Terri Beth holds a PhD in English language and literature from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She also holds a Master of Arts in English literature from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, and a BA in English from Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tennessee. Since 2005, she has taught literature, writing, and philosophy courses at the university and graduate levels. Though Terri Beth loves books and writing of all kinds, her heart lies especially with British Victorian and Modernist literature, as well as the novels of Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, and, to mix things up a bit, Salman Rushdie!
Fahrenheit 451 Background
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 21st-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's Faber, a former English professor, who guides Montag on his rebellious path.
There were a number of historical events that took place during Ray Bradbury's lifetime that informed his writing of Fahrenheit 451. Let's take a closer look at some of these examples.
1. Nazi Book Burnings and Stalin's Great Purge
There's a reason that, when dictators come to power, they tend to find ways to ban and even destroy books and silence their writers and other artists. 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 students, these book burnings became ceremonial affairs, in which all ideas opposing state-sanctioned doctrine were eradicated, along with anything that was deemed to have Jewish influence.
Such censorship would manifest in an even more brutal form in the Soviet Union, in particular 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. This is made most apparent in the infamous photograph of Nikolai Yezhov standing next to Stalin, which was doctored after his assassination by the dictator's forces to remove him from both the photo and, ostensibly, existence itself.
These events made a profound impact on the then-adolescent Bradbury, who would revisit the barbarities of censorship in his novel.
2. Senator 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 Senator Joseph McCarthy (Republican from Wisconsin) 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, meaning their lives and careers ruined by making it impossible for them to work again.
Bradbury was enraged by this blatant abuse of government power, by the censorship of ideas, and by the disenfranchisement and persecution of artists.
3. 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.
4. 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.
But even more telling is the novel's insistence on the power of these technologies over our lives. Montag's wife, Millie, and her friends, Mrs. Bowles and Mrs. Phelps, are the epitome of media-obsessed superficiality. Their greatest concerns are with what they can watch on their ''parlor walls'' (much like the large screen televisions of today). They have no capacity for critical thought or cogent conversation, and no concern for the important things, whether it be the threat of war that looms large over the novel or their own familial issues: divorces, infidelities, and parenting crises.
Bradbury's novel was written as the Golden Age of Radio transitioned into the Golden Age of Television, but the novel's critique of the media is clear. The destruction wrought on human relationships, as exemplified by Mrs. Bowles and Mrs. Phelps, is equaled and perhaps exceeded by a more personal destruction. Here, thought and individuality are subsumed beneath the drugged stupor of media entertainment, and even war and violence are invoked as sound bites and titillating images to capture viewers' attention and keep them spellbound and quiescent (inactive), much like reality television does today.
All right, let's take a moment or two to review. As we learned, Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, is one of the epitomes of dystopian literature, which presents a terrifying image of a future world, characterized most often by oppression, uniformity, and the loss of human free will. We saw how the novel's haunting plot responds to several different pivotal events of the twentieth century.
These events included the Nazi book burnings, which were ceremonial affairs in which all ideas opposing state-sanctioned doctrine were eradicated along with anything that was deemed to have Jewish influence, and Stalin's Great Purge, which 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.
We also saw how Fahrenheit 451 responded to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the rise to power of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the hearings of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, which convened in the late 1930s in order to investigate and ultimately root out Communist party activity in the United States but became a menace to artists in the 1950s, resulting in many writers becoming blacklisted, meaning their lives and careers ruined by making it impossible for them to work again. We finally saw how the novel is also noted for its accurate prediction of 21st-century entertainment technologies and the preeminence of the modern media.
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