Only the Present Exists

By: Irene Shuk

Our world is full. The streets are crowded with people, homes are crowded with everyday objects and our minds are crowded with everything we experience. Yet, some feel emptier than ever. Why is this? Truth be told, probably no one knows for sure. But as always, fiction unfailingly manages to create worlds for us to explore and reflect about. Two of these masterpieces are Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Lois Lowry’s The Giver. When reading the books it is impossible to not see the emptiness that fills society. The emptiness in the people in the books is caused by the absence of both past and future, which are re-discovered by the main characters who seek to restore them to a society only concerned with the present.

Guy Montag is a fireman whose job is to destroy books. At least, that was before the pills and Mildred, before Clarisse and the speeding car, before the burning woman with her burning books. It was before Faber and talking. Before books and emptiness. Before he realized that the happiness the firemen protected was nothing more than the ecstasy of consumption, escapism and conformity. With a murder on his hands and a deep desire to change things, Montag runs away and comes across five men. These men with books in their heads and the teachings of the past still in their minds can see the potential in the future, and
unlike others, are willing to take it into their own hands to build.

Jonas was but a twelve when he met the Giver. The first time they talked to each other was at the Giver’s house where he saw luxury, books and a different kind of thought. Jonas was then introduced to snow, sleds and runners. Pain, suffering, death and warfare came next. He learnt about memory, a thing which belonged to the Receiver alone. A thing that existed before Sameness and outside of the community, “Before my[the Giver’s] time, before the

previous time, back and back and back.” (Lowry, p. 95) This new knowledge causes Jonas to see the community as it truly is, colourless, feelingless, obedient and conformist. It is too perfect and too flawed. So he runs away, to make things how they should be: real. Jonas’s story ends how it began, with snow, a sled and runners taking him somewhere new.

In Fahrenheit 451 we know but very little about the past. The few things we are told
are that it was the people who, through a series of passive, unconscious decisions let the
world follow course to its current state. Furthermore, almost everything we are told is
familiar but seems like it is yet to happen in the degree Captain Beatty describes in detail
between pages fifty-one and fifty-nine of the book. We are on our way there but have not
quite reached Beatty’s version of what happened. On the other hand, in The Giver, what we
know of the past comes from memories. In the memories we see things we are living right
now: poached animals and senseless wars. However, we are not told how Climate control was
reached, how Sameness came to be, how emotions and colours were eliminated. All we know
is that they were eliminated because they were inconvenient. The Giver tells Jonas “It wasn’t
a practical thing so it became obsolete when we went to sameness.”(Lowry, p. 84) In The
Giver, it seems like the choice to go to Sameness was made consciously and in an active way
by people, opposite to the changes in Bradbury’s book. It seems like from one day to the next
everything changed, while, in Fahrenheit 451 the change happened gradually. Nevertheless,
one thing fueled change in both stories. That thing was difference. In Lowry’s book, what
preceded Sameness was of course, difference, difference between people’s colours, difference
between ideologies, difference between landscapes. In Bradbury’s book, difference was
fueled by books, which highlighted differences. In eliminating books, society eliminated that
attention to differences. “The bigger your market Montag, the less you handle controversy…
Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics
said, were dishwater… Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The

cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag.” (Bradbury,
p. 55-57) is what Captain Beatty cheerfully says as he reminds Montag of how dangerous
difference is.
The present is quite a strange concept, even more so than past and future. The present
is this instant, this very instant right now. Anything before it is future. Anything after is past.
In both books, this instant, this flash of time is all people live in. People live in and for the
present. In The Giver, age stops mattering after twelve. Besides this, “Everyone in the
community has one-generation memories…”(Lowry, p. 93). People do not have any
knowledge on history, only what they have lived through. Moreover, the present in The Giver
is perfect, nobody is hungry, nobody is uneducated, nobody is rude. But people kill without
realizing the consequences, and people follow instructions blindly, not making choices at all.
But this is what they call happiness, this is how they choose to live. In Fahrenheit 451, like in
The Giver, people live for happiness. However, this kind of happiness is not like the one in
The Giver, this happiness is not everything we hope for but is instead a corrupted version of
our reality. Captain Beatty, ever insightful, says the following “I want to be happy, people
say, Well aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we
live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation?… So bring on your clubs and parties, your
acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and
heroin…” (Bradbury, p. 56-58). Thus, this is how people in Bradbury’s novel choose to live,
in the instant, oblivious to the war raging outside their homes, concerned only with happiness
and fun.
Lastly, there is the future. In both books, the erasure of the past comes in two forms:
personal and collective. Let us, first, look at Fahrenheit 451. Individual futures are lost
through the side-effects of the broken society we see in the novel. Clarisse McClellan was
robbed of her future when a speeding car robbed her of her life. Mildred was robbed of her

future, or at least, a future with meaning the instant she started to care more about what was
on TV than what was actually alive in front of her. Faber, hid in cowardice and took meaning
away from both his present and future alike. Individuals all over society were robbed of their
lives through TV, drugs and other worldly pleasures. As for collective erasure, from what has
been mentioned above, it is clear that people do not think of their futures, they think of
nothing else than fake happiness and fun. There are also huge numbers of suicides, which is
another form of the future being eliminated. In addition to this, in The Giver, death also plays
a role in the erasure of the future. The bone-chilling release ceremonies, take from both old
and young, innocent and guilty, what should have been theirs to keep. What is more, the
meticulous choices made by the community elders, who plan out all of a person’s life ahead
of them: marriage, children and even employment, take away choice and along with it the
opportunity to choose one’s fate.
There is no difference, there is no regard for life. There is no past and there is no
future. Furthermore, suicide, drugs, sex, ignorance, monotony, death, powerlessness and so
many more evils plague a society which is having fun, a happy society, maybe even a perfect
society; but a society that is empty nonetheless, because their present has been cleansed of
suffering. It is an empty society because both past and future have been ignored. Both
societies in Fahrenheit 451 and The Giver, different as they might be, are lost because they
do not know where they came from and do not know where they are going. The heroes of
both stories seek to restore what has been neglected. Our modern world should reflect upon
these fictional scenarios in order to avoid that the search for a perfect society leads us to a
state against human nature.

Bradbury, R. (2012) Fahrenheit 451. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks


Lowry, L. (2011) The Giver. New York, NY: Ember