Historical Context of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451
When Ray Bradbury published his Fahrenheit 451 several decades ago, he depicted a decaying society, only preoccupied by its facade of happiness. Not that people are entirely free of the usual constraints but everything is done through games, shows, comics for them to forget the notion of thinking, source of all distress and misery. Those who resist are destroyed, dangerous books are burnt. And finally, does it work after so much trouble?
Well, at first sight, it depends on the basic purpose of the system. If its aim is to make people happy, it's undoubtedly a catastrophic failure. On the other hand, if it plans on making people believe they are happy or at least act as if they were, the answer may appear less immediate but little by little, you realize that for most of the characters, and therefore for probably most of the society, it comes to the same thing.
Montag, the fireman who burns the books, is suddenly confronted to the emptiness of his life. Is he happy? No. He will refuse the system and fight, like Granger and the old Faber. Mildred, Montag's wife, has accepted it all. It's so practical for her to live without thinking, with a virtual family on screens around the walls of the parlor. She has friends she can talk with. She has plenty of leisure, goes on parties, but is she happy? Can she be happy when she frequently needs a bunch of pills to get dopey to the point of risking her life? Obviously not. Same for her friends, you'll see it fast.
Two characters are really apart in this book.
Clarisse, for example, doesn't like or hate that fake prosperity, simply because she doesn't care. She just does what she likes and she's happy. It's probably the only person you'll meet who is. Unfortunately, it will kill her but her short encounter with Montag will have been fundamental.
Okay, I admit it, even if he's not from the "good" side, I've a compassion of some sort for the last important character of the story, Captain Beatty, the firemen's chief. He's really disconcerting, an opponent worthy of Montag. You quickly feel his cogency, his volubility. Despite his current lifework, it's easy to suspect he read a lot in the past and reflected over everything. He would once have been a precious ally for Montag but now, it's too late. He abides by the system and resigned himself, sincerely convinced of its ineluctability. So, of course, he must oppose Montag. The way he dies, the way he chooses to die, is terrible and you'll realize then what despair has haunted that man, how strong his disgust of life has been.
Oh, while I'm writing this, I've just remembered a scenery. In fact, each time I think about Fahrenheit, this one always comes to my mind. At a certain point of the 2nd part, Montag thrust himself in the parlor occupied by Mildred and her friends who were watching their favorite show on the 3 walls, the White Cartoon Clown. Montag pulls the switch, and after some words exchanged about the coming war, he simply says "Let's talk." The passage that immediately follows his request is powerful, from the bewildering words of Mrs Phelps about the children she never had to the furor of Montag appealing them to get out of his house, it's a total delight! I guess it's only there that the reader discovers in what terribly absurd world s/he was dived. This passage is a great moment of literature history, I swear you! :)
If you make up your mind and wish to buy that magnum opus, I suggest you buy the 40th anniversary edition for Fahrenheit deserves a choice place in your library. The dustcover is beautiful, with the back reproducing the original illustration. Now, let's remove delicately the dust cover. Wow, there's a nice hardcover under it, the main sides are light brown and my fingers can feel the author's name raised slightly in the same color :) and on the black edge, title, author and editor are in gold letters. Hum! Hum! What's more? Ah, yes, a very interesting and recent foreword by Ray Bradbury, very instructive, it explains everything: the genesis of the book, the historical context, the how and the why.