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 2001. 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...