What is a short summary of Fahrenheit 451?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The first of Bradbury's science fiction novels, Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, not long after the German Nazi burning of books and the Russian Communist rewriting of history. It is a tale of a dystopian society in which people become desensitized, distanced from one another, devoid of real emotion, irresponsible, and alienated.

The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman, charged with the burning of books because they cause dissent and conflict. Montag derives some satisfaction from his job, but when he meets an ebullient girl named Clarisse McClellan, Montag finds his beliefs and dispassionate life in question. He is further shaken from his complacency when he discovers his wife Mildred near death from an overdose of sleeping pills. After she is saved by a stoic emergency crew, Mildred has no memory of having taken the pills or why she wanted them.

One day as Montag is sent on a burning assignment, he is startled by the woman who chooses to burn along with her many beloved books. When books tumble through the air, impulsively Montag catches one, brings it home, and hides it. He tries to communicate with Mildred; however, she has no interest in what has become of Clarisse, nor does she feel any sympathy for the woman who died with her books. The next day, Montag stays home sick, and again tries to reach Mildred. When Beatty visits Montag, he tells Montag that firemen are allowed to keep books for twenty-four hours without reprisals. But, afterwards, the Mechanical Hound is outside sniffing. Montag confides in Mildred that he has books and he wants to read them to discover if they have value, something that can revive their lives. If not, they will burn them, he tells her, but Mildred is distressed by this news.

Montag contacts a professor named Faber that he once met and asks for help in understanding books. When he attempts to engage Mildred and her friends by reading "Dover Beach" to them, one friend leaves in a hysterical fit, then Mildred locks herself in the bathroom and ingests more sleeping pills. Worried about being found out, Montag buries his books in his yard. On another day at the firehouse Beatty makes Montag hand over the Bible he has kept on him; Beatty carelessly tosses it in the fire even though he has demonstrated a tremendous recall of many works of literature. Then, the firemen respond to a call and to Montag's surprise, it is his house which must be burned--Mildred has turned him in. With his flamethrower Montag sets Beatty afire, and he flees, despite being injected with a tranquilizer by the Hound.

Now Montag knows he is alone, so he travels to Faber's house, persuading him to help him. Faber tells Montag about a group of bibliophiles who hide in the countryside. Montag leaves and escapes the manhunt for him by floating downstream to the site of the book-lovers led by a man named Granger. Later they learn that "Montag" has been captured--the government finds a sacrificial victim to serve their propaganda--and another war has begun. After the destruction, Granger and the others return to the city where all are dead and everything is in ruins with the intention of rebuilding society.