What is Erika Gottlieb's definition of the word dystopia?  How can it be applied to Fahrenheit 451?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Gottlieb's definition of dystopia emphasizes the notion of "the bad place."  Her definition reflects this condition of being:

 [...] dystopian fiction looks at totalitarian dictatorship as its prototype, a society that puts its whole population continuously on trial, a society that finds its essence in concentration camps, that is, in disenfranchising and enslaving entire classes of its own citizens, a society that, by glorifying and justifying violence by law, preys upon itself. [...] dystopian society is what we would today call dysfunctional; it reveals the lack of the very qualities that traditionally justify or set the raison d’être for a community.

For Gottlieb, the definition of dystopia is the construction of a world that represents the epitome of "the bad place."  It serves as a call to action from the reader and author to ensure that the current set of conditions do not model such a setting in any way. 

It is in this call to action where Bradbury's world of Fahrenheit 451 fits many of the tenets in Gottlieb's "dystopia." The "totalitarian dictatorship" is present in the work of the firemen.  Guy Montag and his cohorts in the fire department seek to eradicate books as the source of thought.  Their view of books as objects helps to ensure a totalitarian control of reality:

Always before it had been like snuffing a candle. The police went first and adhesive-taped the victim's mouth and bandaged him off into their glittering beetle cars, so when you arrived you found an empty house. You weren't hurting anyone, you were hurting only things! And since things really couldn't be hurt, since things felt nothing, and things don't scream or whimper, as this woman might begin to scream and cry out, there was nothing to tease your conscience later. You were simply cleaning up. Janitorial work, essentially. Everything to its proper place. Quick with the kerosene! Who's got a match!

The appeal to a faulty form of "reason" is a part of the dictatorial description of the firemen.  It is a job, something that has to be done for preservation of "proper place."  The need to eliminate literature at all costs is a part of the dystopian reality that places "society on trial" in an almost perpetual manner:  "Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn 'em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That's our official slogan."  

This need to ensure that society's habits of learning are always checked is reflective of the propensity in dystopia "to enslaving entire classes of its own citizens, a society that, by glorifying and justifying violence by law."  The use of the law as a means to ensure control is intrinsic to the definition of the firemen.  The philosophical ideas of the firemen seek to avoid complexity, and ensure simplicity in order to gain greater control over the populace:  "If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war."  This is reflective of Gottlieb's idea that dystopia suggests an essence of the dysfunctional world "as it reveals the lack of the very qualities that traditionally justify or set the raison d’être for a community."  In these ways, Bradbury's work is an embodiment of Gottlieb's definition of dystopia.

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