I know what you’re thinking. You think that this is going to be one long tirade about how our world is becoming like the one Ray Bradbury depicts in Fahrenheit 451. Well, sorry (not sorry), to disappoint you, but I’m not going there. (You can already find plenty that on social media.)
It might seem like an oxymoron to refer to a book like Fahrenheit 451 as an “optimistic dystopia,” and, to be fair to those who think so, they’re correct—there’s an innate contradiction at the heart of the phrase. Dystopias, by their very nature, are supposed to be depictions of society at its bleakest. We don’t expect them to give readers any sense of optimism; if anything, their purpose is to scare us into correcting our current course and to aim for something better.
The 20th Century was, to paraphrase Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times. So many momentous and turbulent events impacted the lives of people in the United States and throughout the rest of the world—WWI, the fight for women’s suffrage in the U.S., the Great Depression, WWII, Korea, the Cold War, the American civil rights movement, Vietnam, etc.—that certain apprehensions and cultural anxieties would arise. In times of such rapid change come inevitable feelings of uncertainty—or worse, foreboding and fear—about the future.
And out of that anxiety, as a means of coping, rises speculation: Out of all that upheaval and anxiety came at least four of the greatest novels of the last century: Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and, of course, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. All dystopian novels, published over five tumultuous decades (between 1932 and 1985).
When one compares Bradbury’s masterwork to these other three classic volumes, however, one cannot help but notice the unshakeable tone of optimism underlying the entire narrative, setting it apart. Other works of dystopian fiction often incorporate some distant glimmer of hope, but as we’ll see, Fahrenheit 451 is a work defined by its essential hopefulness, even at its bleakest moments.
How did this anomaly come to be? One could try to put the book’s divergence down to the era in which the author wrote it. Published in 1953, the novel appeared at the tale end of the Golden Age of Science Fiction (or in the fading afterglow of the period—the exact boundaries for which are still debated). Golden Age stories of all lengths tended to be more optimistic about future developments in technology and society, in general, than the New Wave works that would follow. To a certain extent, forward-looking optimism was the common attitude of the time, at least among American SF writers. On the other hand, English writers Orwell and Huxley produced 1984 and Brave New World within this same time frame.
One could also make the assertion that the tone of the novel is a reflection of its author’s personality and character. Ray Bradbury, if you’ve ever seen videos or heard recordings of him speaking, was not a somber man. He was ebullient about life and the things he loved, and he would expound endlessly on those subjects. (As an example, check out this recording of Bradbury speaking about screenwriting.) How could someone brimming with positivity and passion possibly pen a work that reads as wholly, unrelentingly grim about the future?
Yet this same man wrote horrifying stories like “The Veldt,” and painted chilling apocalyptic scenes such as those in “There Will Come Soft Rains.”
No matter what external reasons one might wish to invoke to explain its presence, this essential optimism exists within the text—it’s impossible to miss. The case can be made by simply examining and comparing one key element of these four classic dystopias: the eventual fate of each book’s protagonist.
(SPOILERS AHEAD: The endings of Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Fahrenheit 451 are discussed below.)
Brave New World ends with both of the main characters, John (or “Savage,” as he’s called more often) and Bernard Marx, banished from the London of the World State to the islands of the dissidents. Bernard, in the isolation, becomes more miserable than he was at the beginning of the book (not too drastic a fate, maybe, but if you were to be forced out your home for nonconformity, you wouldn’t be cheerful either). John, after being harassed by crowds and the future equivalent of TMZ, comes to a more violent end:
Through an archway on the further side of the room they could see the bottom of the staircase that led up to the higher floors. Just under the crown of the arch dangled a pair of feet.
Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right […]”
Both characters are in the end destroyed by the world in which they live, simply for refusing to conform and become like everyone else.
On a similar note, let’s not forget the final horrific paragraph of 1984:
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark mustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
Winston Smith fought through much of the narrative to undo the process of dehumanization the society of Airstrip One enforces on its citizens. Yet, once O’Brien captures him and Julia and torments them with their worst fears, all of his progress unravels. He becomes the personification of that famous Orwellian image: a boot-stamped human face.
On the somewhat less morbid side, Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale ends, not with a bleak image of defeat, but a definite uncertainty (while this isn’t the true end of the novel, it is the end of Offred’s story):
Cora and Rita press through from the kitchen. Cora has begun to cry. I was her hope, I’ve failed her. Now she will always be childless.
The van waited in the driveway, its double doors stand open. The two of them, one on either side now, take me by the elbows to help me in. Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing. I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped.
And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.
