Fahrenheit 451 | Study Guide

Ray Bradbury

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Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 with Course Hero’s video study guide.

Fahrenheit 451 | Context


World War II

The politics of the period helped shape Fahrenheit 451. The novel was written less than a decade after the end of World War II in 1945. Before and during the war Germany's Nazi regime waged a campaign of intense censorship that included book burning and exerted broad control over media, including radio, film, and print. The totalitarian government of Soviet Russia under Joseph Stalin, who led its Community Party from 1929 to 1953, spread propaganda and destroyed and censored books to control information and eliminate opposition.

Nuclear War

Science fiction in the 1950s often focused on the possibilities and aftermath of nuclear war. Atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945, just eight years before the publication of Fahrenheit 451. The possibility of annihilation by nuclear weapons led to the Cold War—a political standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, both of whom had nuclear capabilities—and created a state of tension between the countries that lasted for decades. The possibility that life on Earth could come to an end was a powerful stimulus to Ray Bradbury's imagination. During the period in which Bradbury revised "The Fireman," an earlier version of Fahrenheit 451, the United States tested the hydrogen bomb (1952). The Soviets, not to be outdone, exploded their version in 1953.


Bradbury said he was not writing in direct response to Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist campaign. However, McCarthy's activities coincided with the writing and publication of the novel, and many aspects of the senator's campaign dovetail with the novel's themes of censorship and conformity. Beginning with a speech in 1950, McCarthy used Americans' increasing fears of Soviet aggression to fuel an anti-Communist campaign that targeted government employees and public figures. He encouraged witnesses to name other "Communists" to show that they were no longer affiliated with the party, and his influence was so strong that many politicians and media figures were unwilling to criticize him for fear of becoming targets of "McCarthyism." McCarthy continued to zealously pursue suspected Communists as chair of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, a post he assumed in 1953. His targets included the Voice of America, a government-run overseas radio broadcasting program; the State Department's international libraries, whose librarians were forced to remove thousands of books from their shelves; and the U.S. Army, against which his tactics were so aggressive that popular opinion finally turned against him.

Rise of Television

The narcotic influence of television is emphasized in Fahrenheit 451. Television was invented in 1927, but commercial television broadcasting only became available in 1947. Within a decade, the popularity of television exploded, and it grew from a rarity to a common feature in many American homes. TV Guide, for example, was the best-selling magazine in the 1950s.

Television quickly became a dominant force in American culture, and it helped reshape America from a collection of regional cultures to a more unified national culture. With television came more advertising, as the ability of television to reach a mass audience created the opportunity for businesses to persuade more people than ever to buy their products. In Fahrenheit 451 a family's affluence is measured by how many wall-sized screens dominate the parlor. Television has destroyed the public's interest in reading, and individual choice is eclipsed by social conformity.

Dystopian Fiction

Dystopian works constitute a genre within science fiction. Presenting the world at its worst, these cautionary tales portray the negative consequences of events, technologies, and ideological shifts that are initially accepted as beneficial by characters in the texts. Earlier examples include Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which appeared in 1932, and George Orwell's 1984, published in 1949. Both works imagine worlds under dictatorships focused on repressing individual choice and expression.

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