Summary and Analysis
In the first part of Fahrenheit 451, the character Guy Montag, a thirty-year-old fireman in the twenty-fourth century (remember that the novel was written in the early 1950s) is introduced. In this dystopian (dreadful and oppressive) setting, people race "jet cars" down the roads as a way of terminating stress, "parlor walls" are large screens in every home used dually for entertainment and governmental propaganda, and houses have been fireproofed, thus making the job of firemen, as they are commonly known, obsolete. However, firemen have been given a new occupation; they are burners of books and the official censors of the state. As a fireman, Guy Montag is responsible for destroying not only the books he finds, but also the homes in which he finds them. Books are not to be read; they are to be destroyed without question.
For Montag, "It was a pleasure to burn." The state mandated that all books must burn. Therefore, Montag, along with the other firemen, burn the books to show conformity. Without ideas, everyone conforms, and as a result, everyone should be happy. When books and new ideas are available to people, conflict and unhappiness occur. At first, Montag believes that he is happy. When he views himself in the firehouse mirror after a night of burning, he grins "the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame."
However, the reader quickly notices that everything isn't as Montag wants it to be. When Montag meets Clarisse McClellan, his new vivacious teenage neighbor, he begins to question whether he really is happy. Clarisse gives Montag enlightenment; she questions him not only about his own personal happiness but also about his occupation and about the fact that he knows little truth about history. At the same time, she also gives the reader the opportunity to see that the government has dramatically changed what its citizens perceive as their history. For example, Montag never knew that firemen used to fight actual fires or that billboards used to be only 20 feet long. Nor did Montag know that people could actually talk to one another; the governmental use of parlor walls has eliminated the need for casual conversation. Clarisse arouses Montag's curiosity and begins to help him discover that real happiness has been missing from his life for quite some time.
After Montag's encounter with Clarisse, he returns home to find his wife Mildred Montag (Millie) unconscious; she is lying on the bed with her Seashell Radios in her ears and has overdosed on tranquilizers and sleeping pills. Two impersonal technicians, who bring machines to pump her stomach and provide a total transfusion, save Millie, but she could possibly overdose again and never even know it — or so it may seem. The matter of the overdose — whether an attempted suicide or a result of sheer mindlessness — is never settled. Although Montag wishes to discuss the matter of the overdose, Millie does not, and their inability to agree on even this matter suggests the profound estrangement that exists between them.
Even though Montag and Millie have been married for years, Montag realizes, after the overdose incident, that he doesn't really know much about his wife at all. He can't remember when or where he first met her. In fact, all that he does know about his wife is that she is interested only in her "family" — the illusory images on her three-wall TV — and the fact that she drives their car with high-speed abandon. He realizes that their life together is meaningless and purposeless. They don't love each other; in fact, they probably don't love anything, except perhaps burning (Montag) and living secondhand through an imaginary family (Millie).
When Montag returns to work the next day, he touches the Mechanical Hound and hears a growl. The Mechanical Hound is best described as a device of terror, a machine that is perversely similar to a trained killer dog but has been improved by refined technology, which allows it to inexorably track down and capture criminals by stunning them with a tranquilizer. Montag fears that the dog can sense his growing unhappiness. He also fears that the Hound somehow knows that he's confiscated some books during one of his raids.
The fire chief, Captain Beatty also senses Montag's unhappiness. Upon entering the upper level of the firehouse, Montag questions whether the Mechanical Hound can think. Beatty, who functions as the apologist of the dystopia, points out that the Hound "doesn't think anything we don't want it to think." Instantly, Beatty is suspicious of this sudden curiosity in Montag and questions whether Montag feels guilty about something.
After several more days of encountering Clarisse and working at the firehouse, Montag experiences two things that make him realize that he must convert his life. The first incident is one in which he is called to an unidentified woman's house to destroy her books. Her neighbor discovered her cache of books, so they must be burned. The woman stubbornly refuses to leave her home; instead, she chooses to burn with her books. The second incident, which occurs later the same evening, is when Millie tells Montag that the McClellans have moved away because Clarisse died in an automobile accident — she was "run over by a car."
