Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the Dystopian Tradition
February 21, 2006
Revised October 31, 2007
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most famous and popular novels ever written belonging to the literary genre known as “dystopias.” This term is derived from “Utopia,” the word that Thomas More used for the title of his sixteenth-century novel depicting an ideal society; but the earliest work of its type is generally considered to be the 4th-century BC Plato’s Republic, which has in common with the government of Bradbury’s novel a deep suspicion of literature as disturbing and subversive. Plato suggests that if the great epic poet Homer were to arrive in his ideal city, he should crown him with laurels, congratulate him on his achievements, and send him on his way—much less harsh than burning him to death, but depicting a similar determination to control the thoughts of citizens and ban the free play of the imagination.
Thus we see that one person’s idea of an ideal existence is another’s nightmare. Utopias proliferated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it is not surprising that dystopias began to appear then as well, including the earliest well-known example, Evgeny Zamiatin’s We, published in 1927 as a scathing attack on the increasingly repressive Soviet state.
The same year the German silent film Metropolis appeared, depicting a mechanized, rigid society with a mindless, self-indulgent upper class benefiting from the brutal exploitation of the working-class masses. This is one of the great films of all times, though it was subsequently edited almost to incomprehensibility. A relatively complete beautifully restored version was released in 2010. Ironically, the screenwriter of this hymn to equality and love, Thea von Harbou, went on to work with the Nazis as they implemented their own real-life dystopia, while her Jewish husband, director Fritz Lang, fled to the West.
The first dystopian novel commonly encountered by American readers today is Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World. It depicts a society in which human beings are treated like different model cars trundling off the Ford assembly line, bred in bottles for designated roles in society comparable to those depicted in Metropolis, as drudges or as self-indulgent but loveless upper-class mindless twits hooked on orgies and drugs. (It is often noted, however, that Huxley himself was ultimately to embrace psychedelic drugs and took LSD while he was dying.) Societal control is enforced by among other means the suppression of literary classics. In this society Shakespeare’s plays are a revolutionary force. In its opposition to modern technology and science, Brave New World is a deeply conservative reaction against the innovations of the first two decades of the 20th century.
By far the best-known dystopia is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948 and published in June of 1949, in the early days of the Cold War. Although revisionist literary critics have tried for decades to portray the book as being as much a critique of the West as of the East, it is difficult to ignore the many obvious images reflecting aspects of Stalinist Russian society, including censorship involving the rewriting of history, the near-deification of the dictator, and the encouragement of children to spy on and betray their parents. Whereas Huxley’s citizens were amused into mindlessness, Orwell’s are treated much more brutally, with torture and murder of dissidents being commonplace. In this novel, unlike Huxley’s, loveless sex is a means of protest; and endless, inescapable television propaganda broadcasts have replaced reading. Although television had been developed in a crude form as early as the mid-1920’s, its commercial spread was delayed by World War II, and it had really erupted into public consciousness only in 1948, the year in which Orwell was writing his novel.
In his culture television is a two-way tool which watches the citizens even more intently than the citizens watch it. Orwell never really explains how everyone can be spied on so intently without at least one half of the population watching the other half. The improbability of this arrangement is typical of dystopias, which seldom strive to create plausible portraits of a degraded future culture, but instead exaggerate certain tendencies in order to isolate and highlight them.
In science fiction, the dystopia became immensely popular during the 1950’s as writers protested against what they saw as the overwhelming tide of conformity and cultural emptiness typified by mass-market television and other powerful forces in the postwar world. Many of them could be called stories on the theme “If This Goes On—” which was the title of a 1940 story by Robert A. Heinlein—not in itself a dystopian tale, but the phrase sums up the technique used by numerous authors: take a social tendency, extrapolate it to an extreme degree, and describe the consequences. Clifford D. Simak extrapolated the post-war flight of people from the cities to the suburbs in his moving but wildly improbable series of stories assembled into City (1952). Individuals not only isolate themselves on remote country estates in a rapidly depopulating world, but eventually abandon their human forms and leave Earth altogether.
In the next decade, authors would more plausibly imagine an overpopulated future in such works as Make Room, Make Room by Harry Harrison—later drastically reworked as a film titled Soylent Green—and Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Even with increased attention paid to believability, such works tend to strike contemporary readers as exaggerated because they ignore natural brakes on population which have led in our own time to a leveling off in the birth rate in most regions of the world.
