In Greek mythology, Antaeus is a giant who has formidable strength and remains invincible so long as he stays in contact with the ground. However, he instantly dies when the hero Hercules crushes him in a bearhug in midair. This legendary defeat offers an essential truth: it is only through interaction with the natural world that an individual can realize their full potential. In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury presents a society in which its citizens fool themselves into an illusion of happiness to conceal their discontent in life. Through the dystopian setting, the novel shows the detrimental effects of a society estranged from nature. Furthermore, Bradbury depicts the importance of the natural world in restoring an individual’s ability to embrace life.
Through its various settings, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury reveals that for people to achieve true happiness and preserve their humanity, they must respect and live in harmony with the natural world. In the dystopian setting of a technologically-controlled society disconnected from nature, Bradbury presents the unsatisfied lives of its citizens. The society in Fahrenheit 451 restricts and banishes nature, disrupting the character’s ability to experience happiness.
In protagonist Guy Montag’s house, the windows are “tightly shut” (Bradbury 9), restricting the moonlight from coming in so that the room remains in complete darkness. It is in this dark room that Montag realizes the grim truth: “Darkness. He was not happy” (9).
In this society, a house is not a comfortable place for an individual to feel safe and relaxed; it is a place that represents their suppressed dissatisfaction with life. In the domestic environment, the absence of moonlight reveals an absence of warmth between family. With the lack of nature in society, technology further restricts freedom to self-expression, and citizens are forced to conform to the government’s laws. While most citizens watch television, smash windows, or race cars, Clarisse McClellan, Montag’s neighbour, spends her time watching the sunrise (5), tasting rain (19), and smelling old leaves (26). Unlike the other citizens who conform through suppressing their natural instincts by engaging in mindless distractions, Clarisse, who “[likes] to smell things and look at things” (5), shows her individuality through using her innate senses to connect with the natural world around her. Consequently, she disappears and is considered “‘better off dead’” (58) as her character reveals the happiness caused by attaining the freedom to self-expression through nature.
On the contrary, the dystopian society is characterized by destruction and violence. Influenced by the environment they live in—a society that burns books and murders their citizens for being “queer” (58)—the citizens spend their lives in a dehumanized state. In one of their meetings, Clarisse tells Montag about the violent behaviour prevalent in their city: 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.
That’s not social to me at all. It’s 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. They run us so ragged by the end of the day we can’t do anything but go to bed or head for a Fun Park to bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with the big steel ball. Or go out in the cars and race on the streets, trying to see how close you can get to lampposts, playing ‘chicken’ and ‘knock hubcaps.’ I haven’t any friends. That’s supposed to prove I’m abnormal.
But everyone I know is either shouting or dancing around like wild or beating up one another. Do you notice how people hurt each other nowadays? (27).As the insightful thoughts of Clarisse, who “rarely [watches] the parlor walls or [goes] to races or Fun Parks” (7) reveal, nature can be a source of comfort from the overwhelming stress of daily life. However, in this dystopian society that threatens nonconformity with death, the citizens engage in violence and destruction to cope with their suppressed instincts and their unsatisfied lives.
With the absence of the natural world, society tries to replace the emptiness with its technological inventions. Instead of the sounds of “distant animals and insects and trees” (135), the television parlor walls and radios produce a constant “electronic ocean of sound” (10); and instead of the licorice scent of weeds (138), the smell of kerosene is worn as a perfume because it never truly goes away (4). Among the numerous inventions, such as the Mechanical Hound or the Seashell radios, the Snake is a machine specifically built for the myriad of suicide cases. When Mildred, Montag’s wife, overdoses on sleeping pills, the Snake revives her by “[drinking] up the green matter that flowed to the top in a slow boil.
…and [pumping] all the blood from the body and [replacing] it with fresh blood and serum” (12). Unlike a real snake that injects venom into its victims’ blood, this artificial Snake drains its victims dry. In this scene, technology is symbolically shown to cause the dehumanized states as it physically strips them of their blood, an essential element of their life. Furthermore, Bradbury utilizes this setting to convey the destruction that fire causes upon a society disconnected from nature. Fire is the sole element of nature that is not restricted; instead, it is exploited. In the city, it is primarily used for destruction and entertainment. When a woman burns her house after being arrested for owning books, the sight of the fire in the dark night draws people out of their houses to watch this show. As the citizens form crowds around the fire, not to protest the damage of the house and loss of human life, but to enjoy the show, their inability to feel sadness over their neighbours’ deaths reveal their distorted behaviours.
