Fahrenheit 451, written by Ray Bradbury in 1953, cannot be fully understood outside of its historical context.
First, 1953 was the middle of the “McCarthy Era” in the Cold War, during which thousands of Americans were investigated for harboring Communist sympathies. Neighbors and coworkers were encouraged to report on each other, and mere suspicion was often enough to instigate an investigation. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin held hearings in Congress to interrogate would-be spies. Actors, producers and directors in Hollywood were called to testify against one another, and the accused subsequently became “black-listed.” Many people experienced loss of employment, destruction of their careers, and some committed suicide.
Helping to heat up the war against its own citizens at home, America was engaged in a feverish effort to build bombs targeted at the Soviet Union. Atomic bombs were being tested and perfected rapidly. In October, 1952, the U.S. exploded its first thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb at Eniwetok Atoll. The Soviet Union exploded its own hydrogen bomb in August, 1953.
This atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion, and the fearful sense of a world rushing toward a nuclear holocaust is reflected in Bradbury’s story. “Fahrenheit 451,” he tells us at the start of this book, is the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns. In this future dystopia, Guy Montag is a “fireman” who starts fires rather than stopping them. The firemen respond to calls of those who accuse someone of harboring books: they burn the books along with the house, and the owners are arrested (unless they choose to commit suicide). Books are forbidden because they can allow people to think, to be unhappy, to question the government, and to question war.
Montag, married to a drugged-up, tuned-out wife he can’t even remember how he met, believes he is happy, until he encounters his new neighbor Clarisse. A seventeen-year-old girl, she has been identified as “crazy” and “dangerous” because she is not enslaved to the media and its hypnotic messages; she takes walks, examines her surroundings and the people in it, talks with her family and others about matters of substance, and most importantly, is not afraid to ask questions.
The honesty and openness of Clarisse unhinges Montag, and he soon becomes one of those who hides from the fires, rather than one of those who sets them.
Overall the book stands up remarkably well to the passage of over fifty years. Its underlying message is as timely as ever: we are complicit in allowing our brains to atrophy. We become addicted to vapidity and short spurts of sensation, and forego deep thinking and quiet contemplation. We retreat into our own entertainment cocoons, and ignore what politicians are making of the world. The results could be disastrous for civilization.
Famously, the character Montag picks some books from his own hidden stash to destroy, in order to help deflect the attention of the authorities from himself. But the point of the work is not so much what book you would sacrifice to save yourself from suspicion, but how important it is not to let the seeds for such conditions take root. Our only hope for the future, Bradbury warns us, is to be mindful, to read and to question, to study the past, and to learn from it.