Fahrenheit 451 Summary and Analysis
by Ray Bradbury
Part One: The Hearth and the Salamander
Set in the 24th century, Fahrenheit 451 opens with Guy Montag, the protagonist, in the middle of a regular night at work. Montag is a fireman, and in the 24th century, firemen burn down houses where illegal books are kept. Burning books and houses gives Montag a great sense of happiness and satisfaction. Bradbury writes, "Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven by black flame." (p.4)
As Montag walks home from work that night, he meets Clarisse McClellan, his 17 year old neighbor. Montag is at once taken aback by and drawn to the precocious girl's inquisitiveness. Clarisse loves nature, doesn't watch television, and hates cars that drive fast. She questions him steadily about his perception of the world, leaving him with the query "Are you happy?" Clarisse leaves a strong impression on Montag, and he continues to reflect on their brief encounter and her very different way of viewing the world. After some time, Montag comes to terms with his answer to Clarisse's final question. He is not happy.
Montag enters his modern home and retires to his bedroom, where he finds that his wife, Mildred, has overdosed on sleeping pills. Montag is shocked and immediately calls the paramedics. Technicians arrive at the house, pump Mildred's stomach and give her a complete transfusion with various technological instruments. Neither of the paramedics are doctors, a fact Montag finds surprising. However, the paramedics explain that they perform these same procedures many times a night, and that it is a very regular occurrence. When the medics depart, the relieved yet shaken Montag reflects on the impersonal and tragic nature of his society.
The next morning, Millie robotically goes about her daily routine, not recalling the previous night's episode. When Montag attempts to discuss the issue, Millie reacts with dismissive disbelief, eager to return her attention to the diversions of the seashell radios constantly inserted in her ears and the people on the three-wall television, whom she calls her "family".
On his way to work, Montag runs into Clarisse again, and again she questions him incessantly about his feelings for his wife and his work. Upon arriving at the fire station, Montag passes the Mechanical Hound, a massive robotic police dog which, once set to an individual's chemical balance, is able to locate and annihilate its prey. Montag is unnerved when the hound growls at him, and addresses his concern to his boss, Chief Beatty. Beatty dismisses the issue, making patronizing references to the Hound and Montag's daily aversion to it.
During the next week, Montag sees Clarisse everyday and finds himself looking forward to his conversations with the eccentric, curious girl. He is disappointed when Clarisse no longer appears on his walks to and from work. With whispers of a possible impending war on the radio and television, Montag becomes increasingly introspective about his job and the people whose books and homes he destroys.
One evening, an alarm comes in, calling the firemen to an old house where the owner, an older woman, refuses to abandon her home. Defiantly, the woman insists on dying among her books and lights the match that eventually takes her life along with her home and all her books. During the melee, Montag steals one of the woman's books and takes it home with him that evening. Montag returns home shaken by the woman's death and nervous about his illegal acquisition.
As he and Millie lie in their respective twin beds, Montag finds himself unable to recall how and where they met. He asks Millie if she remembers, but she doesn't, and is not bothered by it. Montag is overcome with thoughts of his loveless, lifeless marriage and the modern technologies his wife spends her days immersed in. Montag questions her about Clarisse, who he has not seen in days, and Mildred says she had forgotten to tell him that Clarisse was struck by a car and killed four days earlier. Her family has since moved away. Montag is very upset to hear this news and can't believe Millie forgot to tell him. He falls asleep with his stolen book hidden under his pillow.
In the morning, Montag wakes up feeling ill and unsure of whether he can go to work. Millie responds with disbelief and annoyance rather than compassion, and Montag is in turn annoyed by her lack of interest in his concerns. Captain Beatty arrives to speak with Montag, somehow knowing that he feels ill and would be taking the evening off. He lectures Montag on how society has evolved into the current technological age, leaving little room for those who deviate from the structured, homogeneous conformity that has come to rule. Emphasizing structured routine rather than original thought, Beatty asserts that people are not born equal, but are made equal through laws and regulation. In the current system, people are less likely to offend each other, and thus everyone is better off.
While Beatty is visiting the Montags, Millie nervously organizes the bedroom. At one point she tries to fluff Montag's pillow, but because he has hidden a book underneath it he won't let her. Millie insists and places her hand under the pillow. She feels the outline of the book and is shocked. Although she doesn't turn her husband in, Millie asks Beatty what would happen if a fireman brought a book home. Beatty mentions firemen are occasionally overcome by curiosity about the books they burn and may steal one to satiate that curiosity. When this happens, he continues, they are given a 24-hour respite to come to their senses and burn the book before their coworkers must do so for them.
Montag becomes paranoid that Beatty knows that he has stolen not only one, but nearly 20 books over the course of his career. He feels compelled to tell Millie his secret and shows her his collection. Millie panics, insisting that they burn the books. Before the issue is resolved, someone comes to the door, prompting terror in both Montag and Millie. The Montags don't answer the door, and eventually the visitor departs, leaving the couple alone with their illegal library. Amidst his wife's protests and declarations of the worthlessness of books, Montag opens a book and begins to read.
