Fahrenheit 451 Summary

Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451

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Fahrenheit 451 Summary

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The publication of American novelist Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in 1953 helped to transition the science fiction genre from the niche arena of pulp magazines and comic books to mainstream fiction. The futuristic novel takes place in a culture where books are banned. Time and place (probably Midwestern America) are unidentified. “The Hearth and the Salamander,” “The Sieve and the Sand,” and “Burning Bright” are the three sections into which the work is divided. The title references the temperature at which paper ignites and burns, as happens to books that are discovered by the “firemen” charged with finding them in Fahrenheit 451.

As part one, “The Hearth and the Salamander,” opens, central character Guy Montag is introduced. He is a fireman whose job is to uncover people who have read outlawed books and burn their possessions. Returning home after work one evening, he encounters Clarisse McClellan, a teenaged girl who is a new neighbor. Conversations with this free-spirited young woman have Montag examining his own life and attitudes. Arriving at his home, he finds that his wife, Mildred, has overdosed on sleeping pills, and he summons EMTs who pump her stomach and give her new blood to replace the contaminated blood in her system. The following day, Mildred has no recollection of what happened to her. Montag continues meeting Clarisse and conversing with her on his daily walks home. He is drawn to her subversive thoughts. She explains to him that others treat her as an outcast because of her interests and the simple things in life that matter to her; she has been forced to receive therapy. Montag looks forward to their encounters, but suddenly, she no longer appears, and he fears that something is amiss.

In subsequent days, he is at work with fellow firemen preparing to burn the books found in the home of an elderly woman. He steals a book while unobserved by the other firemen. The woman will not agree to leave her home, strikes a match, and is burned alive. Montag, unsettled by this event, returns home and hides the book beneath his pillow. Various things about Mildred, including her addiction to sleeping pills and her time spent in front of her parlor wall, which is a bank of television monitors, make him realize that their marriage is in ruins. Later he asks her if she knows anything of Clarisse’s disappearance. She informs him that the girl was killed when hit by a car four days earlier.

Montag begins to question his desire to continue his job. Mildred fears what this would do to their lives financially and blames his feelings on the old woman’s suicide. Montag’s chief, Captain Beatty, visits and tries to reassure him that their mission is just. Books he explains lost any value as people migrated to television and movies for entertainment, and as life became faster paced. Books were abridged and had content that was perceived of as outdated. While comic books and sex magazine were allowed to survive because they provided mindless entertainment, the government turned firemen into watchdogs charged with destroying the banned materials. He also tells Montag that all firemen are curious and will steal a book to satisfy that interest. There will be no trouble for the fireman and his family if the stolen book is burned within twenty-four hours. When the chief leaves, Montag shares with Mildred that he has amassed a cache of books. She quickly attempts to dispose of them, but he tells her that they will read them to determine if there is any value and if not, they will then destroy them.

Reading the stolen books together at the opening of “The Sieve and the Sand” section, Mildred is unconvinced of their value and believes that nobody should care about books. Montag lists all of the problems at hand of late like the old lady’s suicide, the death of Clarisse, and an ongoing threat of war, and tells her that perhaps books contain cures for the world’s ills and can save society. Mildred is disinterested and makes a date with her friend Mrs. Bowles to watch television that evening. Montag realizes he will need help to understand what can be culled from the books and seeks out Faber, an old professor he once met who is from the time before books were banned. Faber is reluctant to help when Montag phones him, but Montag goes to his residence with a copy of the Bible, the book he stole from the old lady. Ultimately, he is able to enlist the professor’s help and receives from him an earpiece that will allow Montag to receive support from Faber.

Upon returning home, Montag attempts to divert his wife and her friends from the television screens by reading to them from a book of poetry. As the evening unfolds, he goes to the firehouse, and while he and Beatty are conversing, a call comes in for the crew to be dispatched to a job. They rush to their destination, which to Montag’s surprise turns out to be his own home. It is the bridge to section three, “Burning Bright.”

Montag is ordered by Beatty to burn his house. He is informed that it was his wife and her friends who reported him. Mildred emerges from the house and leaves without a word to her husband. Montag destroys his house with a flamethrower. As he completes the task, the chief notices the earpiece and threatens to go after Faber, leading Montag to kill Beatty with the flamethrower. Montag then goes to Faber and sends him to a countryside where exiled lovers of books reside. The exiles, each of whom has memorized a book in hope that society will one day revert to what it once was, return to the city with the potential for an optimistic future for mankind amid the dystopian society that exists. There is optimism that individuals have the power to make a difference and that freethinking can win out over conformity.