Fahrenheit 451: Summary, Characters & Themes

Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

During this lesson, we will learn about Ray Bradbury's dystopian science fiction novel, Fahrenheit 451, which is about firefighters who are tasked with burning books instead of putting out fires. We will cover the novel's plot, characters, and major themes.

Introduction

People often lament that no one reads anymore, but can you imagine a society in which reading is actually outlawed? That is the type of society that exists in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. In addition to not being allowed to read, people aren't even allowed to own books. If they are discovered with books in their possession, their possessions are burned.

This sounds like a frightening society. Instead of encouraging its citizens to discuss art and politics and pursue what they are passionate about, the society encourages them to watch nonsense on television and avoid emotionally deep conversation.

What is even more terrifying is that this society, which might have seemed improbably cynical back in 1953 when Ray Bradbury originally wrote the novel, does not seem completely unrealistic anymore. We are not that far from embracing the type of technology-based, shallow existence that Bradbury predicted could occur. Science fiction novels that describe societies that are bleak, restrictive, and totalitarian are called dystopias and Fahrenheit 451 is an example of a dystopia.

Bradbury lived between 1920 and 2012. Over the course of his life, he wrote many science fiction short stories and a few novels, but Fahrenheit 451 remains one of his most popular and widely read today.

Plot Summary

The title Fahrenheit 451 is a reference to the temperature at which paper burns. This is because in Fahrenheit 451 books are illegal and firefighters are tasked with the job of burning any books they find.

Set in the unspecified future, in an unspecified middle-American town, the main character of Fahrenheit 451 is a firefighter named Guy Montag. As a firefighter, he is supposed to burn books confiscated from people who are found to be illegally reading the banned books.

One Version Of The Fahrenheit 451 Cover
Fahrenheit 451 Cover

Guy's worldview is shaken when he meets Clarisse McClellan, a liberal teenage girl who has just moved in next door. Clarisse is very unique compared to the other characters in the novel. While most people (including Guy's wife) are content to watch the bland television offered and avoid actually interacting with their world, Clarisse is into nature, the world, interpersonal relationships, and philosophy. She engages with life, while her classmates would prefer to be cruel and mean. She inspires Guy to start critically thinking about his own life and what he believes, rather than what other people tell him to think. Clarisse is an example of someone who would 'stop and smell the roses' rather than race through life, which can be seen most distinctly when she remarks that people drives so fast that everything is a 'blur' out the window. Guy's relationship with Clarisse is contrasted with his relationship with his wife, Mildred, who is apathetic and overdoses on sleeping pills.

Guy and Clarisse bond slowly, and Clarisse shares with him her own social troubles (she has trouble fitting in at school). Then, one day, Clarisse doesn't show up at their usual meeting spot. Shaken up by Clarisse's disappearance and his wife's suicide attempt, Guy starts to break down. One day, while at work, he steals a book from the burn pile. The owner of the books he is supposed to burn refuses to leave the house when the firefighters threaten to set it on fire. The woman chooses to die with her books, going as far as to light a match and set herself on fire.

At home, Guy hides the book he stole. During conversation with his wife, she tells him that Clarisse was hit and killed by a car. Guy has nightmares that night about The Hound, a robotic dog that assists the firefighters in their duties.

The next morning, he tells his wife that he might want to quit his job. Guy's wife freaks out about the idea of being poor. Guy's boss, Captain Beatty, talks to him to try to get him back on the right path. He tells him about the history of the book burnings. Apparently, so many people argued over books that the government decided to burn them all so people would be more happy.

Beatty hints that he knows that Guy stole a book. He says that as long as the book is burned within a day, Guy will not get in trouble. What neither Beatty or Mildred know is that Guy has collected a number of books already, which he has hidden in an air duct.

When his wife finds out, Mildred wants to burn all the books, but Guy convinces her they need to read them first to judge for themselves if they should be burned. While they read the books, Guy hears The Hound sniffing at the front door.

Guy tells Mildred that he thinks the books are the key to saving society. In addition to the citizens being dull and brainwashed, there is an unknown war in the background of the story. Before they can make much progress, Mildred's friend, Ann, rings and Mildred invites Ann over to watch the 'parlor walls' (flat-screen TVs that are embedded into the walls).

Guy decides they need help. He tries to call Faber, an English professor before books were banned, but Faber doesn't want to talk to him. Guy tracks Faber down at his house. He brings along the latest book he's stolen: a Bible. At first he refuses, but then Faber reluctantly agrees to help Guy when Guy starts desecrating the Bible. Faber gives Guy an earpiece that will allow Guy to hear Faber talking anywhere.

Back at home, Mildred has two friends over, Ann and Clara. They are watching mind-numbing television. Guy hates the television. At one point, he asks his wife to turn the television off and she replies, 'That's my family'. People like Mildred and her friends are addicted to the sensational, shallow, and brainless media they are bombarded with constantly.

In order to make Mildred and her friends feel something, Guy takes out a book of poetry and reads one of the poems (Dover Beach). The women do not react well. While Clara cries, eventually both Ann and Clara leave and Mildred takes too many sleeping pills again.

Guy realizes he has overstepped. He hides all the books in the backyard and then takes the Bible to the firehouse. Beatty is there. Guy hands him the Bible. Beatty throws it away and tells Guy that he had a dream they were discussing literature. While at the firehouse, the bell starts ringing, signaling that there is a house that needs to burn.

Once they arrive at the house, Guy realizes it is his own home. His wife reported him. Mildred refuses to speak to her husband and leaves with her suitcase packed. Guy is forced to destroy his own home. But destroying his home isn't enough. Beatty threatens to destroy Faber too when he discovers the earpiece. Guy turns on his boss. He burns Beatty alive.

Before he can escape, Guy is attacked by The Hound, whose bite is laced with a tranquilizer. He runs through the city, trying to get to Faber. Faber tells Guy that if he can make it out of the city, there is an exiled community of pro-book people in the country who will take him in.

After a tense flight, Guy eventually makes it to the community. The community is led by Granger, a man who tells Guy that everyone in the community is responsible for memorizing a book. The community believes that society will one day regret its decision and want the books back.

While in the country, Guy and the exiles watch as the city is bombed with a nuclear bomb as part of the war, destroying everyone. The next day, the leader, Granger, tells the group about the mythical creature of the Phoenix and the group heads back to the city, determined to rebuild itself from the ashes.

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