The dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 written by the famous fiction writer Ray Bradbury in 1953 tells the story of a 30-year-old fireman, Guy Montag. In the beginning, he is a loyal servant of a consumerist society that was encumbered by heavy censorship and a pending war. After a sequence of events, he seeks ways to break free of it. Bradbury shows how horrible a society can become when it denies the necessities of imagination and true communication and sticks, instead, to material goods alone (Longman 365).
Montag being a fireman in Bradbury’s novel, however, does not mean extinguishing burning materials, but rather setting things on fire. Mostly, this relates to books, which are prohibited in Montag’s America. As described by Bradbury, firemen serve as a futuristic analogue of the medieval inquisition, which burns books and sometimes their owners as well. Montag never questions the norms adopted by the society in which he lives—he simply does his job.
One evening, as he returns home from work, he suddenly sees a strange girl following him. When they start talking, the fireman notices that this girl, Clarisse, is different from her peers. She asks him questions that make him anxious, and does not behave the way people in his world usually do. Unlike them, she is a romantic, and lonely. As they are saying goodbye, Clarisse asks Montag if he is happy, but he cannot give an unequivocal answer. Montag goes home, opens the door, and in the darkness of his apartment, attempts to deal with a surge of emotions. Suddenly, he comes to the conclusion that his entire life up to this moment was a kind of a mechanical existence.
When Montag goes into his bedroom, he sees his wife Mildred lying unconscious in bed with her eyes wide open. She had swallowed too many sleeping pills, though the story is not clear whether it was on purpose or an accident. During recent years, Montag and Mildred have not been too close, each of them were simply living their own lives. Mildred is completely immersed in sitcoms, which are broadcasted through special “parlor walls” that are three TV-screens that substitute for normal walls. Montag simply goes to work, returns home, and then falls asleep. Despite their marriage having become fiction a long time ago, Montag is still worried about his wife and calls for an ambulance. Bradbury emphasizes that in this world, incidents like this overdose have become so regular that a special machine for rapid blood transfusions has been invented. Handymen, not doctors, equipped with these machines come quickly do their job, and leave. Mildred is saved, but the next morning, when Montag asks her why she took so many pills, she denies that she could perform an act deemed as suicidal. She suggests that perhaps she had had too much to drink at a party last night.
Further communication with Clarisse gradually changes Montag’s outlook. He starts noticing aspects of life he never noticed before, and begins to do simple but spontaneous actions like tasting the rain and laughing. Clarisse tells him about herself and about her visits to a psychiatrist. Bradbury manages to show in a couple of brief words how acts that are perceived as normal by the reader are misperceived as abnormal in Montag’s world of absolute consumerism and shallow entertainment. “The psychiatrist wants to know why I go out and hike around in the forests and watch the birds and collect butterflies,” Clarisse says to Montag (Bradbury 34). When she disappears, her whereabouts are unknown to him for a period of time.
Events start to change even faster when Montag’s fire brigade goes on a call to burn a house where lots of books are being stored. During the search, Montag unexpectedly finds a book and hides it. He hears a noise and goes to see what it is about. An old lady, living in this house, refuses to abandon it. When the firemen threaten to burn down the place, Montag is the only one who asks her to leave. He even tries to take her from the residence, but she only thanks him, stands in a middle of a kitchen doused with kerosene, and strikes a match.
At home, Montag is shocked to find out from Mildred that Clarisse is dead: she has been run down by a speeding car a couple of days ago. After the accident, Clarisse’s family moved. The next day, Montag feels sick. He cannot even make himself get up and go to work, so his fire chief, captain Beatty, comes to visit him. Beatty tells him the story of how firemen started burning materials instead of extinguishing them. He emphasizes the harm books may inflict. According to Beatty, books make people think, and people who think always differ from those who do not. He believes minorities should be merged into one and personal differences must be smoothed. “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man is the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?” Beatty asks (Bradbury 212).
