Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1006

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.

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Censorship

While Americans are guaranteed free speech and a 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.

Technology

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 being 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.

More than any other aspect of the technological revolution that has taken place since World War II, none has had a greater impact than the development of the atomic bomb and atomic energy. 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 recreates 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.

Social Concerns

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Last Updated on May 8, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

The title Fahrenheit 451 represents the temperature at which paper burns. Based on a 1951 short story, "The Fireman," the novel depicts a future America where television dominates culture and all books are banned. Montag, the main character, is a fireman, a member of an elite, Gestapo-like organization whose purpose is to seek out and burn the few books that remain.

Fahrenheit 451 makes no attempt to describe the workings of a totalitarian state. Instead, Bradbury is concerned with developing a parable of sorts about intellectual freedom. The novel can be seen as an attack on Senator Joseph McCarthy's early 1950s anti-Communist crusade, during which the senator and his supporters attempted to subject government workers, politicians, journalists, and artists to strict government scrutiny. In a broader sense, Bradbury addresses the issues of mass-media-induced illiteracy and anti-intellectualism in general.

Fahrenheit 451 is very clearly a defense of literacy and the free use of the imagination as central human virtues. Bradbury emphasizes this theme when Montag's superior officer states:

You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember — the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally — "bright" . . . And wasn't it this bright boy you selected — for beatings and torture after hours? Of course it was. We — must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the — Constitution says, but everyone made equal.

Bradbury is reacting here to a central paradox of American culture, the enormous and conflicting emphasis that is placed on being both rugged, strong-willed individualists and right-thinking members of a team. Although Americans extol the free spirits of their history, from Davy Crockett to Henry David Thoreau, they also mistrust them and want to bring them into line.

Fahrenheit 451 argues that human beings must be given the right to think and to explore freely the world of ideas, regardless of whether or not some of those ideas might offend others, and it depicts the written word as the key to all such exploration.

Additional Commentary

Fahrenheit 451 is very clearly a defense of literacy and the free use of the imagination as central human virtues. Bradbury emphasizes this theme when Montag's superior officer states:

You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally "bright" . . . . And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and torture after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal.

Bradbury is reacting here to a central paradox of American culture, the enormous and conflicting emphasis that is placed on being both rugged, strong-willed individualists and right-thinking members of a team. Though Americans extol the free spirits of their history, from Davy Crockett to Henry David Thoreau, they also mistrust them and want to bring them into line.

Fahrenheit 451 argues that human beings must be given the right to think and to explore freely the world of ideas, regardless of whether or not some of those ideas might offend others, and it depicts the written word as the key to all such exploration.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 239

  • 1950s: During the McCarthy hearings, artists and writers lost their jobs for their politically liberal and left-wing leanings.

    Today: More outlets exist for artists with out-of-the-mainstream views, both liberal and conservative, but when most media companies are owned by giant business corporations, these individuals are less likely to be heard by many people.

  • 1950s: The fear of nuclear conflict with the Communist Soviet Union was at its height.

    Today: Fear that atomic bomb capability will fall into the hands of terrorists prevails.

  • 1950s: Censorship was accepted by many as an unofficial good and is allowed by the federal government in cases like motion picture content.

    Today: While government-sponsored censorship is considered a threat to personal freedom, more people are inclined to support the restriction of exposure of pornographic and violent media material to children. These forms of expression, it is believed, corrupt the values of society.

  • 1950s: Most people conform to the social norms of the day. Social outcasts like the "beats" are small in number.

    Today: Multiculturalism flourishes as various ethnic and cultural groups celebrate their differences from "mainstream" society while at the same time a backlash can be seen in groups like the "English (Language) First" movement.

  • 1950s: Television made a technological impact on how people entertained themselves.

    Today: Computers compete vigorously with television as an entertainment source. The film industry has been reinvigorated both at the movie theater and as producers of videos for home entertainment.

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