Such catastrophic futures have since been commonplace in popular culture, especially in films like Mad Max and Escape from New York. This sort of dystopia is often no longer an anti-utopia—but simply a failed society in full collapse. It often ceases to function as what is called an “awful warning” (the formal literary term is “cautionary tale”) because the reader is encouraged to identify with the violent adventurers who enjoy the anarchy created by the fall of civilization. Macho thrillers set in post-holocaust radioactive wastelands became very popular in the 1980s, and decayed urban dystopias are common in contemporary video games.
In contrast to these macho fantasies, women authors began increasingly to write feminist dystopias in the 1970’s. Especially notable is the sharply satirical and hard-hitting The Female Man by Joanna Russ, and the fiercely misogynist culture depicted in Walk to the End of the World by Suzy McKee Charnas. But most interesting of all is Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which like Bradbury’s deals with the repression of literacy. Fundamentalist pro-life militants have taken over society and severely repressed women, using a peculiar interpretation of the Bible to justify their actions. Women are forbidden to read, presumably to prevent their developing their own interpretations and ideas. In the novel the desperate but witty narrator makes a major breakthrough into literacy, introduced at first as an illicit thrill by her master, who like Beatty in Fahrenheit 451, enjoys tasting forbidden fruit while still upholding the values of the repressive dominant order.
In 1955, Frederik Pohl wrote a seminal story titled “Tunnel Under the World,” which depicted a nightmare experiment where a miniaturized city lived through the same day over and over again to test the effectiveness of various advertising campaigns. It was turned into a radio drama broadcast the next year. The same sort of artificial reality was depicted in the 1960 Philip K. Dick novel Time Out of Joint, and the even more closely related 1963 novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye (though the theme was only briefly alluded to in the 1999 film version, The Thirteenth Floor). This sort of fiction in which the audience of mass media winds up inhabiting it is of course best known from The Matrix and its sequels. Although the modern versions employ computer technology rather than video, the tradition has its roots over anxiety about the mesmerizing power of television to manipulate and transform its audience.
1950 was the year that television became a truly mass-culture phenomenon in the United States. People would visit friends simply to sit—or stand, if there weren’t enough chairs to go around—and stare mesmerized at the glowing little box for hours. To some people it seemed to portend the death of civilized discourse, literacy, and individualism. Among these was Ray Bradbury.
Bradbury had begun his career writing mostly stories in the “weird tales” tradition, spooky horror stories of supernatural and uncanny events, often with shocking endings. The best of these are collected in The October Country, and many were adapted for television in The Twilight Zone and other venues. But gradually he became more and more a science fiction writer, finally becoming famous for his best-selling 1950 story collection, The Martian Chronicles. Many of the stories included had been published in the 1940’s, and one can see in this work a complex and sometimes contradictory mixture of horror, science-fictional wonder, and sentimental nostalgia which was to become characteristic of his mature writing.
1950 also marked the beginning of the “Red Scare” period most memorably exemplified by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s vicious, irresponsible crusade against supposed communists and communist sympathizers which included attempts to remove suspect books from public libraries. This was also the period of the Hollywood blacklist, with many actors, directors, and screenwriters being banned from working on Hollywood films or television. Although Bradbury has said that the book-burnings in Fahrenheit 451 were inspired by the 1933 Nazi book-burnings, he was much more likely inspired by the censorship that accompanied the Red Scare of his own era.
He experimented with the theme of censorship in the story “Usher II,” which appeared somewhat awkwardly in The Martian Chronicles, where it seemed arbitrarily put into a Martian context. Fantastic fiction has been banned, and is burned wherever it may be discovered. A fanatical admirer of the works of Edgar Allan Poe invites the censors to his monstrous castle, to be murdered one after the other in imitation of grisly deaths depicted in Poe’s writings. The hero argues eloquently for the importance of the imagination, revealing among other things that Bradbury was an ardent fan of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books; but his bloody-minded behavior would seem to lend credibility to the censors’ fears of fantastic fiction rather than plausibly advancing the cause of the freedom to read.
But “Usher II” is also dark comedy, and one of his most memorable stories on that account. Dystopias have often been most successful as literature when they have incorporated humor. One of the most effective modern works of dystopian satire is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which incorporates themes and images from Nineteen Eighty-Four, but is all the more frightening for its fierce comic touches. Today it seems much less dated than Orwell’s novel or either of the movies based on it.
At the end of The Martian Chronicles the kindly father-hero of “The Million-Year Picnic” protects the next generation from repeating the mistakes of a violent Earth civilization by ceremoniously burning books from the past. This marks only one of the many inconsistencies that run through this loosely linked collection of stories. However, it is notable that the works destroyed in this story are nonfiction volumes relating to politics and that the works eulogized in “Usher II” are fantasy and gothic horror.
