Of all the dystopian texts I’ve taught to my grade 11 and grade 12 English classes, none has been so impactful on students as Ray Bradbury’s prescient novella, Fahrenheit 451, with its volatile protagonist, the fireman Montag. I find it to be a good mix of reading length, density (its style is quite poetic and uses imagery in fascinating ways), and real world relevance. It’s more personal than George Orwell’s 1984, which has extended discourses on political philosophy, and the characters are far more relatable than those of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
As Neil Gaimen writes in the introduction to the 60th Anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451, dystopian texts ask the questions: “What if… If only… If this goes on…” — and of all the dystopian novels I have read, I think Bradbury most accurately answered these questions about the trends he projected from his current society, capturing the confluence of threads you find in Orwell and Huxley and blending those two worlds together into a version that is much closer to our actual lived modern reality.
As a secular seer of the rising modern age of the 1960s, Bradbury foresaw the implications of mass media and the effect it would have on an entire society that loses its connection with its own physicality, with literature, deep reading and critical thinking, and instead veers off into techno-addiction and hedonism.
Some of the prophetic insights found in the novel include: the rise of wireless technology, the ubiquitous and conditioning nature of mass advertising, the addiction to speed and danger connected with a struggle with meaninglessness; the breakdown of marriage and the family home because of dominating entertainment mediated through mass media technology; the use and abuse of technology by a power hungry government eager and willing to make a power grab on a passive populace unmoored from all sense of critical thinking because of an increasing trend toward bite-sized, oversimplified talking points and media tid-bits (Twitter comes to mind quite obviously as a fulfillment of this one, and also the trend of newspaper sites putting a minute count for how long it will take to read at the top of each article). It also explores the role of censorship and militaristic law enforcement of censorship as a main means of controlling the populace, the use of fear and the threat of war, and the destruction of historical texts that explore human nature and the depths of human experience.
In Fahrenheit, addiction to shallow, hollow bite-sized media forms (“...digests digests digests…”, as Captain Beatty says) results in a lack of self-reflection, a loss of personal application and change, and a dehumanization process that is enhanced and augmented by the technology that itself remaps and rewires the mind and emotions. Mildred, Montag’s wife, is a perfect example of the vacuous husk of humanity that is formed as a result of this media addiction — ever ready to attempt suicide to escape the emptiness of her own heart, or try through the incessant drone of her Seashell Radio earbuds and the constant inane chatter of her parlour wall multi-TV “family”. One eerily recalls to mind the recent announcement of Facebook rebranding to Meta and inaugurating the “Metaverse”...
In this YouTube video lesson series, you will explore this poetic and prophetic text and its implications for the modern 21st century person. You will be surprised and challenged, and hopefully changed, by a deeper examination of human nature and the role of technology in society, and in your own life. The urgency of Bradbury’s message for our smartphone, social-media addicted generation cannot be underestimated — we would do well to take heed to his warnings, and build ourselves some mirror factories, memorize some books, and hope the next generation will survive — Phoenix-like — whatever the next coming cataclysm may be.
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