The first science fiction novel by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 is an early example of a dystopian tale about a future world that is nightmarish rather than hopeful. In its imaginary world, police state “firemen” burn homes containing books, as all books are forbidden by law. The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman who becomes drawn into the world of clandestine book-readers by a woman he meets. Eventually, he joins a group of outcasts trying to preserve literature by committing entire books to memory. While printed matter can be burned, memories cannot be erased.
The novel’s point of view is clearly against censorship. It depicts the general population as living in darkness, with huge television screens dominating their homes and radios constantly blaring in their ears. The authoritarian government has decreed that all writing is subversive, as it is inevitably contradictory and it allows people to become aware of unpleasant aspects of society. Montag’s conversion to reading is significant in that he suddenly finds himself in light rather than darkness. The book’s none-too-subtle message is that reading makes people aware of ideas that may be dangerous to a totalitarian state, but are absolutely necessary for clear thinking.
Although Fahrenheit 451 is intended as a warning, not a prophecy, its anticensorship message has often been cited by opponents of book bannings in the United States.
Like all firemen in the future society of the novel, Montag burns books, which are entirely prohibited. One day, while returning home from work, Montag meets Clarisse, his mysterious young neighbor. Her probing questions cause him to reflect critically on the purpose of his job. When he enters his house, he finds that his wife has taken an overdose of sleeping pills. Montag calls the emergency hospital to have her stomach pumped.
The next day, however, Mildred fails to recollect the event and returns to her usual life of watching mindless television shows. After talking again to Clarisse, Montag returns to the firehouse. There the Mechanical Hound, a dangerous robotic creature used to track suspects, starts acting aggressively toward him. During the following weeks Montag meets Clarisse every day, and they discuss the moral and spiritual emptiness of their society, caused by its obsession with frantic consumption and shallow entertainment. One day, however, Clarisse is suddenly gone. Montag now begins to ask his colleagues questions concerning the historical origins of book-burning. During the next book-burning raid on an old woman’s home, he secretly takes a book. The old woman, rather than submitting to be arrested, sets fire to herself and her books.
At home, Montag feels increasingly alienated from Mildred. While Mildred is watching her favorite shows on the television screens that cover three entire walls, she casually mentions that Clarisse was run over by a car. Montag goes to bed imagining he can hear the Mechanical Hound outside his house.
The next day, Montag feels sick and stays home from work. Shortly afterward, Montag’s boss, Captain Beatty, the fire chief, arrives at his house and starts to explain to him how firemen became book-burners. According to Beatty, the increasing population pressure caused all entertainment to be leveled down to the lowest common denominator. Furthermore, books were censored in order to avoid offending any particular group in society. In the end, the majority of people preferred happiness to critical awareness, and books were entirely banned.
After Beatty leaves the house, Montag confesses his doubts to Mildred and brings out several books he hid in the house. He begins to read to her, but Mildred simply cannot understand his fascination with the printed word. Montag therefore visits Faber, a retired English teacher whom he once caught reading a book. Faber explains to Montag that books offer a rich texture of life, leisurely enjoyment, and freedom to act on one’s ideas—all values despised by the materialistic society around them. Faber believes that the imminent atomic war will soon destroy society. He gives Montag a pair of earphone-transmitters, so that they can stay in permanent radio contact. That night, Mildred’s friends arrive to watch television. Montag shatters their complacency by reading a Matthew Arnold poem, “Dover Beach,” to them and eventually drives them out of the house.
Montag then returns to the firehouse, where Beatty tries to prove the insignificance of books by citing contradictory passages from world literature. The alarm bell rings, and Montag sets off with the team, only to find that Mildred denounced him and the firemen are going to his own house. After Montag uses the flamethrower to burn the hidden books, he accidentally loses the miniature transmitters Faber gave him. When Beatty threatens to trace the owner, Montag kills him with a blast of the flamethrower. He also manages to incinerate the Mechanical Hound, but not before he is injured by it.
While Montag is running for his life, he hears that war is declared. He is almost killed by teenagers in a speeding car but manages to escape and even hide a book in another fireman’s house and call in an alarm in order to distract his pursuers. Finally, he reaches Faber’s apartment. Faber tells him to flee toward the open country, where teachers and writers are living as tramps. After changing his clothes to distract the new Mechanical Hound brought in by the police, Montag makes a final dash for the river.
After floating down the river, Montag meets a group of social outcasts who keep books alive by memorizing them word for word. The book ends with the destruction of the cities by atomic bombs and the hope that civilization, like the mythical Phoenix, will rise again from its ashes. In the meantime, Montag and his newfound friends will remain “living books.”