Bradbury seems to have had second thoughts about the wisdom of erasing past knowledge by fire when in 1950 he wrote “The Fireman,” the story which became the kernel of Fahrenheit 451. In this story and the ensuing novel he imagined a nightmare society in which reading has become all but banned: pornography, comic books, and television scripts seem to be the only print material allowed. A secondary target was the popular Reader’s Digest condensed books, which boiled down bestsellers for impatient readers, and which Bradbury portrays as a transitional stage to the annihilation of books altogether.
Caches of books, when discovered, are burned by “firemen” whose job is eradicating print. Socialization has been reduced to group television viewings, and creativity narrowed into brief moments in shows when the audience is prompted to respond to the virtual events they are witnessing, and which absorb them far more than the real world around them.
The novel was an immediate success, and has been widely read ever since, being made into a memorable film in 1966 by the famed French New Wave director Franćois Truffaut.
It is a peculiar work in Bradbury’s oeuvre. He is best known as a short story writer, and his most characteristic books, such as The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine, are really compilations of stories. Fahrenheit 451 is his only fully successful novel. In addition, much of his popularity can be attributed to the perfumed sensuousness of his imagery, the often extravagant sights, sounds, and smells he deploys to engage the reader. Fahrenheit 451 lacks the evocative descriptions that characterize his other works, being set in a sterile, artificial world. Even when Clarisse speaks of her enjoyment of nature at night the language is abstract and general.
Once again the books most treasured by the literate characters are fiction, though religious and philosophical works appear as well. Works of science are entirely unmentioned. Bradbury is famously a science-fiction writer not particularly fond of science. One wonders how the technocrats who create the wallscreens and originate the broadcasts gain the knowledge they need to do their jobs if they too are illiterate. Orwell had depicted a civilization in decline, unable to innovate anything but new tortures; but Bradbury seems to imagine that technological advances can be carried out in the absence of knowledge gained from print.
It is easy to see why the book was warmly received when it was published in 1953. The prosperity of post-war America created a mass culture of vast complacency which valued conformity and blandness. The edginess which Bradbury’s beloved science fiction, horror, and fantasy featured was suspect. There were plenty of voices raised in protest, celebrating nonconformity, individualism, and creativity; and a large number of these voices belonged to science fiction writers.
The book probably continued to appeal to readers for the same reason that a great deal of science fiction has always appealed to certain readers. It portrays as heroes those who disdain sports, who like to read— in short, unathletic nerds like Bradbury—like me and my friends—who were swallowing science fiction in huge gulps in the 1950s. The masses are stupid, brutish, uncaring. Anybody who loves books is likely to be cheered by a tale in which depicts writers not only as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Shelley had called them, but as the keepers of the flame of civilization itself. Most people enjoy a story in which the underdog comes out on top. Imagine: Napoleon Dynamite saves the world!
One of the most striking characteristics of the novel to be frequently overlooked is its setting in an era of recurrent atomic war. In 1950, when Bradbury was writing, the Russians had just the previous year exploded their first atomic bomb, making real the nuclear arms race that had only been fantasized before. The first thermonuclear weapon was not to be tested for another year, though Bradbury depicts a society which has already weathered two atomic wars. As in Orwell’s novel, there are suggestions that this state of war is designed to preserve the supremacy of the tyrannical regime which governs this dystopia. A final apocalyptic nuclear exchange at the end of the novel marks its fall, but it is so briefly and distantly described that most readers entirely forget about it, as they forget about the much more vividly depicted annihilation of Earth by nuclear war in The Martian Chronicles.
Both of these are instances of what I like to call “muscular disarmament,” in which one final cataclysmic war is depicted as preparing the way for an era of peace and enlightenment. One of the earliest examples was H. G. Wells’ 1914 novel The World Set Free in which—as the title suggests—atomic weapons clear the ground for the emergence of a utopia. Bradbury doesn’t go that far, but clearly the holocaust at the end of the novel is meant to be more cheering than horrifying. We are also expected to sympathize with Montag’s murder of Beatty with the flamethrower, just as we had been encouraged to be amused by the grisly deaths of the censors in “Usher II.” Stories like these are the intellectual’s equivalent of gory computer games in which players can take out their frustrations on imaginary foes by blasting them to bits. When we think about the essential image of Bradbury we remember the scenes he evokes of sitting on the porch sipping lemonade and listening to the hum of cicadas and forget the fictional mayhem he sometimes inflicts on the people he disdains.
