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The Fourth Wall


"The only thing necessary for

the triumph of evil is for good

men to do nothing." (Edmond Burke)

"Man, you should have seen them

kicking Edgar Allan Poe." (John Lennon)


In Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451, a story is told of a society in which books are forbidden and evil, "intellectual" is considered a profane name and homogeneity is equated with true happiness. In the novel, the characters seem to have no awareness of others’ feelings; all so caught up in a feverish self-preserving, self-serving way of life that they don’t even see their impending destruction. If the society Bradbury describes is actually on the path to true happiness then happiness should not be the ultimate goal for our society. A major theme that exists is Mildred’s, the main characters wife, desire for a "fourth wall" in her parlor. Her parlor is analogous to being surrounded by televisions in an electronics store. The walls are connected to a sort of computer that displays shows that interact with Mildred thereby giving her an illusionary world to live in. Mildred is always complaining about not having enough money to buy a fourth wall and thus trying to completely envelope herself in this make-believe world. How could our society so completely lose sight of what is most important? Is this desire for a fourth wall existent today? Are television and the Internet, precursors to a society that would cause such an encompassing collapse of values and morals? Is it too late already? Or is it as Burke believes, easily countered by a resurgence of "good men?"

Most people who read the novel see the portrayed society as completely different then ours. No one would want to believe that our society could become like that. But in many ways certain areas of our society have begun to drift in that direction. In the novel, Beaty, the fire-chief, suggested to Montag that people began to shorten and make literature more concise and thereby more appealing and more easily understood by the general population. If the literature was seen as too difficult for the common person to understand then it was seen as causing a segregation between the intellectual classes. This can be seen today with the existence of magazines such as Readers Digest and Newsweek.

In an article on the decline of articulateness of our society, Tom Shachtman suggests that one of the causes for this decline is a shift away from the use of a full, literature based language and toward a culture that derives its literacy from secondary sources such television and the internet (Insight 18). This articulateness is one the characteristics that sets people apart in our society and will again cause an intellectual segregation that in the novel, ends with the elimination of intellectuals in the name of homogeneity. The possibility of this "intellectual segregation" existing in our society in the same manner as in the novel would be pretty hard to believe. But what Bradbury might be suggesting is if our society continues as it is progressing the differences and animosities between "nerds" and "jocks" will end with one group being destroyed by society itself.

Mildred’s desire for a fourth wall in her parlor is significant in that shows how she is utterly dependent on the force fed, inarticulate information and entertainment she is and by similar argument, society is. "TV, touted early in its history as the peerless educational tool, has become all circuses and no bread. Circuses are what viewers want, or anyway want they watch: football circuses, political circuses, quasi-pornographic circuses" (Murchison, Just say "off"). Mildred’s existential search for an euphoric reality leads her down a path that encourages a self-centered attitude and eventually an unrealized self-destructive attitude. With the intellectual segregation eliminating all those who would be different, Mildred and the rest of society can focus on achieving happiness. Television provides a medium in which Mildred can find what she thinks is true happiness. The desire for the fourth wall is simply an extension of this desire. If Mildred can just get the fourth wall then she can complete her illusion of happiness. What Mildred does not realize is that if she does attain a fourth wall she would not have any reason to leave her parlor. And hence would in most circumstances die. Thus the result of attaining a "fourth wall" would and does lead society down a path of self-destruction. This is shown in the novel at the very end when Montag’s city is destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. The city is so enraptured in attaining their sickening euphoria that the fail to realize that their search is fruitless. The absence of differences in people leads them to ignore any desire to develop intellectually and thus the danger lies in the quashing of intellectual differences. Other than the conflict between nerds and jocks this is the opposite of today’s society where intellectualism is not looked down upon.

Both Murchison and Shachtman agree that television has a heavy influential on the degradation of today’s society. Shachtman believes this degradation can be traced to the inarticulateness of the masses and this will therefore as homogeneity sets in bring on hate for those who are articulate. To avoid the emotions brought on by these differences the inarticulate members of society would tend then to seek a "fourth wall" as a sort of refuge. "The inarticulate members of this society will be quite content with their lives, untroubled by attempts to analyze or critique current events, by intellectually provocative artistic endeavors or by the behaviors that have reference to anything other than what is held in the audience’s current memory or in pictorial files of the computers or television banks" (Insight, 19). As Burke believes, Murchison writes that only the "principled" will rescue society from the influence of television. "The producers oblige [to what we want to watch]. As do supermarkets whose dog-food or whisk brooms sell out regularly. Sales are signals to the marketplace: … Only a dull-witted – or, in TV’s case, extraordinary principled – merchant will refuse such a plea" (Murchison, Just say "off").

The intellectual segregation and eventual elimination that leads to a homogeneous society causes people like Mildred to seek happiness in a way that shows an innate fear towards intellectualism and articulateness and hence the desire for an isolated existence. Mildred’s parlor and search for a fourth wall show this isolated existence in the novel. "… to achieve the triumph of a public good such as articulate behavior, it will be necessary for individuals to do something – to do a great deal, actually, to take responsibility for achieving the goal and to take actions toward it in the many roles we fill every day" (Insight, 20).


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