Fahrenheit 451 Summary

  • Last updated on March 25, 2021
"infobox Book "
name Fahrenheit 451
image
image caption First Edition cover
author Ray Bradbury
country America
language English language
genre(s) Dystopia, Science Fiction, Social Issues
publisher Ballantine Books
release date 1953
media type Hardback and Paperback
pages 173
isbn 0345342968 (Paperback)

Guy Montag is a fireman whose job it is to start fires - and he enjoys his job. He has been a fireman for ten years, and he has never questioned the pleasure of the midnight runs or the joy of watching pages consumed by flames, never questioned anything until he meets a seventeen-year-old girl who tells him of a past where people were not afraid. Then Guy meets a professor who tells him of a future in which people can think. And Guy Montag suddenly realizes what he had to do...

Character Summaries

Guy Montag

The protagonist of the story. Montag is a firemen who becomes disillusioned with his work and sets out to find deeper meaning through books.

Mildred Montag

Guys' wife. Despite what she says about how much she loves television, and the fact that she watches it all the time, Mildred seems to be discontent with her life because she tries to commit suicide.

Captain Beatty

Montag's boss. He seems to have a vast knowledge about books, and can quote many passages from famous works of literature, but also taunts and arrests Montag at the climax of the story.

Faber

A former English professor who helps Montag make a copy of his Bible.

Granger

The leader of a group of intellectuals who all have memorized one important work of literature and are going to help society rebuild itself when the time comes.

Plot Summary

Part One: The Hearth and the Salamander

The story of Fahrenheit 451 takes place in a dystopian, alternate future for the United States. In this future firemen are employed not to put out fires but to start them, burning any literature that the may come across.

Guy Montag is one of these firemen, and it is a job that he finds a strange, dark pleasure in. His uniform consists of a helmet with 451 on it (the temperature that paper burns at) and a black uniform featuring a salamander on the arm and a “phoenix disc” on the chest.

One night Montag is returning home and meets his new neighbour, Clarisse McClellan, who is seventeen years old and very odd, according to Montag (by her own admission she is “crazy”). She tells Montag that originally firemen put out fires, they didn’t start them. She tells him about her family, who like to read and take walks together – both of which are illegal.

Although Clarisse unnerves Montag, he finds her fascinating anyway. Clarisse asks Montag if he is happy before leaving. He thinks about the question and how strange it is – it is not considered normal in this society to have conversations about personal matters. However, Montag realises that he is very unhappy with his life, and that any happiness that he had experienced up until this point was not true happiness.

The ominous feeling he had felt before meeting Clarisse continues to plague him. At home Mildred, his wife, is in bed listening to music. She has done the same thing for two years. Montag realises that Mildred has taken a whole bottle of sleeping pills, and as he is trying to call the hospital, a squadron of jet bombers fly over his house. Mildred gets her stomach pumped, her blood replaced and is right as rain. She doesn’t remember her suicide attempt.

Going outside Montag can hear strange sounds coming from the McClellan house – conversation and laughter. He goes to sleep, feeling strange.

Mildred, seemingly fine again the next day, watches television on three giant wall screens. Like everyone else in society, this is something she does all day every day. Montag leaves and goes to work, running into Clarisse along the way.

Clarisse discusses things like the taste of rain with Montag, which he finds unusual, although he does taste the rain himself once she is gone. She is on her way to an appointment with a psychiatrist, which she is forced to go to by the authorities because she is deemed strange because of having thoughts and feelings of her own.

Upon reaching work, Montag is threatened by a Mechanical Hound. He reports this to the Captain and says that he believes someone has programmed the Mechanical Hound to do this on purpose, because it has happened before. Montag is teased by the other firemen about what happened with the Hound, but Montag feels sorry for it because the Hound is incapable of any thought or action except what it is told.

Montag continues to meet and talk with Clarisse. They discuss things like children, school and routine. When one day Clarisse does not show up, Montag is alarmed and tries to go looking for her, but has to go to work. Montag asks Captain Beatty what happened to the owner of the library they recently, and Beatty says the man was taken to the insane asylum. Montag wonders what that man’s life must have been like, and almost admits to sneaking a look at one of the books.

When Montag askes Beatty if it is true that firemen ever put out fires instead of starting them, two firemen show him in the official rulebook that the Firemen of America were established by Benjamin Franklin in 1790 to ensure that English-influenced books were burned.