After that, Atwood leaves us hanging. In the epilogue that follows, we learn that Gilead does indeed crumble at some point, and that a new, more egalitarian society arises in its stead. But this new society, though more equal in its treatment of men and women, still isn’t that great. And Offred’s fate remains an unanswered question. (Perhaps Atwood will clarify what happened next in her upcoming sequel, set for release this September.)
Moreover, we learn nothing about how Gilead eventually fell. The narrator of the epilogue only says, “Glieadean society was under a good deal of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from which we ourselves are happily more free.” That statement is the epitome of vague, though some speculation does follow in the rest of the epilogue.
Such an ending doesn’t leave much room for optimism. In a sense, Atwood is indirectly telling her readers through both the fate of Gilead and the unclear fate of Offred that circumstances will always change, but that it’s not certain—in fact, it’s unlikely—they’ll truly change for the better. One could interpret this as a more “realist” attitude towards the future—human being aren’t, and never will be, perfect, therefore, we cannot expect anything we create to be ideal or utopian.
Now, compare the fates of Atwood’s, Huxley’s, and Orwell’s respective protagonists to the one Bradbury bestows upon his own Guy Montag.
Montag isn’t destroyed by his society, like Winston Smith. His fate isn’t left uncertain like Offred’s. Though he is cast out of his society—like Marx and John—for refusing to conform, Montag isn’t destroyed by his exile, either.
After escaping the city and washing downstream, he encounters Granger and the clan of Book People. Granger, their leader, explains the group’s main goal:
When the war’s over, someday, some year, the books can be written again, the people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damn thing over again.
Once Montag comes into the fold of this new small society, he flourishes. As the war rages on in the city, he has a revelation:
I want to see everything now. And while none of it will be me when it goes in, after a while it’ll all gather together inside and it’ll be me. Look at the world out there, my God, my God, look at it out there, outside me, out there beyond my face and the only way to really touch it is to put it where it’s finally me, where it’s in the blood, where it pumps around a thousand times ten thousand a day. I’ll get hold of it so it’ll never run off. I’ll hold onto the world so tight someday. I’ve got a finger on it now; that’s a beginning.
His mind, after joining the Book People, opens fully. He becomes a curious person, shaking off the last of the stultifying effects of his old life. In doing so, he becomes someone capable of aiding the survivors of his old society in rebuilding. “To everything there is a season,” he thinks, “A time to break down, and a time to build up.” And Montag intends to aid in that building up.
At the war’s conclusion, with the city ground to powder, the Book People and Montag prepare to go back to the ruin. Before they do though, Granger recounts the story of the Phoenix. He explains that every few hundred years, the Phoenix would perish in flames, only to remerge from its ashes. Granger notes an important distinction, however:
And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the Phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years, and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember, every generation.
Going forward, Montag and the other Book People refuse to allow civilization to follow that often repeated adage, that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. No matter what follows, humanity will not make the same mistakes as long as Montag and the others have the knowledge at hand to help guide society to something better. Montag has become one of the, “leaves of the tree […] for the healing of the nations.”
Bradbury leaves it at that. He never gives us a picture of the society that Montag and the Book People help to build, or any future version of society struggling or thriving further down the line. He leaves that to us, his readers, to build in our minds. But the fact that he leaves us with this vision of humanity as a phoenix-like force that retains the power to rise again out of the darkest times profoundly communicates the essential optimism at the story’s core.
Bradbury doesn’t completely leave the story on a wholly positive, Pollyanna-ish note, however—like Atwood, Bradbury acknowledges humanity’s fallibility. It took a war—a genuinely traumatic and society-shaking event—to create an opportunity for change and allow for the possibility of progress. Though he is clear in pointing this out, he continues to emphasize the better angels of our nature.
When Montag has his moment of epiphany, he also has this thought about learning, understanding, and seeking to capture knowledge of the world: “A lot of it will be wrong, but just enough of it will be right.”
Even in this new world, humanity will always retain its capacity to do wrong, to be inhuman to its own kind. It’s an unavoidable element of the human condition. In spite of this, Bradbury reiterates that humanity’s capacity for good will always prove to be the stronger force.
Fahrenheit 451, like all dystopias, allows us to envision what could happen to human society if we give in to our baser thoughts and darkest tendencies. Yet its underlying message of hope and belief in the more noble aspects of humankind makes it, at least for me, the 20th century’s most optimistic dystopia.
When Ian Martínez Cassmeyer isn’t writing, you can find him at his day job doing clerical work at a small accounting firm. Now that tax season—or as he calls it, “The Long Defeat”—is over for another year, he is happy to be back writing again. You can find some of his thoughts on Twitter (@Ian_SMC) and on his blog, Ian’s Two Cents.