What's your favorite Ray Bradbury novel

Summary of Fahrenheit 451

Witch hunt in the 20th century

Fahrenheit 451 appeared in 1953 at the height of the McCarthy era in the United States, which lasted until around 1956. The Korean War ended without a clear decision in 1953, and the Communists celebrated new victories in Eastern Europe and China. The American public seemed ripe for the second so-called "Red Scare" (the first lasted from 1917 to 1920): Show trials against alleged public enemies took place under the pretext of combating the infiltration of the US government by Communists. The Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, was the figurehead of this irrational communist agitation, which affected civil servants as well as writers, actors and film directors. McCarthy urged the defendants to reveal the names of former comrades in order to prove their own departure from communism. His methods were in many ways similar to those used in medieval witch hunts. One of the best-known parables for this is Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, which also premiered in 1953.

That same year, Ray Bradbury wrote in the left-wing weekly The Nation: "When the wind turns right, Senator McCarthy smells faint kerosene." Fahrenheit 451, however, is more than just a criticism of the anti-intellectualism of the time. After the Second World War, the experience of the Nazi dictatorship led to a wave of dystopian works about fictional totalitarian states of the future. Against the background of the recent past, the authors wanted to draw attention to worrying developments also in the present. Examples include George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1948) and Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano (The Infernal System) (1952).


Ray Bradbury revealed in an interview in 2001 who the world owes Fahrenheit 451 to: A police officer stopped him one night in Los Angeles in the early 1950s while he was walking with a friend on a busy street. They were the only pedestrians around and that made them suspicious. The author then wrote the short story The Pedestrian about a society where pedestrian traffic is forbidden. It in turn formed the beginning of the novella The Fireman, which Bradbury wrote within nine days in the basement of a university library on a rented typewriter. Bradbury had a young daughter at home, and in the library he found both the tranquility and access to a vast treasure trove of books. Whenever he needed quotes or ideas, he simply ran up the stairs and found the right work in the hallways of the library.

The Fireman appeared in the science fiction magazine Galaxy Magazine in 1951. Two years later the author was asked by his publisher to develop the story into a novel. Bradbury later said that he "talks" to his characters, "listens" to them and "watches" them in order to look deeper and deeper into their souls. The result of this intensive communication at the time was the present novel - what was missing was only the title. The author called the Los Angeles Fire Department to find out at what temperature paper could catch fire. The answer: 451 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 232.78 degrees Celsius).

Impact history

The book was published in New York in 1953. A special edition of 200 copies was bound in an asbestos-containing envelope - at that time the fireproof material was still considered a miracle material. Senator McCarthy's threats against libraries and charges against alleged communist scriptwriters had caused uncertainty among magazine publishers. The only one who wanted to publish Fahrenheit 451 as a three-part series was Hugh Hefner, and so the story appeared in the very first issues of Playboy in 1954. Bradbury granted this imprint because he wanted to support the newly founded Playboy: Hefner was an advocate of free speech, and his magazine, at least in the beginning, had an intellectual and literary claim.

In 1966, Fran├žois Truffaut filmed the book with Oskar Werner as Montag and Julie Christie, who played both Clarisse and Montag's wife in a double role. In 1984 a Fahrenheit 451 computer game came out and two years later Ray Bradbury wrote a stage version for which he again "talked" to his characters and invented new stories around them. Similar to Orwell's 1984, the title became synonymous with censorship and oppression for many, although the author denied this focus in a 2001 interview: "Fahrenheit 451 is not about censorship, but about the stupid influence of local television news and the spread of big screens."

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore alluded to Bradbury's masterpiece in 2004 when he named his film about the failure of the Bush family in the run-up to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Fahrenheit 9/11.