As with many novels, including many science fiction stories, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was a reflection of the time in which it was written. Having witnessed the brutally repressive policies of Nazi Germany, the massive devastation of allied and German bombing campaigns during World War II, and the post-war “Red Scare” that dominated American politics in the early 1950s, Bradbury was clearly informed by these developments. Nazi practices of burning offensive material – books, “degenerate” art, film – that was considered the production of inferior and invasive species left an indelible impression on Bradbury, as did the growing intolerance for intellectual diversity he perceived in the paranoia over communist infiltration of American institutions and society. Fahrenheit 451 portrays the dystopian vision that resulted from Bradbury’s fears of growing political and intellectual repression. Similar to George Orwell’s 1984, Fahrenheit 451 portrays a society characterized by a totalitarian regime in which individual freedom is but a memory, and one that can’t be openly discussed at that.
The dehumanizing nature of the society depicted in Fahrenheit 451 is best reflected in the mechanized Hound that is used to sniff out nonconformists:
“’It doesn’t like me, said Montag.
‘What, the Hound?’ The Captain studied his cards. ‘Come off it. It doesn’t like or dislike. It just functions. It’s like a lesson in ballistics. It has a trajectory we decide for it. It follows through. It targets itself, homes itself, and cuts off. It’s only copper wire, storage batteries, and electricity’.”
This exchange between the fireman Montag and his superior, written in the early 1950s, conjures images of the world we increasingly confront today, a world in which unmanned drones patrol the skies searching for targets, while government agencies devote ever greater resources to monitoring our communications and our conduct. One need not exist on the political fringes to acknowledge the similarities.
Similarly, the requirement for conformity present in totalitarian systems was suggested in the following passage in which Montag reflects on his coworkers and on his surroundings:
“Montag looked at these men whose faces were sunburnt by a thousand real and ten thousand imaginary fires, whose work flushed their cheeks and fevered their eyes. These men who looked steadily into their platinum igniter flames as they lit their eternally burning black pipes. They and their charcoal hair and soot-coloured brows and bluish-ash-smeared cheeks where they had shaven close; but their heritage showed. Montag started up, his mouth opened. Had he ever seen a fireman that didn’t have black hair, black brows, a fiery face, and a blue-steel shaved but unshaved look? These men were all mirror-images of himself!”
Just as with the conformity programmed into people and enforced through violence and psychiatric conditioning in Orwell’s work, so were the expectations in the society Bradbury depicted.
Orwell was influenced by Stalinism and the repressive totalitarian society the Soviets developed. Bradbury was influenced by Nazi Germany and Joseph McCarthy. Both depicted societies where the “individual” no longer existed. Both depicted dystopian societies that bore uncanny resemblances to the periods in which they were written.