The firemen head off on a job and find a massive house with books hidden inside. A book accidentally falls into Montag’s hands and he hides it away without thinking about what he is doing. The woman whose house it is refuses to leave and burns down the house herself. None of the firemen speak on the way home.

Montag conceals the stolen book in his home. He tries to talk to Mildred but can’t understand her – all she talks about is the TV programs she watches. He tries to ask Mildred about their past together but neither of them can even remember when they got together. Mildred takes sleeping pills and falls asleep, and Montag feels all alone in the world. He asks her about Clarisse’s family and Mildred tells him that the family has moved away and apparently Clarisse has been struck and killed.

The next day Montag is sick and vomits at the smell of the kerosene. He tries to talk to Mildred about the woman who was burned the other day, and about wanting to leave his job, but Mildred doesn’t give him the answers he wants.

Captain Beatty arrives, having come by to check on Montag. He figured that Montag would want to kill in sick after what happened the other day, and that accidental burnings happen sometimes. Beatty talks nonsensically and hysterically about the nature of the Fireman job and why it is deemed necessary. Montag can’t follow or understand much of what he says.

Mildred, in the course of cleaning up the room, finds the book that Montag was trying to hide. Montag screams at her to sit down, but Beatty notices anyway, although he does not say anything. He continues to talk about how society wanted easy entertainment and easy pleasure, nothing controversial or thought-provoking, nothing radical, and eventually that resulted in all literature being abandoned. All houses were fireproofed and firemen became fire starters instead. All literature was burned so that nobody could be smarter than anyone else.

Montag asks how it is possible then for someone with individual thought like Clarisse to exist in this world, and Beatty tells him that her whole family has been under surveillance for years, and that it is better of for Clarisse to be dead. He also tells Montag that Firemen are important pillars of the happiness of society.

Montag asks Beatty what happens if firemen are caught with books. Beatty says that they are allowed to keep it for a short time, but eventually it will have to be burned. Montag decides he will never return to work as a Fireman, and begins reading a book. It turns out that he has a stockpile of them already, which Mildred tries to burn, but Montag stops her.

Someone else comes to the door, but are ignored. Montag begs Mildred for some time to search for answers in the books.

Part Two: The Sieve and the Sand

Despite being afraid of the books, Mildred joins Montag in reading them anyway. They ignore the Mechanical Hound sniffing at their doorstep.

Montag tries to talk to Mildred about Clarisse and how she came to be so different from everyone else, but Mildred does not want to talk about her. She does not want to acknowledge death.

Mildred also does not like reading, and quickly tires of it. She much prefers watching TV. Montag struggles on with the books, but soon realises that he needs someone else to help him understand them. He decides to seek help from Faber, an old English professor who Montag once met in a park, and who Montag had helped to conceal a book.

When Montag calls Faber, however, Faber thinks that it is a trap. He refuses to help Montag. Montag returns to his books, realizing that some of them must be the last copies of that particular book in existence. He decides to duplicate his copy of the Bible, which he thinks must be the only one left, so that he won’t have to lose it when he has to turn in the books to Beatty.

Mildred is having friends over to watch TV with her, and ignores Montag’s efforts to connect with her. Montag gives up and goes to see Faber, and on the way tries to memorize parts of the Bible but gets distracted by advertising jingles. He screams at the radio to be quiet, that he is trying to read, but before the passengers can call a guard on him, Montag gets off the train.

When Montag arrives at Faber’s house and shows him the Bible he has brought with him, Faber trusts him. Faber tells Montag that what will make him happy is not the books themselves, but their meaning. People need meaning in their lives, but what is currently on TV and radio will never give it to them. Nobody wants to accept the negative parts of life, they only want to live in a bright, colourful imaginary world of imaginary happiness. Whilst television may be more real than books in terms of having real actors and real settings, books are better because you can absorb them at your own pace.

Montag comes up with the idea of framing the Firemen by planting books in their homes so that the profession is shut down, but Faber said that wouldn’t matter – even if there was nobody to burn books, nobody would read them anyway because society is no longer interested in them. All that they need to do is wait for the impending war to destroy the TV families, to which Montag reasons this would be a great time to bring books back to society.

Faber agrees to help Montag create a duplicate book only after Montag starts to tear the Bible to pieces. Faber has an old friend who has access to a printing press, and he gives Montag a two-way radio earpiece so that they two can communicate stealthily.

As Montag gets the money to pay Faber, he hears over the radio that the country is now mobilizing for war. As Montag travels home, Faber reads to him from the Bible.

