(Note: The novel is divided into three parts. There are no chapters
within the parts. For the purpose of commentary and comprehension in this study guide, we have separated the parts into sections based on the major actions or events that occur. These sections
are not noted in the novel, nor are they intended to suggest the novel
should have been arranged so. Instead, the author of this guide has given
suggested section headings within each part to facilitate better understanding
of the major events taking place in that section.)
The main character, Montag, is a fireman in the 24th century. His job is not to put out fires, but to start them in the homes of people who have defied the laws by owning and reading books. At the start of the novel, Montag finds it extremely pleasurable to watch the fires spouting forth from the nozzle of his hose and see the house in front of him being razed by flames. He feels proud to be doing the work of his dictatorial state.
After fighting the fire, Montag returns to the station, hangs up his helmet and walks out into the night towards his home. On the way, he feels strange, as if someone is “faintly breathing near him.” He turns the corner and runs into his new neighbor, Clarisse McClellan. She is a lovely young girl and Montag is enthralled by her presence. She walks the rest of the way with him and questions him about his job. She whimsically reminds him that firemen of old used to put out fires rather than start them. Her strange and unfamiliar way of talking about the laws makes Montag uneasy. He feels she is too free-spirited, questioning the society as it exists. In contrast to Clarisse’s easy pleasantness, Montag is jaded and accepting of the status quo of things.
When they reach Clarisse’s house, which is next door to Montag’s, he
bids her a warm good-bye. Clarisse runs toward her door, but comes back
after a moment. She asks Montag, “Are you happy?” Without waiting for
his answer, she disappears into her house.
From the opening of the novel, the setting and tone are established as eerily futuristic. Firemen no longer are needed to put out fires, for all the homes are sheeted with inflammable materials; as a result, there is never an opportunity to put out the fire in a burning building, to rescue possessions, or to save lives. Instead, the job of firemen is now to set fire to the homes of “criminals” who have dared to defy the government and possess books. Montag, the protagonist of the novel, is a fireman. At the beginning of the book, he relishes his job of destruction, grinning wildly as flames consume the home of a criminal. He feels honored to be part of a team of men who insure that there are no books in existence. The government does not allow them, for it does not want individuals to think on their own or become wiser than the next citizen. Bradbury’s main theme in the novel becomes immediately apparent. The entire story will be about the destructive force of censorship, even though the practice is never called by its name.
Montag is one of multitude of firemen who are responsible for property destruction; in the book, he becomes a sort of everyman who unthinkingly does his duty and has even learned to find macabre pleasure in his powers of destruction. He has worked at his same job for ten years, never questioning the evil of what he does. Significantly, his helmet is number 451; this number assumes symbolic importance in the novel since it is also the temperature at which most paper burns.
Montag’s life is changed by his new next-door neighbor, a seventeen-year old girl named Clarisse McClellan. One night on the way home from work, he chances to run into her and they walk on together. He is amazed at her free spirit and her questioning of governmental authority. Clarisse has no qualms about expressing her opinions, even when they are radical and revolutionary. She talks about the feel of the green grass underfoot and the smell of the pink flowers, things that Montag has never noticed. It is obvious to him that she is a free thinker and an individual. From their first encounter, she fully challenges Montag. She asks him the simple question, “Are you happy?” These three words set off a volley of doubts and queries in Montag’s mind.
In the past, Montag has always been content with his job and his life;
but Clarisse’s question makes him realize that he has never been happy
like she seems to be. As a result, this young teenager becomes the catalyst
for Montag’s self-realization. From this point forward in the novel, he
will question his purpose and involvement in life.
Montag enters his house with Clarisse’s question hanging in the air about him; he simply cannot get it off his mind or stop thinking about the answer. He realizes with a sense of growing defeat that he indeed is not happy. To add to his misery, he hears the warplanes overhead and thinks about the political situation; war seems inevitable and imminent.
Before entering the bedroom, Montag imagines Mildred, his wife, lying on the bed like a cold statue with thimble-sized radios clamped on her ears. Every night, she listens to music and falls into a deep sleep. Once inside the room, he sees that Mildred is already asleep with the aid of her sleeping pills and her music. Montag thinks about how distant he and she are from one another. As he turns toward his own bed, he nearly trips on an object in the floor. Using his igniter, he sees that it is an empty crystal bottle that had earlier held sleeping tablets. It is obvious that Millie has overdosed. Montag feels for the telephone and calls the emergency hospital. At once, orderlies come to his house with stomach pumps; they clean out her stomach and transfuse fresh blood into her bloodstream.
Montag sits beside his wife, watching the new blood take effect. He
suddenly hears laughter from Clarisse’s house and goes outside to eavesdrop.
He hears a voice, probably that of her uncle; he is talking about the
past when men used one another without any qualms. Montag returns home
and tries to sleep; but his mind is buzzing with thoughts of Mildred,
Clarisse, her uncle, the sleeping tablets, and fire. He finally takes
a sleeping tablet himself and slides into a deep slumber.
This section has Montag coming face to face with his own empty world. First Clarisse upsets him with her fresh opinions, unconventional thoughts, and probing question, all of which make him face his own dull conventionality and dissatisfaction. Entering his dark home, he sees his distant wife, who is in a deep sleep, thanks to her sleeping pills. When he realizes that she has overdosed, he feels himself being torn apart. Adding to his misery is the awful sound of two jet bombers flying overhead, reminding him that war is imminent.
Montag calls the emergency hospital for help. Emergency technicians quickly
invade his house to save Mildred; they show no courtesy or concern, but
immediately go to work. It is a frightening scene; the machines that pump
Mildred’s stomach are enormous. One with a huge tube looks like a “black
cobra;” as it crawls inside Mildred, its “eye” seems capable of gazing
into her soul. After reviving their patient, the two orderlies deliver
the terrifying news that overdoses are very common in this futuristic
society; they are always on call to handle such situations. The sense
of foreboding in the scene is overwhelming.
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