If the Hound and Captain Beatty are a gauge of Montag's growing "disease" (Bradbury's word), the news of Clarisse's death, coupled with a fire call to the unidentified woman's house, brings about his conversion. Montag decides to talk with Millie about his dissatisfaction with his job as a fireman and about the intrinsic values that a person can obtain from books. Suddenly, he sees that Millie is incapable of understanding what he means. All she knows is that books are unlawful and that anyone who breaks the law must be punished. Fearing for her own safety, Millie declares that she is innocent of any wrongdoing, and she says that Montag must leave her alone.
After this confrontation with Millie, Montag entertains the idea of quitting his job, but instead, he decides to feign illness and goes to bed. When Captain Beatty, who is already suspicious of Montag's recent behavior, finds that Montag hasn't come to work, he makes a sick call to Montag's home. Beatty gives Montag a pep talk, explaining to him that every fireman sooner or later goes through a period of intellectual curiosity and steals a book. (Beatty seems to know, miraculously, that Montag stole a book — or books.) Beatty emphatically stresses that books contain nothing believable. He attempts to convince Montag that they are merely stories — fictitious lies — about nonexistent people. He tells Montag that because each person is angered by at least some kind of literature, the simplest solution is to get rid of all books. Ridding the world of controversy puts an end to dispute and allows people to "stay happy all the time." Beatty even supports a sort of perverse democratic ideal: Ridding the world of all controversial books and ideas makes all men equal — each man is the image of other men. He concludes his lecture by assuring Montag that the book-burning profession is an honorable one and instructs Montag to return to work that evening.
Immediately following Beatty's visit, Montag confesses to Mildred that, although he can't explain why, he has stolen, not just one book, but a small library of books for himself during the past year (the total is nearly 20 books, one of which is a Bible). He then begins to reveal his library, which he's hidden in the air-conditioning system. When Millie sees Montag's cache of books, she panics. Montag tries to convince her that their lives are already in such a state of disrepair that an investigation of books may be beneficial. Millie is unconvinced. What neither of them know is that the Mechanical Hound (probably sent by Captain Beatty) is already on Montag's trail, seemingly knowing Montag's mind better than Montag himself.
Fahrenheit 451 is currently Bradbury's most famous written work of social criticism. It deals with serious problems of control of the masses by the media, the banning of books, and the suppression of the mind (with censorship). The novel examines a few pivotal days of a man's life, a man who is a burner of books and, therefore, an instrument of suppression. This man (Montag) lives in a world where the past has been destroyed by kerosene-spewing hoses and government brainwashing methods. In a few short days, this man is transformed from a narrow-minded and prejudiced conformist into a dynamic individual committed to social change and to a life of saving books rather than destroying them.
Before you begin the novel, note the significance of the title, 451 degrees Fahrenheit, "the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns." Also note the epigram by Juan Ramon Jimenez: "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way." Jimenez (1881-1958) was a Spanish poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1956 and was largely responsible for introducing Modernism into Spanish poetry. The implications of both concepts — one, a simple fact, and the other, a challenge to authority — gain immense significance by the conclusion of the book.
In the first part of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury uses machine imagery to construct the setting and environment of the book. He introduces Guy Montag, a pyromaniac who took "special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed." He burns books that he hasn't read or even questioned in order to ensure conformity and happiness. Montag has a smile permanently etched on his face; he does not think of the present, the past, or the future. According to his government's views, the only emotion Montag should feel, besides destructive fury, is happiness. He views himself in the mirror after a night of burning and finds himself grinning, and he thinks that all firemen must look like white men masquerading as minstrels, grinning behind their "burnt-corked" masks.
Later, as Montag goes to sleep, he realizes that his smile still grips his face muscles, even in the dark. The language — "fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles" — suggests that his smile is artificial and forced. Soon he will understand that this small bit of truth is an immense truth for himself. At present, Montag seems to enjoy his job as a fireman. He is a "smiling fireman." However, this smile and the later realization of its artificiality foreshadow Montag's eventual dissatisfaction not only with his job but also with his life. Montag smiles, but he is not happy. The smile, just like his "burnt-corked" face, is a mask.
