Fahrenheit 451

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Themes and Colors
Mass Media Theme Icon
Censorship Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality Theme Icon
Distraction vs. Happiness Theme Icon
Action vs. Inaction Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Fahrenheit 451, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Distraction vs. Happiness Theme Icon

Why has the society of Fahrenheit 451 become so shallow, indifferent, and conforming? Why do people drive so fast, keep Seashell ear thimbles in their ears, and spend all day in front of room-sized, four-walled TV programs? According to Beatty, the constant motion and titillation is designed to help people suppress their sadness and avoid any kind of intense emotion or difficult thoughts and experiences. The people of Fahrenheit 451 have to come to equate this motion, fun, and distraction with happiness.

However, Fahrenheit 451 makes the case that engaging with difficult and uncomfortable thoughts and experiences is the only routes to true happiness. Only by being uncomfortable, or experiencing things that are new or awkward, can people achieve a real and meaningful engagement with the world and each other. The people in the novel who lack such engagement, such as Mildred, feel a profound despair, which in turn makes them more determined to distract themselves by watching more TV, overdosing on sleeping pills, or letting technicians use a specialized machine to suck away their sadness. The result is a vicious cycle, in which people are terrified to expose themselves to any kind of emotion or difficulty because doing so will force them to face their pent-up despair, though in reality it's their avoidance of those thoughts and feelings that creates their despair. Only after he acknowledges his own unhappiness can Montag make the life-changing decision to find Faber and resist his society's oppressive "happiness" and thought-suppression that he, as a fireman, once enforced.

Distraction vs. Happiness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Distraction vs. Happiness appears in each chapter of Fahrenheit 451. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Distraction vs. Happiness Quotes in Fahrenheit 451

Below you will find the important quotes in Fahrenheit 451 related to the theme of Distraction vs. Happiness.
Part 1 Quotes
"Are you happy?"
Related Characters: Clarisse McClellan (speaker), Guy Montag
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Guy's mysterious neighbor, Clarisse McClellan, asks Guy a simple yet slightly sinister question: "Are you happy?" Even more oddly, Clarisse runs inside before Guy can answer, leaving him alone to ponder his own happiness.

The very fact that Guy perceives Clarisse's question as bizarre tells us a great deal about their society. In the future, it would seem, conversations about one's emotions and deep thoughts are discouraged--people focus more on distraction and entertainment than on their feelings. Thus, a question as simple as "Are you happy?" is a shock. Up until now, Guy has blindly accepted the rules of his society without questioning any of them. In doing so, Guy has ignored his innate sense of morality, and even his innate sense of happiness. By analyzing his own happiness, Guy can begin to rebel against his society's corruption.

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"I'm antisocial, they say. I don't mix. It's so strange. I'm very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn't it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this."
Related Characters: Clarisse McClellan (speaker), Guy Montag
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

As Guy gets to know Clarisse, he discovers that she's been punished in the past for being, allegedly, "antisocial." Clarisse didn't have a good time at school because of her suppose antisocial tendencies, which alienated her from her peers. But here, Clarisse makes it clear that "antisocial" is a biased, arbitrary term. By readers' standards, Clarisse is interesting and thoughtful. And yet because she refuses to conform to society--to be superficial and loud and aggressive--she's labeled antisocial and condemned by her peers. Ironically, Clarisse is both the character who most resembles the likely reader of Fahrenheit 451 and character who least resembles the average citizen of the fictional society of Fahrenheit 451. Thus she is a kind of link character, a voice of sanity in an overwhelming, insane world.

Bradbury critiques the strong conformity of American society in the 1950s. Those who are "different," both in the 50s and in the novel, are condemned and made to feel imperfect. It takes a lot of courage and strength for Clarisse to remain aloof from her society--instead of giving in and watching television with everyone else, she remains curious and thoughtful about the real world and her own inner life.

"Speed up the film, Montag, quick... Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline!... Whirl man's mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!"
Related Characters: Captain Beatty (speaker), Guy Montag
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Captain Beatty--Guy's superior at the fire station--gives Guy a condensed history of the United States. Once, information was thorough and analytical. But with the rise of the mass media and the invention of television, information became increasingly brief and superficial. In an effort to entertain, rather than inform, newspapers condensed their articles. The result is that the overall "pace" of human society seemed to increase: people processed information at a quicker speed, but only because the information was designed to be simpler and less nuanced.

Beatty's informal history (itself a highly "simplified" version of a big, complicated topic) suggests that American society as a whole has embraced the tenets of modern advertising. Just as the point of an ad slogan is to be quick, digestible, and above all entertaining, newspapers and books have begun to aspire to simplicity, with the goal of attracting as many "customers" as possible. It's easy to see the costs of the social changes Beatty describes, even if he never explicitly names them: in trading popularity and simplicity for thoroughness, society has become less thoughtful, less well-informed, and generally less mature.

