Welcome to the second episode. Hope you enjoy.
Fahrenheit is a dystopian world in which media is tightly controlled. Civilians can’t have books at all and their tvs blast constant nonsense entertainment. But beyond the media, the people of this world are ultimately unhappy and society itself is near collapse.
Our protagonist, Guy Montag, is going through his own existential crisis, but we get glimpses of his whole world losing touch with itself throughout the novel. Bradbury shows us this in a way that never takes the focus off the story at hand, and today we’re going to explore the effect of his world building.
#1 Media Mixing with Reality
In a world where books are dead, tv is king. Bradbury shows us a world in which people are obsessed with their shows and celebrities (I’m sure none of us can relate). But Bradbury doesn’t just come out and tell us this.
Good writers know the difference between showing and telling. Telling is when the writer just feeds you information, kind of like what I’m doing right now. Showing is finding creative ways to guide you into the knowledge of the story without being super obvious. One way Bradbury does this is through the dialogue of his characters.
The character, Mildred, is the centerpoint of this. She is constantly asking Guy about when they’ll be able to get their fourth wall tv installed.
“If we had a fourth wall, why it’d be just like this room wasn’t ours at all, but all kinds of exotic people’s room.” (18)
She is ecstatic about being able to participate in her gimmicky tv shows that mail her a script so she can have lines to say during the broadcast. And she’ll fight tooth and nail to make sure that she doesn’t miss her favorite show. For instance, when Montag is in the middle of his existential crisis, weighing how he can throw out a book to keep the suspicious Captain Beatty off his trail, Montag, Mildred simply asks, “You’ll be here for the White Clown tonight, and the ladies coming over?” (73)
The White Clown is one of the many shows that Mildred is obsessed with, along with a group called “the family.” Montag confronts Mildred by asking her is the White Clown loves her, hoping she’ll see the silliness in her obsession. But she doesn’t get it.
Clarisse also gives us a bit of understanding into this tv-centric world. In a conversation with Montag, she discusses her school and the expectations on her and the other students.
“An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running, another hour of transcription history or painting pictures, and more sports, but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing, and us sitting there for four more hours of film-teacher.” (27)
I know a lot of people who would love to go to that school because it is a mix of things that our society always loves: entertainment and sports. But Clarisse calls the system, “ a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and them telling us it’s wine when it’s not.” (27)
What Bradbury creates through his dialogue is a picture into the world of these characters. There are no scenes in which we see the school, no scenes where we actually watch the White Clown, but we know from these characters that all of this is considered perfectly normal, natural, and givens in their world. Furthermore, they show us how many of the characters, especially Mildred, can’t separate their understanding of their media with their understanding of reality.
#2 Depression and Suppression
Clarisse is the first character we meet that is unsatisfied with this world, but she’s not the only one. Faber has been living underground, more or less, and there’s the woman who lit her own house on fire while she remained inside. But throughout the novel, we also meet characters who are ingrained into the Fahrenheit world but seem to have trouble with the world in some way. We learn this both through Mildred and Captain Beatty.
Mildred loves tv and tries to escape to it whenever she can, but there is something else nagging her. She is distant with her husband and seems kind of dead inside. One of her attempts to bring some excitement into her life is to drive like a crazy person. She recommends this to Montag when he is freaking out about what to do with the books he’s stolen.
“The keys to the beetle are on the night table. I always like to drive fast when I feel that way. You get it up around ninety-five and you feel wonderful. Sometimes I drive all night and come back and you don’t know it. It’s fun out in the country. You hit rabbit, sometimes you hit dogs. Go take the beetle.” (61)
This is common in the Fahrenheit world. Clarisse tells Montag,
“I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly.”
In short, nobody’s stopping to smell the roses.
But Mildred’s emptiness leads to a depression. Early in the book, she is found on her bedroom floor next to an empty sleeping-pill bottle. We’re not given a definitive answer that she tried to overdose on sleeping pills, but we do get this line from the paramedics that come to her rescue.
“Hell! We get these cases nine or ten a night. Got so many, starting a few years ago, we had the special machines built […] You don’t need an M.D., case like this; all you need is two handymen, clean up the problem in half an hour. Look”–he started for the door—”we gotta go. Just had another call on the old ear-thimble. […] Someone else just jumped off the cap of a pillbox.” (13)
Despite the nonstop entertainment bonanza that is always before them, people are either absentmindedly or actively killing themselves.
We see in Captain Beatty also. The fire captain is always reciting literature and claims that he just picked some up after years of confiscating and burning people’s books, but after Beatty dies, Montag concludes that it was because Beatty wanted to.
Of course, the characters in Fahrenheit would never admit to being depressed or unhappy. They are too concerned with their own status. Mildred and her friends demonstrate the ways that the people in this society push their emotions and memories down. These are the people who are suppose to represent their world to the reader.
Mrs. Bowles tells us that she has her children by C-section because there’s “no use going through all that agony for a baby.” (92)
She also has no desire to raise those kids, sending them to boarding school and planting them in front of the TV when they are home. But it’s all worth it because, “they sometimes look just like you, and that’s nice.” (92)
In both cases, Bradbury is showing us that these characters aren’t interested, not willing, rather, to endure pain, discomfort, or inconvenience even for the sake of their own children. Instead, they’d rather live their lives and avoid anything that might make them ask hard questions about their world.
Mrs. Bowles and Mrs. Phelps continue this idea in their response to something that does stir their emotions.
In a fit of frustration, Montag reveals that he has been stealing books and forces them to listen to a poem. The result is a sobbing Mrs. Phelps. She doesn’t know what made her cry, but Mildred tries to calm her immediately. Mrs. Bowles launches into a tirade saying, “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.” (97)
Nobody is willing to confront their feelings and yet each night, dozens of people are overdosing on sleeping pills, racing through the countryside to feel alive, and trying like hell to not cry.
It’s a weird world in which almost everybody is dying inside and they aren’t allowed to say anything about it.
#3 World at War
The first time you read Fahrenheit, the end of the novel can catch you off guard. Montag has fled the city just before the city is bombed and he has to consider whether or not he will return to help the people who had just tried to arrest or kill him.
This is weird on the first time through because the characters never talk about the war, they never talk about politics because most of the characters aren’t interested in talking about anything that isn’t about themselves or the shows they watch (again, I’m sure none of us can relate).
But Bradbury does build the mounting tension of war in the book. It builds in the background as references about jets screaming through the night sky. When Montag finds Mildred comatose on the floor, we’re told that “He felt his chest chopped down and split apart. The jet bombers going over, going over, going over, one two, one two, one two, six of them, nine of them, twelve of them, one and one and one and another and another and another, did all the screaming for him.” (11)
Mildred’s friends briefly mention the war and say that “they come and go.”
Once Montag is outside the city, there is more talk of war by Granger and the others, probably because they have been paying more attention to things that those in the city. And when the bombs are dropped, there has been just enough foreshadowing to make us feel like we expected it.
It’s more tempting to just tell people up front about the place or culture or rules of your world, but the greatness of Bradbury’s work is that he never stoops to writing page after page about his world and what we should be expecting. Instead, he keeps his characters up front and channels details of the world through them.
So whether it’s through the conversations of characters or little details your protagonist has to respond to along the way, take a lesson from one of the most treasured sci-fi writers we’ve ever known and keep your story and characters central.
Thanks for watching Words from the Muck. If you liked this episode and would like to see more, please click the subscribe button and join us next week as we investigate some of Bradbury’s allusions. Until then, farewell, good people.