as states that sponsor censorship, and suppress the rights of citizens. Clearly, the intention of Bradbury was to throw subtle hints on why Western governments weren’t doing any better. As the novel unfolds, the reader is introduced to subtle hints used by the author suggesting the sweeping unrest that had become the norm among the masses in Western-ruled countries after World War II (which was the most effective period of censorship in those times).
Characters of the novel Fahrenheit 451
The main protagonist of the novel is Guy Montag, a fireman whose job like others, is to burn books without questioning the impact of his decision. In fact, the man who is portrayed as an average nice person, even takes hidden pleasure in his acts, “There is a thing about burning. It is so fine…complete…so beautiful” (Bradbury, p. 5). The intention here is to show the level of brainwashing that a ruling government can impose on ordinary citizens by effectively wielding the tool of censorship.
Basically, what unfolds here is that an average person is no longer concerned about the long-term impact of a government-sponsored decision, and thus, has given up his questioning bent of mind (Collins, p. 23). So, effectively, Guy Montag acts as a tool for the ruling elite and has blindly assumed that their decisions could not be incorrect. This, as Bradbury tries to document in the novel, is a very dangerous trend because once government censorship is normalized, it’s a long road downhill from there.
The character of Montag has been used to build up the storyline to its conclusion and is a reflection of what an average, well-informed citizen should not be (Collins, 34). Other characters in the novel including firemen such as Black and Holden are also in the same boat as Montag; uninformed and ignorant about the unfair powers of the government. Indeed, if the government is shown as a central agency capable of wielding unlimited terror, the average characters are shown as blind sheep that do little to question their decisions and are swept away by a culture of thralldom that can do no harm to the position and authority of the rulers (Collins, p. 8). This, as Bradbury indicates suggestively, could be the collective future of all Western societies if the power of ruling authorities is not kept in control through an effective system of checks and balances (Dennis, p. 12).
Captain Beatty, Montag’s boss and the fire chief is shown as a direct agent of the ruling authorities because of his immense hatred for books for some personal reasons (Bradbury, p. 12). His answers to the predicament of whether or not the knowledge contained in books is useful are expressed in strong words, “Once you accumulate knowledge, it’s very much like owning twelve beds. You can only sleep in one at a time. The rest are superfluous. There’s only one truth worth knowing (lights his cigarette lighter). Fire. And, smoke and ashes. Answers to everything. Problems solved, worry eliminated. Right Montag, right?” (Bradbury, p. 8).
Another agent of the censorship terror is the Mechanical Hound, an octopus-like grotesque agent which aims to spot non-conformists and kill them (Dennis, p. 44). It is safe to conclude that the Mechanical Hound has been devised to showcase similar mechanisms available with present-day governments to suppress opposition and wield unlimited power (Dennis, p. 45). The most effective tools used in this regard are the print and electronic media which often toe the official line of the ruling elite and lack the inspiration or know-how to lend a voice to justice.
Like the Mechanical Hound, the print media of today can also descend into an instrument that obfuscates knowledge and suppresses ideas. The use of a “mechanical” neologism by Bradbury was to indicate the robotic nature of government agents which act as per the pay of the ruling elite and are the biggest problem in the current scenario since, they are used to keep the common masses in a perpetual state of confusion, with little respite or breather (Dennis, p. 45).
Voices of Dissent
However, despite portraying a pessimistic picture of how a future America might unfold, Bradbury also makes a point to depict a few minor characters who go against the grain and keep their intellectual flame alive. The most important characters in this regard are Clarisse McKellan and Faber, an intellectual professor who understands the machinations of the ruling elite but is scared to speak the truth (Bradbury, p. 43). Even the main protagonist Guy Montag, who is shown as a loyal agent of the government with little respect for knowledge, is shown to memorize lines from the books which he is about to burn (Collins, p. 139).
In conclusion, the idea behind this novel is to show that despite tough measures imposed by censorship regimes, the voice of dissent cannot be fully suppressed. Somehow, through one means or the other, it is possible for opposing forces to unite against the tyranny of censorship. The fact that these lone voices of dissent exist in these countries says a lot about the situation in some present-day countries where the rights of women, minorities and other citizens are suppressed but there are enough voices that want to discontinue this trend (Collins, p. 140). Indeed, no amount of censorship can trifle with one strand of dissent which tends to reverse the trend as has been documented in the novel where the whole dystopian society is eventually destroyed in a nuclear war, to pave way for a better world.
- Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. Woodstock, IL: The Dramatic Publishing Company, 1996. Print.
- Dennis, Mary L. Fahrenheit 451. New York, NY: Novel Units, 1999. Print.
- Collins, Mary B. Fahrenheit 451: A Unit Plan. New York, NY: Teachers Pet Publications Inc., 2000. Print.