"The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we're the Happiness Boys... you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dike. Hold steady. Don't let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world."
Related Characters: Captain Beatty (speaker), Guy Montag
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

Beatty tells his employee, Guy Montag, that he and Guy are agents of happiness. As firemen, Beatty and Guy have one crucial job: destroy literature that doesn't conform with society's standards. While Guy has some reservations about the morality of burning books, Beatty seems not to doubt the nobility of his profession. Beatty sees intelligence and deep thought as dangerous diseases, which lead to unhappiness and anxiety. The only way to ensure that society remains happy is by preserving its innocence--in other words, by destroying all "conflicting ideas."

Beatty's speech to Guy is, of course, darkly ironic, since, as we've seen, it is Beatty's society (the society of conformity and television) that is actually "melancholy and drear." Theory and deep thought do not, contrary to what Beatty claims, always lead to sadness--rather, they represent the only way that human beings can achieve true happiness and move beyond the glib pleasures of superficial entertainment.

"At least once in his career, every fireman gets an itch. What do the books say, he wonders. Oh, to scratch that itch, eh?"
Related Characters: Captain Beatty (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Guy Montag asks his superior at the fire station, Captain Beatty, what happens when a fireman gives in to the temptation to read some of the books he's supposed to burn. Beatty, an experienced fireman, replies that all firemen feel the temptation Guy has described.

Beatty's speech implies that Beatty himself has given into temptation and read some forbidden books. (Beatty's awareness of literature and history, demonstrated throughout the first part of the book, further implies that he's a secret reader.) In a broader sense, too, the passage suggests that all human beings feel a natural sense of curiosity; a desire to learn about the world and about themselves. In Beatty and Guy's society, however, the government strongly discourages people from giving into their natural human curiosity. Thus, the passage suggests that Guy's society is barbaric because it perverts human nature.

Part 2 Quotes
"We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren't happy. Something's missing. I looked around. The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I'd burned in ten or twelve years. So I thought books might help."
Related Characters: Guy Montag (speaker)
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Guy and his wife try to read some of the forbidden books that Guy was supposed to burn. While reading the books is a challenge for Guy (who's barely read anything in his life), Guy senses that a solution to his sadness must be hidden in literature--literature is the only thing missing from his life, and therefore literature must be capable of nourishing his soul.

The passage makes an important distinction between spiritual and material needs. When Guy says that he has everything he needs to be happy, he's referring to his material needs exclusively: as a typical American, he has a nice house, plenty of food, constant television, etc. And yet Guy senses that his deeper needs aren't being addressed: television can entertain him, but it can't take away his sense of melancholy and unfulfillment. In order to remedy his sadness, Guy looks to literature for help--precisely because it's the one thing denied to him.

"It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were it books....The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through radios and televisors, but are not."
Related Characters: Faber (speaker)
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Faber--an elderly professor whom Guy first met years before--gives Guy his theory for why books are superior to television. Faber believes that books are important because they offer a complex  view of life. In a good book, there are no clear heroes and villains--life is not described in terms of "black and white." Instead, good books describe reality in nuanced terms. It's different on television: on the TV shows of Montag's society, life is described in terms of good and evil, sensationalism and pure entertainment, so that everything is simplified and, at heart, unrealistic.

Faber adds an important qualifier to his point. It's not that books are inherently better than movies--rather, TV producers have chosen to create TV shows that ignore the "infinite detail" that literature offers. It's certainly possible for TV to convey moral and intellectual complexity; but, perhaps because complexity doesn't sell well, TV producers opt instead for cartoonish simplicity. (Makes you wonder what Bradbury would have said about shows like The Wire or Breaking Bad...)

"We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam."
Related Characters: Faber (speaker)
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

Professor Faber, Guy's new mentor, offers a tragic metaphor for the way American society has come to function. Faber compares America to a field of flowers. The flowers are beautiful and delicate-looking--symbols of sensual, material pleasure. The people of the United States believe that they can survive on a "diet" of happiness and sensual pleasure only (i.e., "flowers are trying to live on flowers").

Faber suggests that modern Americans try to satisfy their deepest spiritual needs in the shallowest of ways. A human being can't find peace and comfort in a superficial program on TV--and yet people in Faber's society increasingly attempt to do so. Faber suggests that people can only get spiritual nourishment from "good rain and black loam"--i.e., from books and ideas that, while not conventionally pleasurable, provide a deeper channel for thought and insight. Perhaps Faber considers literature, religion, and philosophy to be "black loam"--it might not always "taste" sweet, but it gives people the strength to live well.

