Fahrenheit 451 is divided into three parts, each with its own title. Part I is titled The Hearth and the Salamander. The overriding symbol in this section is of the salamander that lives through fire. In this section, the setting, the conflict, and most of the key characters are introduced. At the end of the section, Clarisse asks Montag the all-important question, Are you happy? Montag will spend the rest of the novel dealing with his unhappiness and trying to fix it. The conflict is, therefore, clearly delineated in this first section.
Part II is devoted to the rising action of the plot and is appropriately entitled The Sieve and the Sand. The symbol in this section comes in a flashback to Montag's childhood, when he was challenged to try and fill a sieve with sand. He was too young to understand the total futility of his efforts, but continued to try until frustration got the best of him. Throughout this section, Montag again feels like he is trying to fill a sieve with sand. He realizes the futility of the society in which he lives and the vapid nature of his existence and he becomes very frustrated that he can do nothing about it. The sieve and the sand also refer to society, which, like a sieve, is unable to retain or truly appreciate knowledge; as fast as they put knowledge into the sieve, they allow it to uselessly flow out.
Part III contains the climax and conclusion of the plot and is appropriately entitled Burning Bright, from the title of a William Blake poem. In the poem, the tiger burns bright as it symbolizes rampant evil in the world. In Fahrenheit 451, the world is clearly evil, and throughout the book, it seems to be burning bright. In fact, fire and burning are the most used images and symbols in the book. The firemen no longer put out fires, but start them by burning books; Clarisse puts a burning question into Montag's thoughts, causing him to question being a fireman; Montag is called to burn his own house; to protect himself, Montag burns Beatty to death; when Montag escapes, he finds the exiles sitting by the fire; when the bombs are dropped on the city, it is literally on fire. But in the book the fire has a dual purpose - both good and bad. Although it is used by the totalitarian society as a destructive force, the intellectuals believe that the fire in the city has purged the society of its evil; they believe it can rise like a phoenix out of its own ashes. At the end of the book, the group of exiles walks towards the burned out city to rebuild a new and free society, where books are treasured and ideas are shared.
The plot ends in tragedy with one small, comic hope at the end. The
protagonist, Montag, fights the repressive society throughout the book.
In the process, he loses Clarisse (who is killed in a car wreck), Mildred
(his wife who turns him in and then deserts him), his home (which is burned
on the instruction of Beatty), his safety (which is threatened by the
Mechanical Hound after he murders Beatty), his leg (which is seriously
injured by the Hound), and his city (which is destroyed by bombs). In
spite of all these tragedies, Montag is determined to survive and help
to build a new and free society. At the end of the plot, he and the exiled
intellectuals walk toward the city, still aflame from the bombing. This
ending image is the one small ray of hope in the entire book; perhaps
the fire has purged the evil, and Montag will be able to build a better
society built on freedom.
Throughout the book, the key themes of conformity, apathy, stagnancy and censorship are shown in a variety of ways. Beatty and Mildred, both symbols of the totalitarian system, live vapid, meaningless lives and cannot escape. At first, Montag is also caught in the system, but his mind still longs for knowledge. He is completely intrigued by Clarisse, a symbol of nonconformity and free thought and a total contrast to Mildred; she challenges him to look at his own life and give it more meaning. As a result, he rejects the life of conformity, apathy, stagnancy, and censorship demanded by society. In its place, he begins to think independently, seek knowledge, steal, hide, and read books, hate his job, confront his wife's indifference, and eventually kill Beatty. In truth, the entire text of Fahrenheit 451 is a discourse in theme.
The one positive message of the novel is that society can and will rejuvenate
itself, no matter what state it has fallen into. Montag represents the
common man who finds it in himself to seek the truth no matter what obstacles
are in his way. Man is a cousin to the phoenix, as Granger says, and will
rise again from the ashes. Man creates the fire that will consume him,
but he also manages to be born again out of the fire, ready to begin anew.