You discover almost immediately (when Montag meets Clarisse McClellan) that he is not happy. By comparing and contrasting the two characters, you can see that Bradbury portrays Clarisse as spontaneous and naturally curious; Montag is insincere and jaded. Clarisse has no rigid daily schedule: Montag is a creature of habit. She speaks to him of the beauties of life, the man in the moon, the early morning dew, and the enjoyment she receives from smelling and looking at things. Montag, however, has never concerned himself with such "insignificant" matters.
Clarisse lives with her mother, father, and uncle; Montag has no family other than his wife, and as you soon discover, his home life is unhappy. Clarisse accepts Montag for what he is; Montag finds Clarisse's peculiarities (that is, her individuality) slightly annoying. "You think too many things," he tells her.
Despite all these differences, the two are attracted to one another. Clarisse's vivacity is infectious, and Montag finds her unusual perspectives about life intriguing. Indeed, she is partly responsible for Montag's change in attitude. She makes Montag think of things that he has never thought of before, and she forces him to consider ideas that he has never contemplated. Moreover, Montag seems to find something in Clarisse that is a long-repressed part of himself: "How like a mirror, too, her face. Impossible; for how many people did you know who refracted your own light to you?"
At the very least, Clarisse awakens in Montag a love and desire to enjoy the simple and innocent things in life. She speaks to him about her delight in letting the rain fall upon her face and into her mouth. Later, Montag, too, turns his head upward into the early November rain in order to catch a mouthful of the cool liquid. In effect, Clarisse, in a very few meetings, exerts a powerful influence on Montag, and he is never able to find happiness in his former life again.
Yet, if the water imagery of this early scene implies rebirth or regeneration, this imagery is also associated with the artificiality of the peoples' lives in the futuristic dystopia of Fahrenheit 451. Each night before she goes to bed, Mildred places small, Seashell Radios into her ears, and the music whisks her away from the dreariness of her everyday reality. As Montag lies in bed, the room seems empty because the waves of sound "came in and bore her [Mildred] off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning." However, the music that Mildred feels is life-giving actually robs her of the knowledge and meaning of life. She has abandoned reality through her use of these tiny technological wonders that instill mindlessness. The Seashell Radios serve as an escape for Millie because they help her avoid thoughts.
Although she would never — or could never — admit it, Millie Montag isn't happy either. Her need for the Seashell Radios in order to sleep is insignificant when measured against her addiction to tranquilizers and sleeping pills. When Millie overdoses on sleeping pills (which Bradbury never fully explains as accidental or suicidal), she is saved by a machine and two machinelike men who don't care whether she lives or dies. This machine, which pumps out a person's stomach and replaces blood with a fresh supply, is used to foil up to ten unexplainable suicide attempts a night — a machine that is very telling of the social climate.
Montag comes to realize that their inability to discuss the suicide attempt suggests the profound estrangement that exists between them. He discovers that their marriage is in shambles. Neither he nor Millie can remember anything about their past together, and Millie is more interested in her three-wall television family. The TV is another means that Mildred uses to escape reality (and, perhaps, her unhappiness with life and with Montag). She neglects Montag and lavishes her attention instead upon her television relatives. The television family that never says or does anything significant, the high-speed abandon with which she drives their car, and even the overdose of sleeping pills are all indicators for Montag that their life together is meaningless.
For Montag, these discoveries are difficult to express; he is only dimly cognizant of his unhappiness — and Millie's — when he has the first incident with the Mechanical Hound. In some sense, the Hound's distrust of Montag — its growl — is a barometer of Montag's growing unhappiness.
Captain Beatty intuitively senses Montag's growing discontent with his life and job. Beatty is an intelligent but ultimately cynical man. He is, paradoxically, well-read and is even willing to allow Montag to have some slight curiosity about what the books contain. However, Beatty, as a defender of the state (one who has compromised his morality for social stability), believes that all intellectual curiosity and hunger for knowledge must be quelled for the good of the state — for conformity. He even allows for the perversion of history as it appears in Firemen of America: "Established, 1790, to burn English-influenced books in the Colonies. First Fireman: Benjamin Franklin. . . " Beatty can tolerate curiosity about books as long as it doesn't affect one's actions. When the curiosity for books begins to affect an individual's conduct and a person's ability to conform — as it does Montag's — the curiosity must be severely punished.
