When Was Fahrenheit 451 Written? - Historical Context

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson explores the social context of Ray Bradbury's classic 1953 dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451. The lesson also examines the novel as a response to significant political, cultural, and technological developments of the mid-twentieth century.

Fahrenheit 451: A Good Day for a Book Burning?

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is an undisputed classic of dystopian literature. Dystopian literature presents a terrifying image of a future world, characterized most often by oppression, uniformity, and the loss of human free will.

Published in 1953 by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 has also proven eerily prescient, predicting many features of our twenty-first century life, from entertainment technologies to the rise of media culture. At its heart, though, Fahrenheit 451 is about free thought, which is symbolized in the books that are not simply forbidden but fatal. Those citizens found to possess books must burn them along with all their possessions or face execution themselves. This ''burning'' is done in an attempt to purge society of the ''dangerous'' thoughts to which books give rise.

The novel tells the story of Ray Montag, a ''fireman'' designated to burn books, but who quickly must face his own doubts as he stashes away some of the books he is required to burn. Montag grows increasingly tempted to read and to learn, but is repudiated by his wife, Millie, and cautioned by his captain, Beatty, a once voracious reader who is now staunchly opposed to books and the ''confusions'' and ''contradictions'' they contain. Montag finds inspiration in 17-year-old Clarisse, whose mysterious death only incites his subversive feelings; however, it is Faber, a former English professor, who guides Montag on his rebellious path.

Social Context: Who Started the Fire?

Nazi Book Burnings and Stalin's Great Purge

There's a reason why when dictators come to power, the first thing they do is kill the poets and the second thing is burn the books. The reason is because artists and books often represent the independent spirit and the idea of free thinking. Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in the orgy of book burnings undertaken by the Nazi regime in the 1930s. Led by the German Student Union, these book burnings became ceremonial affairs, in which all ideas opposing state-sanctioned doctrine were eradicated--literally and figuratively turned to ashes.

Image of Nazi Book Burning
Nazi Book Burnings

Such censorship would manifest in an even more brutal form in the Soviet Union between 1936 and 1938, as Stalin's great purge saw the systematic arrest and, often, the execution of writers, artists, politicians, professionals, and others who dared to oppose, or even to question, Stalin's brutal rule.

Joseph Stalin in 1945
Joseph Stalin

These events made a profound impact on the then-adolescent Bradbury, who would revisit the barbarities of censorship in his novel.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee

The events in Germany and the Soviet Union which had left such an indelible impression on the young Bradbury would find their terrifying echo in the McCarthy Hearings.

The U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee convened in the late 1930s in order to investigate and ultimately root out Communist party activity in the United States. But it was when Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.) arose to political power in 1950, that the committee gained its teeth. These hearings, led by Senator McCarthy himself, are among the most intrusive and damaging in American history. Artists, writers, actors, and other public figures who were suspected of using their clout to disseminate Communist ideologies were called to testify before the committee, vigorously questioned by Senator McCarthy, and frequently blacklisted--their lives and careers ruined.

Bradbury was enraged by this blatant abuse of government power, by the censorship of ideas, and by the disenfranchisement and persecution of artists.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy
Joseph McCarthy

The Advent of the Atomic Bomb

In a novel obsessed with fire and titled for what the narrator claims is the auto-ignition temperature of paper, there is no greater conflagration than that of the atomic bomb. The bombings of two Japanese cities--Hiroshima and Nagasaki--in 1945 haunt this text, so much so that the novel ends with an atomic bomb blast that destroys Montag's own city in an attempt to purify it of its rebellious readers.

Now that humanity has harnessed the capability for its own destruction, the novel seems to suggest, such self-immolation is all but inevitable, the only hope being that like the phoenix, mankind will learn to rise from its own ashes.

Atomic Cloud over Hiroshima
Atomic Bomb

The Dawn of the Technological and Media Age

One of the most interesting aspects of Fahrenheit 451 is its amazing foresight. The novel fairly accurately predicts technologies--then-unimaginable but which are commonplace today--such as flat screen televisions and mobile communication devices.

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