It is ironic that in 1953, an asbestos edition of the novel, which describes a terrifying, censorship-obsessed society that burns books, was published. Ironic too is that in the 1980’s, Ray Bradbury found that the publisher had, through the years, silently censored from his original text seventy-five sections of Fahrenheit 451. Stories published in the 1953 edition are omitted from most later editions.
Fahrenheit 451, which takes its title from the temperature at which paper burns, takes place in a sterile, futuristic society in which firemen burn books because the State has decided that books make people unhappy. Suspected readers are arrested. Instead of reading, people listen to “seashells,” tiny radios that fit in the ear, and watch insipid television shows projected on wall-to-wall screens. In school, students play sports and learn nothing. Fast driving is encouraged, and pedestrians are arrested. Indiscriminate drug use, suicide, overpopulation, and war are rampant.
In this world lives Guy Montag, the main character, who smilingly and unquestioningly accepts his job as a fireman. Guy’s wife, Mildred, watches endless hours of television and overdoses on narcotics. Early in the novel, a young neighbor, Clarisse, shocks Guy by asking whether he ever reads the books he burns and whether he is happy. Although she is later killed by a hit-and-run driver, Clarisse is the catalyst through which Guy begins to evaluate his life and career, and finally the society he supports. Clarisse and Mildred are foils: Clarisse’s thinking and questioning is a threat to the State, whereas Mildred’s zombielike addiction to television and pills makes her the personification of this society.
Guy’s reeducation continues when he is deeply moved by the self-immolation of an old woman who chooses to die with her books rather than be separated from them. It is at this point, early in the novel, that Guy secretly takes and reads one of the old woman’s books to satisfy his curiosity.
Captain Beatty, Guy’s supervisor and a master at brainwashing, rewrites history to say that firemen have always set fires and reading has always been forbidden. Beatty explains the State’s philosophy that humans need only entertainment, not the insights, uncertainty, self-reflection, and occasional sadness provided by books. Beatty explains that in order to achieve societal equality and happiness, people should not be given two sides of an issue or books to debate, think about, or question. He insists that because some people dislike certain books, all books should be burned to ensure everyone’s happiness.
Guy’s increasing inner numbness draws him closer to reading books. It also draws him to Faber, a retired professor of English. Faber, a foil to Beatty, explains to Guy that what is contained in books gives life depth and meaning. Books can present a higher quality of information as well as the time to think about and then act on that information.
After Guy reads aloud to Mildred and her friends Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” a poem about the erosion of faith, they turn him in to the police for breaking the law. When Beatty and the firemen arrive at the Montags’ house, Guy kills Beatty. He escapes to a remote colony of intellectuals, one of several such groups that live in the woods. Group members have memorized and therefore “become” books. They recite their books, thereby passing on their knowledge to their children, who will await the rebirth of a literate civilization. The novel ends with a quotation from the last chapter of the Bible and the guarded optimism that the antiliterate State will soon self-destruct and a new, cultured society will rise from the ashes.