The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


City. Unnamed urban center in which the protagonist, Guy Montag, lives and works. In this future world, culture is reduced to the lowest common denominator. Montag’s wife, for example, is completely dependent on her wall-sized television screens. Books are banned because they contain contradictory ideas and can confront the comfortable prejudices and ignorance that abounds. Montag himself works as a “fireman”; his job is to burn books as they are discovered hidden in people’s homes. In this world of state-sponsored book-burning, books are not simply carriers of potentially subversive messages—their very physical existence evokes a rich cultural tradition antithetical to the leveling tendencies of the mass media. When Montag discovers the joy of reading, he begins hiding books in his own house. Eventually, his wife reports him to the police, and he is sent to burn out his own house. He flees the city for his life.

Meanwhile, a constant threat of war overhangs the city, and most of its people view with suspicion anyone who lives outside carefully proscribed social boundaries. 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. At the end of the story, the classical allusion to the phoenix is explained by Granger, the leader of the book people. The symbol is appropriate to their mission, he says, because like humankind, “every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up . . . But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again.”


Countryside. The world outside the city contrasts sharply with the urban environment. Ray Bradbury is a romantic writer who often yearns for the simpler, rural life he knew as a child. When Montag is forced to run for his life from the city, the source of all the evils he has come to hate and fear, he escapes to the countryside. His journey ends when he comes upon an old railroad track, a symbol of the long-lost American past. There, he joins a new social group, made up of people who share his beliefs. Its outcast members, who have rejected society’s standards, keep literature alive by memorizing books.


River. Wide stream down which Montag floats until he reaches the community of book people. This river operates as a dividing line between past life and new, signifying a kind of baptism: After he began “floating in the river he knew why he must never burn again in his life.”

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

A Nazi book-burning during the 1930s. Published by Gale Cengage

Book Burnings
Bradbury had a number of recent historical events on which to base Fahrenheit 451 when he wrote...

(The entire section is 1010 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury offers a dark vision of twenty-first-century America. The novel portrays a society where rigid conformity...

(The entire section is 159 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Bradbury has structured Fahrenheit 451 into three parts which parallel the stages of Montag's...

(The entire section is 650 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Bradbury was for years science fiction's premier literary stylist, and although his heavy use of adjectives and metaphors can seem cloying...

(The entire section is 216 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Bradbury was for years science fiction's premier literary stylist, and although his heavy use of adjectives and metaphors can seem cloying...

(The entire section is 310 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The title Fahrenheit 451 represents the temperature at which paper burns. Based on a 1951 short story, "The Fireman," the novel depicts a...

(The entire section is 511 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In Fahrenheit 451 Bradbury offers a dark vision of twenty-first-century America. The novel portrays a society where rigid conformity is...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1950s: During the McCarthy hearings, artists and writers lost their jobs for their politically liberal and left-wing...

(The entire section is 239 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Pretend that you are a member of the band of book memorizers that appears at the end of the novel. Which book would you choose to become?...

(The entire section is 121 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Research Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade of the early 1950s, and write a paper discussing how it may have influenced...

(The entire section is 214 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Research the history of book burning in Nazi Germany the censorship of books in the Soviet Union, the banned book index of the Catholic...

(The entire section is 159 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Fahrenheit 451 is set solidly within the tradition of dystopian literature as exemplified by such works as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World...

(The entire section is 94 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Colmer, John. "Science Fiction," in Coleridge to Catch-22. St. Martin's Press, 1978, pp. 197-209....

(The entire section is 457 words.)


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Greenberg, Martin Henry, and Joseph D. Olander, eds. Ray Bradbury. New York: Taplinger, 1980 . This collection contains several essays discussing aspects of Fahrenheit 451. Extensive bibliography.

Johnson, Wayne L. Ray Bradbury. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Deals with central themes related to science fiction and fantasy in Bradbury’s works.

Mogen, David. Ray Bradbury. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Provides biographical background as well as analyses of major works. Sees Fahrenheit 451 as satire of the McCarthyism of the 1950’s, as well as a general attack on totalitarianism.

Spencer, Susan. “The Post-Apocalyptic Library: Oral and Literate Culture in Fahrenheit 451 and A Canticle for Leibowitz.” Extrapolation 32, no. 4 (Winter, 1991): 331-342. Contrasts Bradbury’s more positive view of cultural development with the pessimistic historical determinism of Walter Miller’s post-doomsday novel.

Touponce, William F. Ray Bradbury and the Poetics of Reverie: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the Reader. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. Applies reader-response theories to Bradbury’s works. Focuses on Fahrenheit 451 as a critique of technological rationalism and the contemporary culture industry.

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Director Francois Truffaut's version of Fahrenheit 451 (1966) is the finest film adaptation of a Bradbury story to date. Starring...

(The entire section is 55 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • Fahrenheit 451 was adapted as a film by the French director Francois Truffaut in 1966. It starred Oskar Werner as Montag,...

(The entire section is 116 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

(The entire section is 483 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Greenberg, Martin Harry, and Joseph D. Olander, eds. Ray Bradbury. Writers of the Twenty-First Century Series. New York: Taplinger,...

(The entire section is 66 words.)