'The Hearth and the Salamander', the first of three parts comprising Fahrenheit 451, chronicles Montag's realization that he is unhappy and unfulfilled and marks the beginning of his quest to change his life. In this section, Bradbury advances the larger idea that without the freedom to seek truth, it is impossible to find true fulfillment. This concept is expressed through the clear contrast between the three major characters we meet in this section. Millie is unaware of and uninterested in her capacity for original thought. She is so miserable that she escapes from reality by constantly immersing herself in her seashell radio, three wall parlor room television, and an addiction to sleeping pills. Sadly, Millie doesn't even recognize her own dissatisfaction and refuses to admit she attempted suicide.
In contrast, Clarisse is truly, perfectly content with her life. She is curious about the world, and takes great notice of nature, social constructs and the behavior of people around her. Clarisse comes from a family where people sit around and talk at great length, a concept Montag finds staggering. Unfortunately, Clarisse falls victim to a speeding car, one of the aspects of society she despises so much.
Finally, Montag represents the middle ground between these two extremes. Although he once thought he was happy, Montag realizes society is not perfect, as many believe it to be. Through his friendship with Clarisse, Montag discovers a sense of curiosity and thirst for knowledge that he never knew. First through Clarisse and then through books, Montag starts on a road to freedom and happiness.
In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury uses book burning as a symbol of the power censorship holds in this futuristic society. Through Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury appears to give warning to what might be in store for a society that allows anti-intellectualism to ferment and technology to take over. Written soon after the close of WWII, 'The Hearth and the Salamander', the opening section of Fahrenheit 451, provides a glimpse of how the world might have developed had Hitler won. At the same time, Bradbury alludes to the rampant McCarthyism in the American political climate at the time. The Un-American Activities Committee summoned textbooks for "evaluation", and McCarthy claimed many men and women involved in the arts, including well known authors, were Communists.
'The Hearth and the Salamander' introduces many symbols that retain importance throughout the novel. The symbol of "the book", the most feared and reviled enemy of the state, is significant. Books represent knowledge and awareness, but are illegal. When found they are burned, as are the homes in which they were stored. Yet, Montag finds himself drawn to them, and wonders what drives book owners, such as the old woman, to burn herself among her sacred possessions rather than leave them behind. In the opening paragraph, Bradbury likens burning book pages to pigeon wings. This early allusion to birds and flight speaks to the ability of books to incite freedom.
The title of this section, 'The Hearth and the Salamander' alludes to images of fire, the tool of destruction that censors knowledge and ideas. The hearth is where the fire is built and burns strongest. In contrast, the salamander is a lizard said to survive in flames, and thus alludes to fire's inability to crush free thought. Montag, personifies the salamander, surrounded in flames, yet fighting against censorship. Fire represents purification as it is used to rid society of that which is undesirable. Books and the places where they are hidden are eradicated by fire, burned out of existence so as not to contaminate society. In his long discussion with Montag, Captain Beatty mentions the standard practice of immediately cremating the dead so society is not burdened with decaying bodies or memorials and the grief associated with them. Later, as Montag comes to realize the truth about his society, he recognizes fire as a form of oppression - a means of subduing the knowledge in books. Fire also represents awareness and memory. Upon greeting the firemen, the old woman who later burns to death among her books as a martyr for free thought, quotes Bishop Hugh Latimer, who was burned for heresy in the 16th century, saying, " . . . we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out!" This quote rings true with Montag, who later laments, "you ever see a burnt house? It smolders for days. Well, this fire'll last me the rest of my life." Fire is also important for its transformative powers. In the opening paragraph of the novel, the author refers to the pleasure Montag took in seeing things changed by fire. Similarly, Montag changes with each fire he sets.
Water, the opposing force to fire, takes on meaning as a metaphor for escape. Millie, ever in need of escape from the opportunity to think, uses her seashell radio to occupy her brain at night, as "an electronic ocean of sound . . . coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. . . Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been no night in the last two years that Mildred had not swum that sea". Montag also eventually finds escape through water, but he is running from an oppressive society rather than from reality. After questioning Clarisse about her motivation to walk in the rain and catch drops in her mouth, Montag begins to question himself, his career, and his marriage. While he does so, Montag tilts his head back, and for the first time, drinks in the raindrops.
Additionally, there are allusions throughout 'The Hearth and the Salamander' to the intruding eye of oppression that monitors the people who live in Montag's dystopia. When the technicians pump Millie's stomach, Montag notices the tool they use looks like a writhing, mechanical one-eyed snake. Captain Beatty personifies intrusive oppression, knowing Montag is ill and that he is keeping books without being told. The Mechanical Hound, with its ability to track down and destroy people by their scent, is yet another symbol of the totalitarian state's constant observation. Even Clarisse innocently reminds Montag that "there's a man in the moon."
Fahrenheit 451 Essays and Related Content
- Fahrenheit 451: Major Themes
- Fahrenheit 451: Essays
- Fahrenheit 451: Lesson Plan
- Fahrenheit 451: Questions
- Fahrenheit 451: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Ray Bradbury: Biography
- Fahrenheit 451 Summary
- About Fahrenheit 451
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Part I
- Summary and Analysis of Part II
- Summary and Analysis of Part III
- Related Links on Fahrenheit 451
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
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