Freedom, Censorship, and One Good Book Part 2

In the last part of this discussion of the theme of Fahrenheit 451, I observed what appeared to me to be Ray Bradbury’s subtle critique of freedom. I proposed that his critique rested in the fact that the people in Fahrenheit 451 freely choose to, in essence, let the government take over. It’s a dark take on freedom. Here’s the final part in this examination.

On the flip side of that rather morbid approach to the concept of freedom, there was an examination of the good that freedom can do. Or at least, there seemed to be a hint of hope. If you think about it, the pursuit of freedom in the novel doesn’t actually bring about any changes that we see. At the end, the city has been destroyed, millions of people are dead, and the country, in essence, is in ruins. That’s not a terribly happy or optimistic ending.

So where does the novel leave the concept of freedom? It leaves us with a ruined country and a people who are free from their government. They are free from those who enslaved them, but there’s no answer given to the question of “what happens next?” Is a free society set up?

The main character, Montag, has pursued freedom for most of the book, and at the end he gets it. But given what the free choices of the people did in the past, is that really a good thing? The question at the end is not so much “is there freedom,” but rather “what do people do with the freedom they have?”

Oddly enough, I’m almost tempted to take the novel as having a pessimistic view on freedom. When I think about it, characters in the book praise the value of freedom, but we don’t actually see it giving anyone anything.

But perhaps that gives us the theme of the novel. We don’t see people doing good things with their freedom. We do see them doing plenty of bad. At the same time, however, there’s hopes and dreams that characters have of a free society in which people use their freedom properly.

So perhaps the theme of the novel isn’t censorship, or even freedom as a concept. Perhaps the theme of the novel is simply that freedom isn’t perfect. Freedom can lead to a dangerous totalitarian system, but also a safe, tranquil world. People aren’t perfect, and so they misuse and abuse their freedom. They can make bad choices and good choices; both freely.

I’ll have to think about it some more, but it seems like that could very well be the theme of this novel.

As to what I think of that theme, and whether I agree with that message or not, I won’t say. I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed Fahrenheit 451, and am eager to discuss the book and the theme with others.

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Freedom, Censorship, and One Good Book Part 1

One of the downsides of reading well-known books is that you come into it with more preconceived notions then necessary. You already assume that the book is about one thing or another, without letting it speak for itself. Sometimes books can’t break through this, but other times, as in my recent first reading of Fahrenheit 451, they can.

Fahrenheit 451 isn't about censorship.
Fahrenheit 451 isn’t about censorship.

I came into Fahrenheit 451 expecting to read a book about the dangers of censorship. I expected to hear the values of free speech and a free press extolled, sometimes to the point of the story being drowned out by the preaching of the theme. What I got was very, very different.

Fahrenheit 451 is, in my opinion, not about censorship. It’s not about free speech or a free press. At least, I don’t think its about those things alone. I think that looking at it that way undermines the depth and quality of the thematic material within the book.

So, if 451 isn’t about censorship or free speech, or a free press, then what is it about? First and foremost, I think Fahrenheit 451 is a story. A story that’s actually quite good. To my surprise, there wasn’t much preaching, and there were legitimate characters who were well-developed. The world was real, at least for the time I was in it. Granted, the book could have had some of its metaphors cut (see this blog post), but all in all, it was a very well-told and enjoyable story.

Yes, yes, it’s a classic. You didn’t come here, and I didn’t intend, to give you a review of the book. I want to talk about the theme of this book. What is it about? Thematically, that is.

From my reading, I got the sense that Fahrenheit 451 is about freedom in general–and not just freedom from the government, but simply freedom as a concept. It examined the dangers and the traps that freedom brings with it. It examined the helpful, good qualities of freedom as well. It gave a nuanced–and sometimes frightening–picture of freedom. How so?

First, I was fascinated by what appeared to be a critique, of sorts, of freedom. In the world, how is the government able to keep control on the people? How were they able to get the books banned? How were they able keep the people dumb, and keep them in a state where they could control all the information they received?

They were able to do it because the people consented. In essence, the people stood by and watched it happen. They watched their culture slowly deteriorate, and chose–used their free choice–to stop reading. They freely chose to fear books. They freely chose to let history be altered. They freely chose to become enslaved to the media, believing all the government told them. All the government did was take advantage of the free choices the people made.

Ray Bradbury, the author, didn’t show freedom to be angelic. He didn’t show people using their freedom to do only good. He showed freedom opening the way to enslavement.

I’ll continue this discussion of the theme on Friday, with Part 2. Be sure to check back then for an investigation of the (less depressing) side of the theme of freedom.

Books Like Perfume

This quote says far better than I can say, what I’ve been writing about lately. The concept of stealing from the masters, in a sense, and learning from their successes.

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
–Ray Bradbury