When Montag is called to an unidentified woman's house "in the ancient part of the city," he is amazed to find that the woman will not abandon her home or her books. The woman is clearly a martyr, and her martyrdom profoundly affects Montag. Before she is burned, the woman makes a strange yet significant statement: "Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out." Nicholas Ridley, the Bishop of London in the sixteenth century, was an early martyr for the Protestant faith. He was convicted of heresy and sentenced to burn at the stake with a fellow heretic, Hugh Latimer. Latimer's words to Ridley are the ones that the unidentified woman alludes to before she is set aflame. (Note that a couple visual metaphors for knowledge were traditionally of a woman, sometimes bathed in bright light or holding a burning torch.) Ironically, the woman's words are prophetic; through her own death by fire, Montag's discontent drives him to an investigation of what books really are, what they contain, and what fulfillment they offer.
Montag is unable to understand the change that is taking place within him. With a sickening awareness, he realizes that "[a]lways at night the alarm comes. Never by day! Is it because fire is prettier by night? More spectacle, a better show?" He questions why this particular fire call was such a difficult one to make, and he wonders why his hands seem like separate entities, hiding one of the woman's books under his coat. Her stubborn dignity compels him to discover for himself what is in books.
If Clarisse renews his interest in the sheer excitement of life and Mildred reveals to him the unhappiness of an individual's existence in his society, the martyred woman represents for Montag the power of ideas and, hence, the power of books that his society struggles to suppress.
When Mildred tells Montag that the McClellans moved away because Clarisse died in an automobile accident, Montag's dissatisfaction with his wife, his marriage, his job, and his life intensifies. As he becomes more aware of his unhappiness, he feels even more forced to smile the fraudulent, tight-mouthed smile that he has been wearing. He also realizes that his smile is beginning to fade.
When Montag first entertains the idea of quitting his job for awhile because Millie offers him no sympathetic understanding, he feigns illness and goes to bed. (In all fairness, however, Montag feels sick because he burned the woman alive the night before. His sickness is, so to speak, his conscience weighing upon him.)
Captain Beatty, as noted earlier, has been suspicious of Montag's recent behavior, but he isn't aware of the intellectual and moral changes going on in Montag. However, he recognizes Montag's discontent, so he visits Montag. He tells Montag that books are figments of the imagination. Fire is good because it eliminates the conflicts that books can bring. Montag later concludes that Beatty is actually afraid of books and masks his fear with contempt. In effect, his visit is a warning to Montag not to allow the books to seduce him.
Notice that Beatty repeatedly displays great knowledge of books and reading throughout this section. Obviously, he is using his knowledge to combat and twist the doubts that Montag is experiencing. In fact, Beatty points out that books are meaningless, because man as a creature is satisfied as long as he is entertained and not left uncertain about anything. Books create too much confusion because the intellectual pattern for man is "out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery." Therefore, books disrupt the regular intellectual pattern of man because they lack definitive clarity.
Another interesting point discussed by Beatty in this section is how people view death. While discussing death, Beatty points out, "Ten minutes after death a man's a speck of black dust. Let's not quibble over individuals with memoriums." Beatty, therefore, introduces the idea that death isn't something that people mourn at this time. Also in this discussion between Beatty and Montag, the reader can question whether Clarisse's death was accidental, as Beatty states, "queer ones like her don't happen often. We know how to nip most of them in the bud, early."
The major developments of Part One surround the degenerated future in which books and independent thinking are forbidden. Notice, however, Bradbury's implicit hope and faith in the common man by representing the life of a working-class fireman. Though Montag isn't a man of profound thought or speech, his transformation has occurred through his innate sense of morality and growing awareness of human dignity.
Note, as well, the dual image of fire in its destructive and purifying functions. Although fire is destructive, it also warms; hence, the source of the title of Part One, "The Hearth and the Salamander." Hearth suggests home and the comforting aspect of fire — its ability to warm and cook. In ancient mythology, the salamander was a creature that could survive fire. Possibly Montag himself is represented in the salamander reference. His job dictates that he live in an environment of fire and destruction, but Montag realizes that the salamander is able to remove itself from fire — and survive.
this great python the fire hose, which resembles a great serpent; a key image in the novel that serves as a reminder of Adam and Eve's temptation to disobey God in the Garden of Eden.