Through Beatty’s words, the reader comes to understand the significant role firemen in this society assume. “They were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior; official censors, judges, and executors. That’s you, Montag, and that’s me” (Bradbury 213). During this speech, while fixing Montag’s pillow, Mildred finds a book hidden underneath it. She shows it to Beatty, but he says that it is a common happening among firemen to become interested in the materials they usually burn. He gives Montag 24 hours to burn the book or it will be done by the fire department.
Montag understands what Beatty tried to tell him, but it is too late for him to quit. He thinks books might have the answers that could save this ignorant, apathetic society he lives in—so he starts to look for people who share his new outlook. He suddenly remembers and contacts Faber: an old, former English professor. The fireman gives the professor the book, the New Testament, perhaps the last correct version of it on the entire continent. It contains the actual and undisturbed word of God, not the one where Jesus advertises goods and products. Faber explains to Montag the importance of literature, its role in shaping one’s outlook, and its meaning for humanity. They establish a constant link with the help of a small transmitter, which Montag plugs into his ear. Now he can hear the professor and uses his guidance, and Faber can receive information about what is going on outside his house.
A bit confused by all this new knowledge, Montag returns home where Mildred is hosting guests. Despite Faber’s warnings, Montag makes an attempt to awaken the consciousness of his wife and her friends by reading them some poetry. They understand nothing. The next day, when Montag comes to the firehouse, captain Beatty informs him about an urgent call. Though Montag does not know it, Mildred has informed the firemen that her husband is keeping books at home. The fire brigade drives through the whole city, then finally stops near Montag’s house. Beatty orders Montag to burn the place down with his own hands.
After Montag disobeys, Beatty taunts him. He then discovers the transmitter that Faber gave to Montag. He plans to deal with the professor as well, but Montag suddenly points his flamethrower towards Beatty and pushes the trigger, burning him alive. Montag then fights the firehouse’s mechanical dog: a robot designed to hunt down and kill runaways. Montag burns it with his flamethrower, but before it malfunctions, the hound manages to bite him. In despair, Montag runs to Faber’s place, where they see on TV that Montag has become the target of a manhunt. Another mechanical hound is after him. Bradbury describes how this dramatic, tragic hounding of a man is transformed into another entertainment for this hedonistic, blasé society. Helicopters, with TV-operators on board, fly over the city, providing the middlebrows sitting in front of their monitors a nerve-tickling spectacle.
Faber instructs Montag to run away from the city and seek out a group of enthusiasts, who had quit living in the consumerist society and memorized books, or parts of books, in order to keep them from vanishing. Montag manages to knock the hound of his scent by crossing a river and escapes. Once more Bradbury manages to convey a lot of emotions with only a few words. In order to satisfy the TV-audience, a random victim is chosen instead of Montag. As hundreds of thousands of people all over the country watch, a robot immerses a poisonous needle into the body of an innocent victim.
When Montag finally gets out of the city, jet bombers fly over it and drop atomic bombs, totally destroying the place where Montag has spent his whole life. He is lucky enough to find the people Faber was talking about—a group of exiles led by a man named Granger. Montag finds out every person in the group, in addition to a real name, has the name of a book they have memorized. After they talk and eat, Granger’s group, together with Montag, sets forth toward the ruins of the city to help rebuild a new society.
Longman, Barbara. Dystopian at Its Best. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Saddle Brush Press, 2011. Print.
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Writing a Summary Essay
Guy Montag is a fireman who burns books in a futuristic American city. In Montag’s world, firemen start fires rather than putting them out. The people in this society do not read books, enjoy nature, spend time by themselves, think independently, or have meaningful conversations. Instead, they drive very fast, watch excessive amounts of television on wall-size sets, and listen to the radio on “Seashell Radio” sets attached to their ears.
Montag encounters a gentle seventeen-year-old girl named Clarisse McClellan, who opens his eyes to the emptiness of his life with her innocently penetrating questions and her unusual love of people and nature. Over the next few days, Montag experiences a series of disturbing events. First, his wife, Mildred, attempts suicide by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills. Then, when he responds to an alarm that an old woman has a stash of hidden literature, the woman shocks him by choosing to be burned alive along with her books. A few days later, he hears that Clarisse has been killed by a speeding car. Montag’s dissatisfaction with his life increases, and he begins to search for a solution in a stash of books that he has stolen from his own fires and hidden inside an air-conditioning vent.
