Why is a liberal arts education necessary for young people today and for humanity’s future? To answer this question, we might benefit from Ray Bradbury past analysis in Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s novel, published in 1953, warns that the death of books—as well as leisure, thinking, and happiness—is principally caused by the “comfortable people.” Who are these people? Would Bradbury see them among us today? If so, what remedy or hope might Bradbury offer?
Fahrenheit 451 centers on the character of Guy Montag, who is a fireman. The task of firemen is to start fires, not extinguish them. Houses have been sealed with a fireproof plastic coating so that they do not burn. What are burned are books—texts of Dante, Swift, Shakespeare, Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jefferson, Lincoln, Thoreau, Matthew Arnold, Philip Sydney, Swift, Darwin, Einstein, Gandhi, Confucius, Buddha, the Old and New Testaments, and other classic texts.
The history of firemen in America begins, the popular story goes, in 1790 with Benjamin Franklin, who burned English-influenced books in the Colonies. But Montag’s boss, Chief Beatty, clarifies that it really started in the Civil War and with subsequent technologies such as the radio, television, and movies that created mass communication.
Communicating to the masses meant that messages had to become much simpler.
As Beatty says, “Classics [were] cut to fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume.” In this way, Beatty explains, “Hamlet [became] a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics [and] keep up with your neighbors.”
Attending this abridgment of classics, Beatty adds, is that “School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.” On top of that, more sports—“superorganize[d] super-super sports”—are added for everyone so that “The mind drinks less and less.”
The final factor, in addition to technology and mass communication, is minorities. Beatty explains:
[The b]igger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the topes of dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. . . . The bigger your market . . . the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean.
As a result of pressure from all varieties of minorities, books stopped selling, but the comic books and three-dimensional sex magazines survived. The word “intellectual” became a “swear word.”
To keep minorities happy, three inflammatory offenses needed to be eradicated: excellence, contradiction, and complexity. Anything excellent that made someone feel inferior was removed. People were no longer “born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone [had to be] made equal.” For no one wants to be shown intellectually inferior to a great book or well-read person. Second, anything that contradicts or discomforts a group’s views, feelings, identities, or means of wealth must be eliminated. As Beatty explains, “Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.” Finally, “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” In other words, complexity breeds melancholy, so avoid thinking and engorge in entertainment. Then people will be happy.
Seen in this light, the firemen are known as the “Happiness Boys” since they relieve people of sadness by burning books that unsettle them or make them feel inadequate or confused. But, as Faber, the retired college English professor in this novel, reveals, “the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.”
Moreover, most people burn books themselves to avoid offense and to secure happy homes. People live in front of living-room-sized television screens that endlessly broadcast mindless soap operas, nonsensical talking-head news shows, and explosions of colorful objects and actions cascading across the screen. When not in front of four-wall televisions, people put “Seashell ear thimbles” in to entertain them with more talk and music.
That’s why Faber calls the general public the “comfortable people.” Firemen only need to spring into action when some unhappy, insane, antisocial person—such a Guy Montag—keeps and read books, spreading questions and ideas that complicate people’s lives by making them examine themselves and the world around them.
The “comfortable people,” though, are truly empty and unhappy. They cannot face life and are depressed and suicidal. Montag inwardly admits how unhappy he is with his current life after experiencing just a few leisurely moments of genuine conversation about life with a sixteen-year-old neighbor named Clarisse. Montag’s wife, Mildred—despite surrounding herself with parties, laughter, music, and her loving “family” of television characters—overdoses on sleeping pills one miserable, lonely night. Mrs. Phelps, a friend of Mildred, cries uncontrollably after Montag reads aloud Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
This poem emotionally exposes Mrs. Phelps, whose husband is off fighting an unnamed war for an unknown cause with an uncertain outcome. She is so stunned and shaken that another friend, Mrs. Bowles, launches into Montag, excoriating him: “I knew it would happen! I’ve always said poetry and tears, poetry and suicide, and crying and awful feelings, poetry and sickness; all that mush! Now I’ve had it proved to me. You’re nasty, Mr. Montag, you’re nasty!”
Scott Ashmon is Assistant Provost for Undergraduate Education at Concordia University Irvine