Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Censorship

Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t provide a single, clear explanation of why books are banned in the future. Instead, it suggests that many different factors could combine to create this result. These factors can be broken into two groups: factors that lead to a general lack of interest in reading and factors that make people actively hostile toward books. The novel doesn’t clearly distinguish these two developments. Apparently, they simply support one another.

The first group of factors includes the popularity of competing forms of entertainment such as television and radio. More broadly, Bradbury thinks that the presence of fast cars, loud music, and advertisements creates a lifestyle with too much stimulation in which no one has the time to concentrate. Also, the huge mass of published material is too overwhelming to think about, leading to a society that reads condensed books (which were very popular at the time Bradbury was writing) rather than the real thing.

The second group of factors, those that make people hostile toward books, involves envy. People don’t like to feel inferior to those who have read more than they have.

But the novel implies that the most important factor leading to censorship is the objections of special-interest groups and “minorities” to things in books that offend them. Bradbury is careful to refrain from referring specifically to racial minorities—Beatty mentions dog lovers and cat lovers, for instance. The reader can only try to infer which special-interest groups he really has in mind. As the Afterword to Fahrenheit 451 demonstrates, Bradbury is extremely sensitive to any attempts to restrict his free speech; for instance, he objects strongly to letters he has received suggesting that he revise his treatment of female or black characters. He sees such interventions as essentially hostile and intolerant—as the first step on the road to book burning.

Knowledge versus Ignorance

Montag, Faber, and Beatty’s struggle revolves around the tension between knowledge and ignorance. The fireman’s duty is to destroy knowledge and promote ignorance in order to equalize the population and promote sameness. Montag’s encounters with Clarisse, the old woman, and Faber ignite in him the spark of doubt about this approach. His resultant search for knowledge destroys the unquestioning ignorance he used to share with nearly everyone else, and he battles the basic beliefs of his society.

Technology

Technological innovation represents the central source of society’s problems in Fahrenheit 451. Throughout the book, Bradbury treats technology as inherently anesthetizing and destructive. In the prehistory of the novel, technology played an important role in the social decline of reading. As technology improved, it gave rise to new forms of media, like television and in-ear radios. The televisions in Bradbury’s future are the size of whole walls, and when installed to form three-dimensional entertainment spaces called “parlors,” they have a mesmerizing, immersive effect. Despite being more immersive than books, television programs feature simplified content meant primarily to entertain. As Montag observes over the course of the novel, the television programs his wife Mildred watches are pointless and often gratuitously violent. Whenever Mildred isn’t watching television, she’s listening to a constant stream of music and advertisements that play through her in-ear radio. Mildred remains “plugged in” at all times, and Montag ascribes her emotional vacancy and lack of empathy to her addiction to these forms of technology. By extension, the shallowness and heartlessness of Montag’s society as a whole derives from its collective addiction to entertainment.

In contrast to the anesthetizing effect of new media technologies, other forms of technology in Bradbury’s future have a more materially destructive force. For instance, the automobiles—or “beetles”—that appear everywhere in the city can easily reach top speeds of more than one hundred miles per hour. As such, they encourage fast, reckless driving and result in many fatal accidents. Mildred frequently lets off steam by driving fast, which particularly distresses Montag after he learns that a speeding beetle killed Clarisse. Another example of technology’s destructiveness appears in the Mechanical Hound, a metal contraption designed to track down and kill lawbreakers. Although the Hound must be specifically programmed with the biometrics of the person it’s meant to attack, early in the novel the Hound acts aggressively toward Montag, suggesting that Hound technology may be easy to manipulate to nefarious ends. However, the most destructive technology of all is the atomic bomb. Two nuclear wars occurred in the novel’s recent past, and the book ends with an atomic bomb falling on the city. Nuclear technology makes war both easier and more destructive, and in Fahrenheit 451, the ever-present threat of atomic war maintains an atmosphere of anxiety.

Dissatisfaction

In Fahrenheit 451, the theme of dissatisfaction has close connections to the themes of technology and censorship. The dystopian society Bradbury represents in the novel arose in its present form because of technological innovation. Technological innovation led to the ascendency of television, which in turn led to the devaluing and, eventually, the censoring of books. As Captain Beatty explains to Montag, the social history that led to the present state of affairs had everything to do with ensuring people’s peace of mind by keeping them entertained. As long as everyone remains entertained, they’ll be happy.

However, Montag realizes early in the novel that constant entertainment has bred deep dissatisfaction. For instance, Mildred can’t live without entertainment. She’s always watching television in her “parlor” or listening to her in-ear radio. The only reason she steps away from these entertainments is to seek cathartic release while driving around in her beetle at top speeds. Mildred insists that she’s happy, yet her near-suicide at the beginning of the novel suggests otherwise. Dissatisfaction rages just beneath the surface, even for those who don’t consciously realize it.