451 degrees Fahrenheit the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns.
pigeon-winged books the books come alive and flap their "wings" as they are thrown into the fire. This connection between books and birds continues throughout the text and symbolizes enlightenment through reading.
black beetle-colored helmet in literature, the beetle, with its prominent black horns, is a symbol for Satan. Here, vehicles resemble beetles in the dystopian society.
infinitely lacking limits or bounds; extending beyond measure or comprehension.
salamander a mythological reptile, resembling a lizard, that was said to live in fire. In the concept of nature, the salamander is a visual representation of fire. In mythology, it endures the flames without burning.
phoenix in Egyptian mythology, a lone bird that lives in the Arabian desert for 500 or 600 years and then sets itself on fire, rising renewed from the ashes to start another long life; a symbol of immortality.
Clarisse the girl's name derives from the Latin word for brightest.
Guy Montag his name suggests two significant possibilities — Guy Fawkes, the instigator of a plot to blow up the English Houses of Parliament in 1605, and Montag, a trademark of Mead, an American paper company, which makes stationery and furnaces.
man in the moon the perception of children that the contours of the moon's surface are a face, which peers down at them. The image reflects the oppressive nature of a society that burns books because the man in the moon is always watching them.
mausoleum a large, imposing tomb; often a symbol of death used in literature. Used to describe the interior of Guy's bedroom.
moonstones an opal, or a milky-white feldspar with a pearly luster, used as a gem. The moonstone is connected with Mercury, the mythological guide who leads souls to the underworld.
black cobra the "suction snake" that pumps Mildred's stomach repeats the earlier image of the python; the impersonal handymen who operate it have "eyes of puff adders." The fact that it has an eye suggests a sinister and invasive fiber optic tube that examines the inside of the body's organs and even the soul.
electronic bees futuristic "seashell ear-thimbles" that block out thoughts and supplant them with mindless entertainment.
TV parlor a multidimensional media family that draws the viewer into action, thereby supplanting the viewer's real family.
That's what the lady said snappy stage comeback that Mildred uses in place of normal conversation.
proboscis a tubular organ for sensing; nose or snout.
morphine or procaine a sedative and an anesthetic.
Beatty the fire captain, who "baits" Montag, is well-named.
November 4 the firemen play cards early on Mischief Day (November 4), the eve of Guy Fawkes Day, when bonfires and burning of guys in effigy commemorate his Gunpowder Plot, an abortive attempt to destroy James I and his Protestant supporters, who oppressed Catholics.
Stoneman and Black firemen whose names suggest that the hardness of their hearts and the color of their skin and hair come from contact with smoke.
Benjamin Franklin founder of America's first fire company in Boston in 1736.
Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out! Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, Protestant supporters of the late Queen Jane Grey, were burned at the stake for heresy at Oxford on October 16, 1555. They refused to endorse Queen Mary, a Catholic, claiming that she was an illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII, born after he married his late brother's wife, Catherine of Aragon. Later, Captain Beatty recites the latter portion of the quotation and indicates that he knows something of history.
cricket English slang for fair play; sportsmanship.
Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine from Chapter 1 of Dreamthorp, a collection of essays by Alexander Smith, a Glasgow lacemaker.
Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9, the mythic explanation of how Noah's children came to speak different languages. The word babel means a confusion of voices, languages, or sounds.
centrifuge the sight of being spun in a great gyre delineates Montag's impression of separation from reality.
cacophony harsh, jarring sound; mindless noise.
pratfall slang for a fall on the buttocks, especially one for comic effect, as in burlesque.
automatic reflex Beatty uses this term to describe how people stopped using their brains and began depending on nerve functions that require no thought.
theremin named after Russian inventor Leon Theremin; an early electronic musical instrument whose tone and loudness are controlled by moving the hands in the air between two projecting antennas.
our fingers in the dike an allusion to the legend about the Dutch boy who performed a noble, selfless public service in holding back the sea by keeping his finger in a hole in the dike.
It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end Jonathan Swift illustrates the pettiness of human controversy in Book I, Chapter 4 of Gulliver's Travels. The satire found in Swift's writing emphasizes the absurd extent to which society will go to enforce conformity. When Montag reads this quote to Millie, he is pointing out that people are willing to die rather than conform, even though others may believe their position to be absurd or irrational.