What happens in Fahrenheit 451?

Guy Montag lives in a world where owning books is illegal. As a fireman, it's his job to destroy the books he finds. According to him, paper books start to burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • After an encounter with his new neighbor, the young and free-thinking Clarisse, Montag begins questioning his job. Meanwhile, Montag’s wife Mildred overdoses on sleeping pills, but returns to watching TV after receiving medical attention.

  • Clarisse disappears. Montag steals a book from the home of an old lady who chooses to burn alive rather than forsake her books. Montag's boss, Captain Beatty, explains why books were banned.

  • Mildred turns Montag in. He burns his house and kills Beatty to protect Faber, then escapes as an atomic war begins. He joins a group who memorize books to preserve them.

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(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 2,710 words.)