Fahrenheit 451 was written partially as Ray Bradbury’s response to the McCarthy era. During this period, the American government, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, created what many called a “witch hunt,” seeking out any politicians, public figures, and even members of the general public who may have been involved in communism. The Hollywood film industry was also a target of the McCarthy trials. Many people were falsely accused and lives were ruined. Because McCarthy was on a mission to find anyone who was involved in the Communist party, people were afraid to speak or write anything that could be interpreted as possible communism. Bradbury saw this and responded by writing Fahrenheit 451, a book that explored censorship in the most extreme way.
Another story that I’ve read also dealt with concerns about McCarthyism, specifically the “witch hunt” aspect of the time. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was a play about the Salem Witch Trials, but also dealt with many of the same issues of the McCarthy era. During the Salem Witch Trial, many innocent women were accused of practicing witchcraft. This was an offense punishable by death, often by being tied to a stake and being burned alive. The women being accused were usually found guilty just on the word of someone who said they had seen or heard the woman doing something out of the ordinary. The women had no defense whatsoever, it was simply her word against theirs. Once a woman was accused, it was very likely that she would be found guilty and executed.
The Crucible was similar to the McCarthy trials in that many people were falsely accused and found guilty without any real proof. Most of the guilty verdicts were the result of hearsay and speculation. People were really terrified of being accused, causing them to censor themselves and those around them to keep from being misinterpreted and accused. This suppression was what Bradbury explored in Fahrenheit 451.
In Bradbury’s text, people were afraid or unwilling to discuss anything intellectual for fear of being accused of reading books. Though people were not executed for having books as in The Crucible, their houses could be burned down or they could be forced into exile. Eventually this fear led people to focus on shallow, petty things instead of real thought and intellect. This was shown in Montag’s wife Mildred and her friends, who only wanted to watch television and talk about unimportant things. They weren’t interested in talking about the upcoming war or anything intellectual, and when Montag read them the poem they all got very upset.
One thing I wondered about while reading the text was Mildred’s dependence on sleeping pills. She was clearly unhappy, which was shown from the very beginning when she nearly died from an overdose. I wonder if her life had become so shallow and meaningless that she needed the pills to feel better, or if pretending to be something she was not was too much for her to take. This really stood out to me because I used to have a friend who had a problem with alcohol. He was being pressured by his parents to get good grades and get into a good college, and they wanted him to play lots of sports and be involved in clubs and activities. A lot of the things they made him do didn’t interest him at all, but he tried to keep them happy by doing what they wanted. He would drink a lot whenever he could just to “blow off steam” and “relax,” but eventually he started getting into trouble. When he finally did go off to college he ended up flunking out because all he wanted to do was drink and party. This was all because he was trying so hard to be something he wasn’t, just like the characters in Fahrenhet 451.