It is also easy to see why Fahrenheit 451 would seem especially timely today. Thanks to the Patriot Act, government agents secretly track the reading habits of citizens based on the books they borrow from libraries. Web technology makes it possible to go even further, and determine what sites people are browsing. It is not uncommon to hear of the electronic trails left by Web browsers being introduced as evidence in trials.
We have robot dogs and execution by lethal injection, though we have not yet combined the two. But we identify criminals by their unique DNA signatures much as the Hound of the novel identifies them by their unique smell.
Reading, particularly of fiction, has continued to decline in popularity. In Bradbury’s day there were dozens of popular general-audience magazines read by a broad public, and most of them published fiction. Bradbury himself published stories in Collier’s, The Nation, Maclean’s, Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, and The Saturday Evening Post. Now fiction is rare in mass magazines, and there is little of it.
Despite the vast success of isolated titles like the The Da Vinci Code and the Harry Potter books, Americans read very few books once they leave college, and those are largely confined to sensational memoirs, diet books, and books about business and religion. The “reality” shows which draw a mass audience today are the equivalent of the mesmerizing serials in the novel.
Of course the notion that before the age of television people sat around chatting and enjoying each other’s company is a fantasy. I grew up in the waning days of radio’s “golden age,” when families sat in their living rooms transfixed by the same sorts of tales of horror and crime and family situation comedies that would later be televised. And before that most of what people read was junk. The culling process that operates over time glamorizes the writing of the past, isolating the few authors we can still enjoy.
Modern anti-depressants are often more effective than the tranquilizers taken by Montag’s wife, but her zombie-like state is all too familiar. Depression is so common and widely discussed today that she no longer seems as bizarre as Bradbury probably intended her to be.
American popular culture has always been profoundly anti-elitist and anti-intellectual, and that has not changed. A president who tells us students must be held to higher standards himself makes no effort to exemplify intellectual curiosity or profundity. Rather a folksy, unthreatening populism is celebrated by almost all modern politicians. John Kennedy could never be elected today—he’d be viewed as an intellectual snob. The slogan is “no child left behind”—not “encourage exceptional brilliance.”
All these are reasons that Bradbury’s novel resonates with contemporary readers. However, it is worth noting the ways in which our world differs from that of Fahrenheit 451.
We have our big-screen TVs, some of them approaching wall size; but increasingly we refuse to be passive recipients of what the networks want to hand out. We Tivo our favorite shows and skip past the commercials, infuriating the sponsors. DVD technology lets us view the films we want when we want. The mass quality of mass communications is eroding, and the television network executives and advertisers are growing frantic as they see the impending end of an era. Television viewing, though still consuming a huge amount of our leisure time, is actually declining as people spend more time playing video games or using the Web. The Internet is notoriously the greatest innovation that science fiction failed to anticipate, and it is far more anarchic, individualized, and unregulated than the mass media which preceded it and which shaped the nightmares of earlier dystopian writers.
The Internet has also helped to reverse in some measure the decline in reading. The classics Bradbury cites as endangered in his novel are all available for reading or downloading via the Web—though the foreign ones are usually available only in dated public-domain translations. On the Web the classics are more accessible than contemporary fiction and poetry, which remain locked in limited-circulation books and magazines.
The “seashells” that people insert in their ears today are earbuds through which people listen to highly individualized playlists of songs on their iPods, and they can even listen to an audio study guide for The Martian Chronicles, though the novel itself doesn’t seem to be available yet for downloading from the iTunes Store.
We now see a generation of young people who have grown up text-messaging, blogging, and creating Web sites online for whom reading and writing are constant, natural activities. Much of the prose they generate and read is appalling by traditional standards, but it is not just the passive consumption of images that Bradbury envisioned. Increasingly I encounter students entering college who think of themselves as both readers and writers, and who are interested in using these skills in the workplace. The number of English majors at Washington State University has climbed in the last three years from 200 to 230 to 282, with no signs of the rate of increase diminishing.
E-books have been slow to catch on. The paper and hardbound book is not yet in danger of extinction. Ironically, fat “airport novels” and huge science fiction and fantasy trilogies are more popular than the comic books Bradbury deplored, which in 1950 filled racks in stores all over town and now have to be sought out in specialty shops. Magazines have narrowed in focus, but they have proliferated wildly.
