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In the introduction to Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury states his purpose for writing his novel:
This is a book of warning. It is a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted.
With this purpose in mind, the reader should read this novel as a cautionary text, Bradbury advises.
Montag, the main character, at first delights in his job as a fireman. He burns books, and this act of destruction is one that he finds creative. However, this mentality is challenged after he meets a pedestrian named Clarisse McLellan, who enjoys sensory experiences such as smelling things and looking at things such as the sunrise. When Montag laughs at her, she questions him,
"Why are you laughing?....You laugh when I haven't been funny and you answer right off. You never stop to think what I've asked you."
She tells Montag that she does not watch the "parlor walls" or do any of the other things that people usually do. Soon, Montag reaches his house; when he goes inside, he reflects on his strange meeting with a girl who has had a tremendous impact upon him. For, her face has seemed to absorb his "own innermost trembling thought." Now Montag realizes that he really is not happy.
Once inside his house, Montag senses a coldness in his home, and discovers that his wife Mildred has overdosed. So, Montag must call the hospital. Soon, men "with the cigarettes in their straight-lined mouths, arrive with two machines that clean the stomach and the blood." The men routinely perform their functions and then depart.
Afterwards, Montag considers, "There are too many of us....Nobody knows anyone. Strangers come and cut your heart out.... and take your blood." Montag wishes that Mildred's brain could also be "reblocked." As he ponders these ideas, Montag hears genuine laughter from the house of Clarisse and her parents. He returns inside his still house. "I don't know anything anymore," he says and takes a sleep lozenge.
The next morning, Mildred is up before Montag and remembers nothing of what happened the day before. When Montag tells her that she took all the pills in her bottle, Mildred asks, "...what would I want to go and do a silly thing like that for?" Excitedly, then, she tells Montag about a play that comes on the screens in the living room with which she can interact. When he asks Mildred what the play is about, she says vapidly,
"I just told you. There are these people names Bob and Ruth and Helen."
In contrast, Clarisse approaches Montag on his way to work and tells him she enjoys walking in the rain and picking the dandelions and rubbing them under her chin in a childish habit. "If it rubs off, it means I'm in love. Has it?" she asks Montag. Then she rubs Montag's chin, and nothing comes off. "You're not in love with anyone," Clarisse says, but Montag protests. Then, Clarisse tells him she is being made to see a psychiatrist. Further, she tells Montag that his being a fireman does not seem right for him. Clarisse then hurries off to her appointment; Montag tilts his head back in the rain as the girl has done.
Clearly, his conversations with Clarisse have an effect upon Montag. Perhaps, the Mechanical Hound senses something different because it growls at Montag as he lies in his bunk at the firehouse. But, Captain Beatty and other men enjoy how it chases rats and cats and eats them. But, Montag tells the captain that the Hound has threatened him. Beatty laughs, "It doesn't think anything we don't want it to think....Why? You got a guilty conscience about something?" (Montag has books hidden at home, and he has let a phrase--"Once upon a time"--slip from his lips in the firehouse.)
Montag has come to enjoy his conversations with Clarisse. She assesses their society by pointing out how no one asks questions; teachers just funnel ideas into their heads, and young people either bully people around, break window panes in the Window Smasher or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with a large steel ball. Further, Clarisse tells Montag that she is afraid of children her age because they kill each other; at any rate, they do not talk about anything of significance, and they engage in dangerous activities.
And, then, a week later, Clarisse disappears. Now his neighborhood seems so empty. One day at the firehouse as the men play cards, Montag realizes that the men are all mirror images of himself. Then, he asks Beatty about the man whose library they burned; he is told the man was taken to the asylum. Montag objects, "He wasn't insane." But, Beatty replies that any man who challenges the government is insane. With this the men disperse on a call.
The call is to a flaking thee-story house in the old part of the city, where a woman has a tremendous collection of books. She repeats the words of Hugh Latimer, a British clergyman, who speaks to his friend as they are burned as heretics.
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.”
Several books pour down upon Montag, and he grabs some in "wild devotion." The woman refuses to leave her books, books that stand "in accusation." As the firemen try to pull her away, she tells them they cannot have her books. Then, she lights a kitchen match and the house bursts into flame.
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