At home, Mildred’s friends arrive. He tries to talk to them by turning of the TV, but the conversation is not fulfilling. Montag becomes infuriated at their indifference to everything, so much so that he tries to show them a book of poetry. Faber and Mildred are both alarmed, and Mildred lies and says that firemen are allowed to bring home a single book a year to show their families how worthless they are. Faber tries to get Montag to agree with Mildred’s lie, but Montag is insistent, and begins reading poetry to the women.

The subject matter of the poems hits a nerve with Mrs. Phelps, and she begins to cry. Mrs. Bowles declares her hatred of poetry, and is angry at Montag for reading it to them. Montag burns the book, and orders the women leave and think about the vacuousness of their existence. He does feel guilty for his outburst later on, however, and wonders if it is such a bad thing to only want to feel good all the time. Faber says that it would be if there was not a war going on, because problems like that demand people think and feel in order to solve them.

It turns out the Mildred has been burning Montag’s books, so he hides them away from her. Then, he goes to the fire station and gives his book to Beatty. Beatty throws it away, trying to convince Montag that books are nonsense by quoting random literature to him. Montag is unsure of what to do.

The firemen then have to rush off to a new job. The job, it turns out, is burning the books at Montag’s house.

Part Three: Burning Bright

They arrive at Montag’s house, and Beatty thinks that Montag has fallen under the wayward influence of Clarisse’s family when he keeps looking over at their house.

It is Mildred who has called the firemen, and she flees, suitcase in hand. Montag is commanded to burn his own house, which he does under pain of being tracked down by the Mechanical Hound if he tries to escape. He is arrested by Beatty after burning everything.

Montag is hit on the head by Beatty, losing the earpiece, which Beatty picks up and tells Montag he will trace. Beatty antagonises Montag with more quotations from literature, incensing Montag so much that Montag burns Beatty with his flamethrower, killing him. Montag then tries to escape after incapacitating the other firemen, but is incapacitated himself by the Mechanical Hound, as it injects his leg with anaesthetic. Montag burns it up and then hobbles away to where his books had been hidden in the backyard. There are still four left.

Montag tries to run away but keeps falling because of his useless leg. He sobs, then pulls himself together, running until his leg recovers. There is a police warning to be on the lookout for him, so Montag tries to clean himself up a bit in a gas station to draw less attention to himself.

Crossing the street, Montag is nearly struck and killed by a car. It is not the police, however, it is just a group of senselessly violent kids. Montag hides his books in a former coworker’s house, then calls an alarm on that house. He then sees Faber, telling him what has happened and giving him money.

Montag then goes on the run, and Faber promises to visit his friend who owns the printing press. Fleeing with a suitcase of Faber’s old clothes, Mechanical Hound on his trail, Montag heads out to find the camps of intellectuals that Faber has told him about, hoping to meet up with Faber again in the future at the house of the friend with the printing press.

Montag evades capture by the Mechanical Hound because he is able to see it following him on the  TV in people’s windows – his chase is being televised to the nation. Montag runs to the river, but there is suddenly a radio announcement telling everyone to be on the lookout for him. He gets to the river just in time, letting the current take him away.

Eventually the police and the Hound give up chasing him, and Montag ends up in the countryside. It is beautiful, and he knows that Clarisse must once have been there too.

Montag happens upon a man named Granger, siting in a group around a fire. The camp of people are neatly dressed and have a good amount of technology with them. Montag is given a strange drink, and Granger tells him that if he drinks it, the Hound will not be able to find him because it will change the chemical index of his sweat. Granger and the others at the camp have been watching the chase on a small TV, and Granger says that they will no longer be looking for Montag but will instead try to blame the incident on someone else as the police will not want to admit defeat. Just as Granger says that, the TV shows the Hound killing an innocent man, and the announcers says that Montag, a criminal of society, is now dead and gone.

The men, all intellectuals, welcome Montag into their group. They have all mastered the ability to recall word-for-word anything they read, and that they all have a classic work stored away in their memory – there are thousands of people all over the country who can do this.

Montag’s reading of the Bible has all been for a good purpose - this group he has joined will help preserve the important things of society.

Granger says that the men are waiting patiently for society to be ready for the knowledge of their books again. This does not take long, however – the city is suddenly struck by an atomic explosion, and the men make their way towards its ruins, society ready to rebuild itself.

 

Categories: Classics, Fiction
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