Critical Essays Dystopian Fiction and Fahrenheit 451


When examining Fahrenheit 451 as a piece of dystopian fiction, a definition for the term "dystopia" is required. Dystopia is often used as an antonym of "utopia," a perfect world often imagined existing in the future. A dystopia, therefore, is a terrible place. You may find it more helpful (and also more accurate) to conceive a dystopian literary tradition, a literary tradition that's created worlds containing reactions against certain ominous social trends and therefore imagines a disastrous future if these trends are not reversed. Most commonly cited as the model of a twentieth-century dystopian novel is Yevgeny Zamiatin's We (1924), which envisions an oppressive but stable social order accomplished only through the complete effacement of the individual. We, which may more properly be called an anti-utopian work rather than a dystopian work, is often cited as the precursor of George Orwell's 1984 (1948), a nightmarish vision of a totalitarian world of the future, similar to one portrayed in We, in which terrorist force maintains order.

We and 1984 are often cited as classic dystopian fictions, along with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), which, contrary to popular belief, has a somewhat different purpose and object of attack than the previously mentioned novels. Huxley's Brave New World has as its target representations of a blind faith in the idea of social and technological progress.

In contrast to dystopian novels like Huxley's and Orwell's, however, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 does not picture villainous dictators (like Orwell's O'Brien) or corrupt philosopher-kings (like Huxley's Mustapha Mond), although Bradbury's Captain Beatty shares a slight similarity to Mustapha Mond. The crucial difference is that Bradbury's novel does not focus on a ruling elite nor does it portray a higher society, but rather, it portrays the means of oppression and regimentation through the life of an uneducated and complacent, though an ultimately honest and virtuous, working-class hero (Montag). In contrast, Orwell and Huxley choose to portray the lives of petty bureaucrats (Winston Smith and Bernard Marx, respectively), whose alienated lives share similarities to the literary characters of author Franz Kafka (1883-1924).

Nonetheless, points of similarity exist between these works. All three imagine a technocratic social order maintained through oppression and regimentation and by the complete effacement of the individual. All these authors envision a populace distracted by the pursuit of explicit images, which has the effect of creating politically enervated individuals.

Huxley envisions a World State in which war has been eradicated in order to achieve social stability; Bradbury and Orwell imagine that war itself achieves the same end — by keeping the populace cowering in fear of an enemy attack, whether the enemy is real or not. The war maintains the status quo because any change in leaders may topple the defense structure. Orwell and Bradbury imagine the political usefulness of the anesthetization of experience: All experiences become form without substance. The populace is not able to comprehend that all they do is significant and has meaning Likewise, Bradbury and Huxley imagine the use of chemical sedatives and tranquilizers as a means of compensating for an individual's alienated existence. More importantly, all three authors imagine a technocratic social order accomplished through the suppression of books — that is, through censorship.

However, despite their similarities, you can also draw a crucial distinction between these books. If the failure of the proles (citizens of the lowest class; workers) reveals Orwell's despair at the British working-class political consciousness, and if Mustapha Mond reveals Huxley's cynical view of the intellectual, Guy Montag's personal victory over the government system represents American optimism. This train of thought leads back to Henry David Thoreau, whose Civil Disobedience Bradbury must hold in high esteem. Recall the remark by Juan Ramon Jimenez that serves as an epigraph to Fahrenheit 451: "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way." This epigraph could have easily served as Thoreau's motto and is proof of Bradbury's interest in individual freedom. Bradbury's trust in the virtue of the individual and his belief in the inherently corrupt nature of government is a central concept of Fahrenheit 451.

Continuing Bradbury's inspection of personal freedom in Fahrenheit 451, you must first examine the freedoms that the author gives to the characters. As mentioned previously, you know that all sense of past was obliterated by the entrance of technology (the TV characters give citizens the opportunity to create a past and present through their story lines). Likewise, through the use of TV, individuals do not understand the importance of the past in their own lives. They have been repeatedly given propaganda about the past, so they have no reason to question its authenticity or value.

Also, because of the technology the characters are given, no one (of course, except for Faber, Granger, Clarisse, and eventually Montag) understands the value of books in direct relation to their own personal development. Television, for the majority of individuals in Fahrenheit 451, does not create conflicting sentiments or cause people to think, so why would they welcome challenge? As Millie points out to Montag, "Books aren't people. You read and I look all around, but there isn't anybody! . . . My 'family' is people. They tell me things: I laugh, they laugh. . . ."

Because the majority of this dystopian society is not able to express personal freedom, it is interesting that Clarisse and the unidentified old woman die early in the novel in order to display what has happened so far in this society to the people who exercise their personal freedom. It's also important to see that even Millie, who serves as the model of this society's conformity, almost dies as a result of her one act of personal rebellion when she attempts suicide. Likewise, perhaps even Captain Beatty's demise is an act of personal freedom because Beatty goads Montag into killing him instead of protecting himself and remaining alive.

The battle of having personal freedom is essential in this book because Bradbury demonstrates what happens when man is not given the opportunity to express his thoughts or remember his past. Through Clarisse, the unidentified woman, Millie, and Beatty, you are shown the consequences of what happens when humans aren't allowed to fully express their individuality and choice (they die). Through the characters of Montag, Faber, and Granger, you can see how one individual can make a difference in society if that one individual can fully realize the importance of his or her past, as well as be willing to fight for the opportunity to express himself or herself.