By developing fire solely as a symbol of destruction in the dystopian setting, Bradbury reflects the unrestricted chaos that occurs in a society estranged from the natural world. Illustrating the unhappy, dehumanized, and desensitized states of the citizens forced to conform to the government’s laws, Bradbury warns against the censorship of nature and overdependence on technology in society. In contrast to the dystopian setting, Montag’s journey to rediscover happiness and what it means to be alive is shown through his initial encounters with Clarisse McClellan and his further interactions with the natural world. In such a society where the citizens are pressured to conform through violence, Clarisse’s character reveal the crucial influence nature has in preserving a character’s humanity. Unlike the rest of her peers who smash windows and wreck cars, she “[is] there somewhere in the world.…shaking a walnut tree, [or] sitting on the lawn knitting a blue sweater” (25). Finding solace through interacting with nature, she does not live in a dehumanized state like her troubled neighbours, such as Montag himself, who forgot how to be curious and enthusiastic about all the world has to offer. When he encounters Clarisse, Montag discovers his dissatisfaction and embarks on a journey to find happiness.
After their first meeting, he realizes that he is unhappy: “He wore his unhappiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask and there was no way of going to knock on her door to ask for it back” (9). Clarisse continues to spark a change in Montag when she gets him to taste the rain (19) and smell old leaves (26). As a result of these meetings, Montag changes irrevocably. Realizing his unhappiness, he cannot return to his previous state but is forced to confront the world he lives in through using his previously suppressed senses to interact with the natural environment. Restoring his connection with nature, Montag settles his conflicted state and finally attains peace. Unlike the dystopian “unreality” (133) that makes everything superficial, the wilderness is a calming presence: “The river was very real; it held him comfortably and gave him time at last, the leisure, to consider this month, this year, and a lifetime of years. He listened to his heart slow. His thoughts stopped rushing with blood” (134).
With the constant hum of the television and radio, Montag cannot find the silence needed to breathe and calm his rushing thoughts. However, when he immerses himself in the soothing flow of the river, he is able to restore his humanity in the peace of nature. Through experiencing similar incidents in the different setting, Montag’s growth in his journey to rediscover life is shown. As opposed to realizing his own unhappiness when he bumps his foot in the dark room, Montag comes to a different conclusion when he stumbles on the abandoned railroad track in the wilderness: “He was not empty. There was more than enough here to fill him. There would always be more than enough” (138).
Albeit the same action, it is the natural world, with its “lakes of smelling and feeling and touching” (138) that fulfills Montag’s innate desire to use his senses and be human again. Furthermore, Bradbury utilizes this setting to present fire as an essential force in the cycle of life. In the wilderness, Montag, a previous fireman, encounters a group of people crowding over a fire and discovers a new meaning for it: “That small motion, the white and red color, a strange fire because it meant a different thing to him. It was not burning, it was warming” (139). Fire, primarily used to cause destruction and provide entertainment in the dystopian setting, is shown to be essential in the wilderness as it provides the warmth needed to sustain life. Through presenting the necessities of fire, Bradbury reveals that nature is essential to maintaining the cycle of life. Nature, with rivers and forests, provides the peace and warmth needed for Montag to attain true happiness and preserve his humanity. In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury utilizes its various settings to present a notion that maintaining a peaceful connection with nature is essential to attaining true happiness and preserving the humanity of a person.
The novel’s dystopian setting, a city disconnected from the natural world, reveals that citizens live in a desensitized and dehumanized state by engaging in mindless distractions and destructive pursuits. Furthermore, it is only through restoring their connection with the natural world that a person can break this illusion of happiness and preserve their humanity. In a world that is slowly becoming dependent on technology, it is crucial to prevent this dystopian future that Bradbury warns against from becoming a reality. From the warmth of the sun to the calming river currents, nature provides a source of comfort and silence in a society that can be overwhelming and stressful at times. Like the legend of Hercules and Antaeus, a person’s real strength and abilities lie in their interaction with nature. It is only through forging a connection with the natural world that an individual can begin to move forward in preserving their humanity and rediscovering the meaning of being alive, ultimately attaining true, substantial happiness.