Let's travel into a dystopian society and meet a firefighter named Guy Montag. He must decide which he values more: his job or the pursuit of knowledge. We will summarize the major events and conflicts in Part 1 of Ray Bradbury's ''Fahrenheit 451''.
Fahrenheit 451 Background
451 degrees Fahrenheit - the temperature at which books burn. Imagine a world where this temperature is what you would face if you chose to read. What you are doing right now at your computer would get you arrested and far worse.
Guy Montag is a 30-year-old fireman, but in his world, firemen start fires, not stop them. Once books are suspected in a person's home, it's Montag's job to find the books and set the house on fire. He has come from an entire family of firemen and is beyond proud of his lineage and work.
In the beginning of the novel, Montag delighted in burning books.
The book begins after a lively night of burning when Montag realizes he's being followed home by his new neighbor, a 16-year-old girl named Clarisse McClellan. At first, Montag is aggravated by Clarisse's questions about his job, her eccentric views of society, and life as such. It's not common or accepted that people would walk and talk about such things. Even though her questioning is frustrating, Montag is intrigued and begins to angrily think about the things Clarisse has asked him. It is this questioning that changes Montag's view of his home life, and more importantly, his job.
The Hearth: The Fire & the Home
While a hearth is a fireplace, it can also mean home. Bradbury cleverly uses the word here to point out two aspects of Montag's life:
- His job - he burns down houses for a living.
- His home - the place he returns to each night.
The hearth has multiple meanings for Montag.
As Part 1 moves forward, it is clear both are beginning to burn out. At home, Montag's wife Mildred spends her time listening to the radio on her Seashell earbuds or watching TV in the parlor (aka the living room) The house, like most, contains three interactive TV walls, but Mildred is not satisfied. She must have the fourth wall. The people on TV are considered family; they are even referred to as the relatives. Montag's wife is completely removed from reality, so much so that she knows more about the people on TV than about her own life.
Furthermore, she is unable to recall how she met Montag and how their relationship started, nor does she care. She even accidentally overdoses on sleeping pills, and when Montag confronts her, she refuses to believe it happened. She is solely focused on her part in the interactive television show that will occur later that day.
The Salamander: Fireproof Lizard
For the next week or so, Clarisse walks with Montag. She still tends to annoy him with her questioning, but Montag realizes they aren't so different after all, that he too wonders about the world. Her questioning bothers him because it is clear there are things in Montag's life he has never questioned, such as his job, his wife, and his identity. The more Clarisse asks why, the deeper Montag begins to question the reality he has built for himself. But one day, Clarisse is nowhere to be found.
That night the firemen get called to a job, but something is different. The police did not remove the owner of the home; therefore, the firemen will have to deal with her while they respond to the complaint from a neighbor. Montag is frozen, consciously aware of what he is doing for the first time while at work. The men rip apart the house, find hundreds of books and begin dumping kerosene over all the books and walls and floors. Montag begs the woman to come with them, but she refuses. She herself takes a match and lights it, taking fate into her own hands. Montag watches the woman and the books burn. It was said that a salamander could withstand fire, and here, even though the house and woman burns with it, there is something for Montag that is fireproof.
Montag never used to worry about burning books and homes until Clarisse made him question everything.
Montag is physically and emotionally sick after witnessing this event. He feels as though he cannot go to work the next day or ever again. Mildred refuses to console him and callously tells him that she thinks Clarisse was hit by a car and killed. Montag is enraged at her lack of compassion and he hopes the news isn't true.
The next morning, Montag's boss, Captain Beatty, visits Montag's home, already suspicious of Montag's recent behavior. Beatty says the more people you have in the world, the more people you are able to offend. You must simplify everything and make it vanilla, therefore not to offend anyone. Beatty explains it was not the government that did this, it was the people. The people criticized and the people became offended, therefore we are left with comic books and porn. If everyone is the same, then peace can be achieved. Firemen keep the peace. Beatty finishes his lecture by explaining the darkness of the word 'why', attempting to show Montag that when people have choices, conflict is inevitable. Firefighters are the key in maintaining mass happiness.
By not reading and remaining ignorant, society supposedly remains happy.
Beatty explains that a fireman is allowed to keep a book for 24 hours, but if that book was not burned after that time, the firemen would come and burn the book for him. Once Beatty leaves, Montag reveals to Mildred he has been taking books from people's houses and hiding them in the AC vent. Montag pleads with Mildred to let him try to read the books and see if there is anything in them that means something. If not, he promises they will burn the books together.
So what is Montag to do? It's clear he must know more, but his job dictates that he must burn books and not read them. What once brought him pleasure is now the source of his pain. Captain Beatty (Montag's boss) knows Montag has the books, and his wife wants to burn them without reading. Now that Clarisse (Montag's neighbor) is gone, who will help him find his true identity? His hearth (fireplace or home), the literal fire he creates and the home he lives in, are now becoming ticking time bombs instead of his purpose for living. Will Montag be able to withstand the fire, do as the salamander does and come out alive on the other side? At the end of Part 1, it's clear he will attempt to walk through the flames.