Historical Context: Fahrenheit 451

"Historical Context: Fahrenheit 451. ."EXPLORING Novels. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Student Resource Center - Gold. Gale. Irondequoit High School. 10 Mar. 2008 

Book Burnings

Bradbury had a number of recent historical events on which to base Fahrenheit 451 when he wrote the book in the early 1950s. The book burnings of the Nazi regime in Germany during the 1930s had been widely shown after World War II. These book burnings became a major symbol of the repression that followed in Nazi Germany. The importance of books and the freedom to read them was a central concern of liberal-minded people during the 1950s. As the Senate hearings of Joseph McCarthy began to focus on writers and film makers, the question of artistic freedom troubled many people and became the subject of debate. It was within this context of artistic repression that Bradbury expanded his story "The Fireman" into a full length novel. The fact that the book was reprinted forty-eight times over a twenty-five year period after its publication is indicative of the fact that Bradbury hit a vital nerve center of public consciousness. Unlike many of the characters in Fahrenheit 451, the American reading public ultimately rejected the idea of thought control that was present during the McCarthy hearings.


While Americans are guaranteed free speech and free press in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, a history of censorship has nevertheless existed in this country. Censorship was at times allowed and even enforced by the United States government. In the early years of film making, censorship was allowed on the grounds that movies were entertainment and not an expression of free speech. Senator Joseph McCarthy's hearings into the political background of artists led to the "blackballing" of several prominent Hollywood writers during the 1950s. While the Supreme Court decision allowing censorship of films was overturned in 1952, strict regulation of film content persisted into the 1960s. Today, the attempt to censor artistic products comes mainly from organized pressure groups. Ironically, Bradbury's publishers, unknown to him, bowdlerized Fahrenheit 451 —that is, "cleaned up" or deleted some of the language that Bradbury used—in order to make the book saleable to the high school market. Since the advent of films, television, and the internet, efforts to limit access by children to certain types of material in these media has persisted to this day. The general method has been to have producers of these media rate the programs and place the burden of responsibility on parents to censor what children see in the movies, watch on television, or have access to on computers.

Political Repression and Conformity

Besides the repression that took place during the Nazi regime in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, similar political repression and dictatorship had been taking place in the Soviet Union. After World War II, Western Europe and the United States entered into what has been called the Cold War—a struggle pitting the ideals of democracy and communism against each other—with the Soviet Union. Frequent reports of Soviet repression of writers and censorship of books were in the news. In his dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell had satirized what he called "big brother," a government figure who was always watching the public. Orwell also used two-way television to illustrate how the new technology could be used against the public. Bradbury presents television in Fahrenheit 451 as a drug that stupefies its viewers. Much of the pressure to conform in the United States during the Cold War was derived from the holdover of a wartime psychology that was strong during World War II. The mobilization during the war spilled over into the postwar era. As the United States and Europe went through a period of rebuilding domestic markets, the Cold War also stimulated a military economy. Opportunities for advancement abounded. Jobs were plentiful and people were encouraged to "work hard and get ahead." The image of the "organization man" was prevalent. If you "followed orders, you would succeed" was the conventional wisdom of the day. This attitude is reflected in Bradbury's portrayal of Montag in the opening scenes of Fahrenheit 451 .


From the early days of television in the 1950s, when every American scrambled to have one in the home, to this day, watching television has competed with reading books. In the 1950s, schools began to use television in the classroom because it was becoming apparent that children's reading levels were dropping. Bradbury, who had been nurtured as a child on books, used this in his novel to show how literature was begin reduced to the simplest, most general terms. "Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there's your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more," Captain Beatty tells Montag and his wife when he tries to rationalize the work of the firemen.

Of all the technological advances developed since World War II, none have had a greater impact than the development of atomic energy and the atomic bomb. During the 1950s and up until the fall of the Soviet Union, the fear of nuclear war was a real threat in the minds of people. The fear of damage from nuclear waste remains an environmental threat. The fear that destructive atomic power might fall into the hands of terrorists is also an issue that compels political discourse and action. It is within an atmosphere of fear that repression can flourish. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury re-creates the atmosphere of fear and repression that prevailed when he was writing the book.

Another technological advance that Bradbury deals with in his book is the development of robots. In the Mechanical Hound he presents a robot that is more powerful than a human being in its ability to "sniff out" its prey. This representation reflects a commonly held view that the nature of robots is to be feared because they do not possess human qualities and might even be able to take control over human beings. Many science-fiction "mad scientist" movies of the 1950s capitalized on this fear by portraying monstrous creatures created by misused technology as well as technology itself revolting against its creators. This fear of technology was pervasive during the 1950s.

Gale Document Number: EJ2111500082