Attempts to censor fiction, like the fundamentalist attacks on the Harry Potter books, are largely doomed to failure—are greeted with contempt or indifference. And the much-criticized Federal government has granted a large sum to Seattle to support the study of a book that criticizes government opposition to the freedom to read. It reminds one of the Athenians paying Aristophanes for creating plays which fiercely attacked their foreign policy.
The problem with dystopias and other cautionary forms is that their exaggeration can cause us to become complacent because things just aren’t as bad as the novels predicted. But so long as we read them thoughtfully, understanding that they are meant to point us toward problems rather than accurately foretelling the future, they can still inspire us to work for a world which, if not utopian, is a lot better than our worst nightmares.
During my time in Enterprise I developed the following thoughts in discussion with the folks there, which may be useful things to think about.
1) Some people feel just fine about being secretly spied on by the government, arguing that they have nothing to feel guilty for. This assumes the government is always trustworthy. Note that 2nd amendment defenders insist they need their weapons in case the government becomes tyrannical. One would think that 1st amendment rights would need even more vigilant protection from government abuse, especially since there are well-documented examples of government records being abused for political purposes by officials.
2) Bradbury is notoriously weak at depicting women. One way to view his fiction is to think of the usual gender relations being replaced by the relations between macho, brutal stupid males and sensitive, intelligent males.
The novel is least likely to appeal to insecure teenagers who are anxious to
conform to their peers’ tastes and expectations. Its defense of learning and
peculiar tastes is not calculated to appeal to the average high school student;
and its lack of surface appeal is not likely to draw such readers in.
List of Books and Stories Referred To
This is not a formal bibliography but a guide to tracking down titles mentioned above, other than Fahrenheit 451, which it is assumed the reader already has. Inexpensive paperback editions have been preferred.
September 24, 2007
Atwood. Margaret: The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985. Anchor.
Bradbury, Ray: Dandelion Wine, 1957. Spectra.
___: “The Fireman,” Galaxy Science Fiction Vol. 1, No. 5 (Feb. 1951). Reprinted in Science Fiction Origins, ed. William F. Nolan & Martin H. Greenburg. Popular Library, 1980.
___: The Martian Chronicles, 1950. Spectra.
___: The October Country. 1955, Del Rey.
Charnas, Suzy McKee. Walk to the End of the World, Out of print but readily available used. Berkley.
Dick, Philip K. Time Out of Joint, 1959, Vintage.
Galouye, Daniel F. Simulacron-3, 1964. J’ai lu.
Harrison, Harry: Make Room, Make Room, 1967. Out of print. Spectra, 1994.
Heinlein, Robert A. “If This Goes On…”, 1940. Reprinted in The Past Through Tomorrow, Ace.
Huxley, Aldous. First published 1932. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
More, Thomas. Utopia. First published in Latin in 1516. Translated by Paul Turner in 1965. Penguin.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949. Though Orwell always spelled the title out many editions read 1984 on the cover, and that’s how you’ll have to shop for it. Signet Classics.
Plato: Republic. There are several good translations of this ancient Greek classic, including the one used in the very cheap Dover Thrift Edition by G.M.A Grube, revised by CDC Reeve. The old Benjamin Jowett translation, freely available on the Web, is still quite readable.
Pohl, Frederik. “Tunnel Under the World,” Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1955. Often reprinted, notably in The Best of Frederik Pohl, out of print but readily available used, Ballantine.
Russ, Joanna. The Female Man, 1978. Beacon Press.
Simak, Clifford D. City, 1952, Ace (out of print edition, but still readily available used).
Von Harbou, Thea: Metropolis. The novel version of her screenplay for Fritz Lang’s movie by the same name. First published in German 1926. Translated anonymously in 1927 and available currently from Wildside Press.
Wells, H. G. The World Set Free, Macmillan, 1914. .
Zamyatin, Evgeny: We. Written 1920, published in English 1924, Czech, and in the original Russian (My), 1952. Modern editions translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1972 and Clarence Brown, 1993.
List of Films
Brazil, dir. Terry Gilliam, 1985. Criterion.
Escape from New York, dir. John Carpenter, 1981. MGM.
Fahrenheit 451, dir. Franćois Truffaut, 1966. MCA Home Video.
Mad Max, dir. 1979. MGM.
Metropolis, dir. Fritz Lang, 1927. The only version to get is "The Complete Metropolis,” Kino International, 2010.
Soylent Green, dir. Richard Fleischer, 1973. Warner Home Video.
Thirteenth Floor, The, dir. Josef Rusnak, 1999. Sony Pictures.