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Guy Montag is one of many firemen in charge of burning books in a future version of the United States where books are illegal. The novel starts off with a concise description of the joy he experiences while on the job of burning books. In the book, he is described as wearing a helmet with the number 451 (the heat at which paper burns, thus giving the reason for the name of the book), a dark black suit with a salamander on the arm, and a “phoenix disc” on his torso.
Coming home from his work at the fire station, he feels a sense of nervousness. He gets a sense that somebody is around him or watching him in the shadows. This is when he meets a new neighbor. A very unusual 17-year-old by the name of Clarisse McClellan. She instantly sees that Montag is a fireman and seems very interested in him and his suit. Clarisse tells Montag that she is considered “crazy” and proceeds to tell Montag that she thinks the original job of firemen was to douse and extinguish fires instead of lighting them.
She intrigues him with her strange “left-field” questions, unusual lifestyle, and “incredible power of identification.” She asks him if he is content with his life and then Clarisse walks into her house without hearing Montag’s response. Inquiring the imbecilic question, Montag says he is a little bit concerned because normally he doesn’t talk about his personal life with strangers.
When he returns to his house, he realizes that he is not happy with his life. Montag keeps feeling uneasy when he gets to bed. He sees his wife Mildred listening to her favorite radio show “Seashells”. Montag accidentally kicks over an empty bottle of sleeping pills, realizing his wife had overdosed on the pills, and he calls an ambulance. Just as he does this, a squad of jet bombers drops bombs and shakes the house immensely. The ambulance arrives, and two very cynical workers show up with a snake-like machine to pump Mildred’s stomach. Montag ponders upon the question he was asked by Clarisse and all the events that had happened. He feels terribly dazed as he takes a sleeping pill and dozes off.
The next day, Montag tries to talk to Mildred about her attempted overdose the night before. Mildred says she has no memory of her attempted suicide. When Montag asks about it he gets completely shot down by his wife. Instead, she insists on talking about the plot of the television programs that she watches. As he is not interested in the conversation, Montag leaves for work.
When he gets outside, he sees Clarisse having fun in the rain. She runs a dandelion across her chin and explains to Montag that if any pollen rubs off she is in love. Then, she rubs the dandelion on Montag’s chin but to his embarrassment, no pollen rubs off at all. After this, Clarisse asks Montag why he chose to become a fireman in the first place. Clarisse says that he is not like any of the other firemen she has met before. Montag tells Clarisse that she should go to her therapist that she was assigned by the authorities because of her “lack of sociability”, and for her apparently dangerous motive towards independent thought.
Once Montag reaches his work at the fire station, he reaches into pet a mechanical hound, but, to his surprise, it growls at him and threatens him. Montag immediately reports this phenomenon to his captain, Captain Beatty. He is concerned it could be a murder plot because the exact same event has happened twice before in this month. After this, the other firemen tease him and say that a fireman in Seattle had committed suicide by setting the trigger for the mechanical hound to his own chemical complex. Beatty tells Montag that the hound will be checked out and assures him that the problem won’t happen again.
Over the next week, Montag sees Clarisse outside of his house going to and coming from work every day. Clarisse asks Montag why he never had children of his own with his wife and she also explains why she decided to stop going to school. On the eighth day, he did not see Clarisse outside of his house and when he got to the fire station, he asks captain Beatty what happened to the man whose library they burned down. Beatty then says how the man was sent to an asylum for the clinically insane. Montag then asks if the firemen were ever deployed to extinguish fires. The other firemen show him a handbook where they were established in the 1790’s to burn English-influenced books. Then, the alarm is sounded, and they head off to an old rickety house owned by an old woman. The old woman has pushed aside so they can get to the books. One book falls into Montag’s hand and he decides to quickly hide it under his coat. Even after they drench the books with kerosene, the woman stands her ground and doesn’t leave. Beatty begins to flame up the house, but Montag stops to try and help the old woman leave quietly. She insists on refusing, and as Montag leaves, she lights the fire herself burning her and the house down. All the firemen are very quiet on the drive home to the station.
Montag goes home and hides the book he has under his pillow. Montag tells Mildred that he has not seen Clarisse for about four days. He asks Mildred if she knows anything about her recent disappearance, and Mildred says she believes that she was killed in a car crash.
Montag wakes up very sick, he smells kerosene and he throws up. Montag tells Mildred about the old woman’s house the night before and asks her if its okay if he gave up his job for a while. He tries to explain to Mildred that he is guilty of burning all the books and the old lady’s house, but Mildred does not want to listen. He attempts to talk with Mildred about how it really bothers him and asks her when she was last bothered by something. The argument ends when they see Captain Beatty coming up the front walk.
Captain Beatty comes by to check on Montag, saying that he guessed Montag would be calling in sick that day. He tells Montag that every fireman runs into the “problem” he has been experiencing sooner or later, and he relates to him the history of their profession. Beatty’s monologue borders on the hysterical, and his tendency to jump from one thing to another without explaining the connection makes his history very hard to follow. Part of the story is that photography, film, and television made it possible to present information in a quickly digestible, visual form, which made the slower, more reflective practice of reading books less popular. Another strand of his argument is that the spread of literacy, and the gigantic increase in the number of published materials, created pressure for books to be more like one another and easier to read (like Reader’s Digest condensed books). Finally, Beatty says that “minorities” and special-interest groups found so many things in books objectionable that people finally abandoned debate and started burning books.
Mildred’s attention falters while Beatty is talking, and she gets up and begins absentmindedly straightening the room. In doing so, she finds the book behind Montag’s pillow and tries to call attention to it, but Montag screams at her to sit down. Beatty pretends not to notice and goes on talking. He explains that eventually the public’s demand for uncontroversial, easy pleasure caused printed matter to be diluted to the point that only comic books, trade journals, and sex magazines remained. Beatty explains that after all houses were fireproofed, the firemen’s job changed from its old purpose of preventing fires to its new mission of burning the books that could allow one person to excel intellectually, spiritually, and practically over others and so make everyone else feel inferior. Montag asks how someone like Clarisse could exist, and Beatty says the firemen have been keeping an eye on her family because they worked against the schools’ system of homogenization. Beatty reveals that he has had a file on the McClellan’s families’ odd behaviors for years and says that Clarisse is better off dead.
Beatty urges Montag not to overlook how important he and his fellow firemen are to the happiness of the world. He tells him that every fireman sooner or later becomes curious about books; because he has read some himself, he can assert that they are useless and contradictory. Montag asks what would happen if a fireman accidentally took a book home with him, and Beatty says that he would be allowed to keep it for twenty-four or forty-eight hours, but that the other firemen would then come to burn it if he had not already done so himself. Beatty gets up to leave and asks if Montag will come into work later. Montag tells him that he may, but he secretly resolves never to go again.
After Beatty leaves, Montag tells Mildred that he no longer wants to work at the fire station and shows her a secret stock of about twenty books he has been hiding in the ventilator. In a panic, she tries to burn them, but he stops her. He wants to look at them at least once, and he needs her help. He searches for a reason for his unhappiness in the books, which he has apparently been stealing for some time. Mildred is frightened of them, but Montag is determined to involve her in his search, and he asks for forty-eight hours of support from her to look through the books in hopes of finding something valuable that they can share with others. Someone comes to the door, but they do not answer, and he goes away. (Later it is revealed that the Mechanical Hound was the second visitor.) Montag picks up a copy of Gulliver’s Travels and begins reading.
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