When Montag fails to show up for work, his fire chief, Beatty, pays a visit to his house. Beatty explains that it’s normal for a fireman to go through a phase of wondering what books have to offer, and he delivers a dizzying monologue explaining how books came to be banned in the first place. According to Beatty, special-interest groups and other “minorities” objected to books that offended them. Soon, books all began to look the same, as writers tried to avoid offending anybody. This was not enough, however, and society as a whole decided to simply burn books rather than permit conflicting opinions. Beatty tells Montag to take twenty-four hours or so to see if his stolen books contain anything worthwhile and then turn them in for incineration. Montag begins a long and frenzied night of reading.
Overwhelmed by the task of reading, Montag looks to his wife for help and support, but she prefers television to her husband’s company and cannot understand why he would want to take the terrible risk of reading books. He remembers that he once met a retired English professor named Faber sitting in a park, and he decides that this man might be able to help him understand what he reads. He visits Faber, who tells him that the value of books lies in the detailed awareness of life that they contain. Faber says that Montag needs not only books but also the leisure to read them and the freedom to act upon their ideas.
Faber agrees to help Montag with his reading, and they concoct a risky scheme to overthrow the status quo. Faber will contact a printer and begin reproducing books, and Montag will plant books in the homes of firemen to discredit the profession and to destroy the machinery of censorship. Faber gives him a two-way radio earpiece (the “green bullet”) so that he can hear what Montag hears and talk to him secretly.
Montag goes home, and soon two of his wife’s friends arrive to watch television. The women discuss their families and the war that is about to be declared in an extremely frivolous manner. Their superficiality angers him, and he takes out a book of poetry and reads “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold. Faber buzzes in his ear for him to be quiet, and Mildred tries to explain that the poetry reading is a standard way for firemen to demonstrate the uselessness of literature. The women are extremely disturbed by the poem and leave to file a complaint against Montag.
Montag goes to the fire station and hands over one of his books to Beatty. Beatty confuses Montag by barraging him with contradictory quotations from great books. Beatty exploits these contradictions to show that literature is morbid and dangerously complex, and that it deserves incineration. Suddenly, the alarm sounds, and they rush off to answer the call, only to find that the alarm is at Montag’s own house. Mildred gets into a cab with her suitcase, and Montag realizes that his own wife has betrayed him.
Beatty forces Montag to burn the house himself; when he is done, Beatty places him under arrest. When Beatty continues to berate Montag, Montag turns the flamethrower on his superior and proceeds to burn him to ashes. Montag knocks the other firemen unconscious and runs. The Mechanical Hound, a monstrous machine that Beatty has set to attack Montag, pounces and injects Montag’s leg with a large dose of anesthetic. Montag manages to destroy it with his flamethrower; then he walks off the numbness in his leg and escapes with some books that were hidden in his backyard. He hides these in another fireman’s house and calls in an alarm from a pay phone.
Montag goes to Faber’s house, where he learns that a new Hound has been put on his trail, along with several helicopters and a television crew. Faber tells Montag that he is leaving for St. Louis to see a retired printer who may be able to help them. Montag gives Faber some money and tells him how to remove Montag’s scent from his house so the Hound will not enter it. Montag then takes some of Faber’s old clothes and runs off toward the river. The whole city watches as the chase unfolds on TV, but Montag manages to escape in the river and change into Faber’s clothes to disguise his scent. He drifts downstream into the country and follows a set of abandoned railroad tracks until he finds a group of renegade intellectuals (“the Book People”), led by a man named Granger, who welcome him. They are a part of a nationwide network of book lovers who have memorized many great works of literature and philosophy. They hope that they may be of some help to mankind in the aftermath of the war that has just been declared. Montag’s role is to memorize the Book of Ecclesiastes. Enemy jets appear in the sky and completely obliterate the city with bombs. Montag and his new friends move on to search for survivors and rebuild civilization.