"Those who don't build must burn. It's as old as history and juvenile delinquents."
Related Characters: Faber (speaker)
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Faber sums up his ideas about modern American society. Society, he says, has become a place for destruction. Firemen destroy forbidden literature, and even the average American citizen watches TV programs in which people and machines destroy each other. In short, society has become mindlessly violent because it's entertaining, and because people have nothing positive to offer in place of violence. As Faber sees it, society's love for destruction is indicative of a fundamental lack of creativity: "those who don't build must burn."

Faber's theory of modern American society is rooted in his knowledge of history. There have always been destructive people, he acknowledges. But for most of history, mankind's potential for creativity overshadowed its potential to destroy. Societies celebrated creation more highly than destruction. Nowadays, society fetishizes destruction and greets all unique creativity with suspicion. 

He would be Montag-plus-Faber, fire plus water, and then, one day, after everything had mixed and simmered and worked away in silence, there would be neither fire nor water, but wine.
Related Characters: Guy Montag
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Guy Montag resolves to use Faber's teachings to undermine the censorship and repression of his own society. Faber is deeply cynical about the state of society--he condemns his society's ignorance, its sadism, and its lack of empathy--but he's always reluctant to put his ideas to practice. Guy, by contrast, is eager to improve the state of society, trying to bring the engagement and empathy Faber celebrates and put it into action.

The passage is an interesting description of what the 19th century anarchists called "creative destruction." Guy has spent most of his adult life destroying books on behalf of his society. But henceforth, Guy will use his destructive tendencies in order to create something new and valuable: an empathetic, engaged society. In doing so, Guy hopes to engineer a near-miraculous transformation in his country (Note the Biblical allusion in this passage: Guy wants to change his world, like Christ changing water into wine.)

"They are so confident that they will run on forever. But they won't run on. They don't know that this is all one huge big blazing meteor that makes a pretty fire in space, but that someday it'll have to hit."
Related Characters: Faber (speaker)
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Faber offers some harsh thoughts on Guy's wife and her friends. Guy has just returned from a long conversation with Faber about the superficiality of modern society. During his ride back to his home, Guy learns that his country has just declared war. When Guy returns to his home, he's shocked to find that his wife and her peers are mostly indifferent to the political details of the war--they're more concerned about the TV program they're about to watch, "The White Clown."

Faber, who's communicating with Guy via an earpiece, claims that Guy's peers are naively confident that their society will last forever. In other words, they don't need to think about politics or war, because they're confident that America will win every military conflict, allowing them to go on watching TV and enjoying themselves. The reality, however, is that Guy's friends are partying on a sinking ship--and soon enough, their country's actions will catch up with it. Also note that Faber again uses fire imagery here, suggesting that the fires society uses to burn books will grow beyond its control, and burn up society itself.

Part 3 Quotes
"We're nothing more than dust jackets for books, of no significance otherwise."
Related Characters: Granger (speaker)
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Guy has now fled away from his city and into the wilderness. There, he makes contact with a man named Granger, the leader of a ragtag group of intellectuals. Each intellectual in the group has memorize the entirety of one book: Guy's will be the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. Granger gives Guy some advice: he encourages Guy to be modest, and to think himself as the mere "dust jacket" for the book he's memorized.

Granger's comments in this passage are indicative of the oral tradition to which mankind is returning. Because of the dangers of possessing books, Granger and his followers have memorized long texts. Like the poets of the ancient world, such as Homer, Granger and his peers don't think of themselves as great thinkers or writers; rather, they're just the passive receivers of other people's great ideas. Put another way, their duty is to remember and repeat, not to create.

Granger's comments also reinforce the differences between his followers and Guy's former society. In Guy's society, people were encouraged to be vain and self-absorbed; indeed, a vast network of advertisers and TV corporations existed to appeal to people's vanity. In the wilderness, Granger has no patience for vanity; his followers are expected to be humble and respect the majesty of literature and timeless ideas.

"...We're going to build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them."
Related Characters: Granger (speaker)
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel--when Guy's former society has seemingly been destroyed by nuclear war--Granger plans to rebuild human civilization from the ashes. Half-seriously, half-jokingly, Granger envisions a "mirror factory" that will allow all human beings to see their own faces and learn introspection again.

Why does Granger want to replace civilization with a society of mirrors? As Granger sees it, Guy's society was guilty of constant distraction, and thus of profound ignorance: ignorance of politics, ignorance of history, and above all, ignorance of the self. Guy and his peers watched television and went shopping, but never stopped to ask themselves if they were happy, or if the people around them were happy. Because they never listened to their own instincts and spiritual needs, Guy's neighbors allowed themselves to spiral into depression and misery. Thus, by planning a "mirror factory," Granger indicates that he's learned from society's mistakes. In Granger's new society, human beings will never again be allowed to lose sight of their own unique desires and thoughts. Instead of confirming to society's expectations, people will celebrate uniqueness and individuality.