Fahrenheit 451 takes place in an unspecified future time (dialogue on one page places it after 1990) in a hedonistic anti-intellectual America that has completely abandoned self-control. This America is filled with lawlessness in the streets ranging from teenagers crashing cars into people to firemen at a station who set their 'mechanical hound' to hunt various animals by their amino acid sequence for the simple and grotesque pleasure of watching them die. Anyone caught reading or possessing books is, at the minimum, confined to a mental hospital while the books are burned by the firemen. Illegal books mainly include famous works of literature, such as Walt Whitman and William Faulkner, as well as the Bible and all historical texts.
One rainy night returning from his job, fireman Guy Montag meets his new neighbor Clarisse McClellan, whose free-thinking ideals and liberating spirit force him to question his life, his ideals, and his own perceived happiness. Clarisse would not ask how a thing was done but why. Later, Clarisse is presumptively killed after being hit by a car.
After meeting Clarisse, Montag returns home to find his wife Mildred asleep with an empty bottle of sleeping pills next to her bed. He calls for medical help; two technicians respond by proceeding to suck out Mildred's blood with a machine and insert new blood into her. The technicians' utter disregard for Mildred forces Montag to question the state of society.
In the following days, while ransacking the book-filled house of an old woman before the inevitable burning, Montag accidentally reads a line in one of her books: "Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine". This prompts him to steal one of the books. The woman refuses to leave her house and her books, choosing instead to light a match she had concealed from the firemen's view, prematurely igniting the kerosene and martyring herself. This disturbs Montag, who wonders why someone would die for books, which he considers to be without value.
Jarred by the woman's suicide, Montag calls for sick leave, whereupon he receives a visit from his fire chief Captain Beatty, who explains to him the political and social causes which underlie the work they perform. Captain Beatty claims that society, in its search for happiness and in an attempt to minimize cultural offenses through political correctness, brought about the suppression of literature as an act of self-censorship and that the government merely took advantage of the situation. Beatty adds that all firemen eventually steal a book out of curiosity, but all would be well if the book is turned in within 24 hours. Montag argues with his wife, Mildred, over the book he himself has stolen, showing his growing disgust for her and for his society.
It is revealed that Montag has, over the course of a year, hidden dozens of books in the ventilation shafts of his own house, and tries to memorize them to preserve their contents, but becomes frustrated that the words seem to simply fall away from his memory. He then remembers a man he had met at one time: Faber, a former English professor. Montag seeks Faber's help, whereafter Faber begins teaching Montag about the vagaries and ambiguities but overall importance of literature in its attempt to explain human existence. He also gives Montag a green bullet-shaped ear-piece so that Faber can offer guidance throughout his daily activities.
During a card game at the firehouse, Beatty tells Montag he had a dream about him, and relates the literary argument he claims to have had in his dream. Beatty quotes many books and shows an amazing knowledge of literature to prove to Montag that books can confuse the thoughts. Then follows another call to arms; Beatty theatrically leads the crew to Montag's own home. He reveals that he knew all along of Montag's books, and orders Montag to destroy the house. Montag sees Mildred moving away from the house and sets to work burning their home; not content destroying the books, he burns the televisions, beds, and other emblems of his past life. When Beatty finds Faber's earpiece, he threatens to track Faber down, whereupon Montag turns the flamethrower on Beatty, killing him. He is soon a fugitive for these crimes. When the firehouse's mechanical hound attacks him, he turns the flamethrower on it, destroying it.
He flees to Faber's house, with another firehouse's mechanical hound and television network helicopters in hot pursuit. The newscasters hope to document his escape as a spectacle, and distract the people from the oncoming threat of war, a threat that has been foreshadowed throughout the book via the reader being repeatedly told of planes flying over the buildings that the characters are in, as well as a radio broadcast that says "this country stands ready to defend itself". Faber tells Montag of vagabond book-lovers in the countryside. Montag then escapes to a local river, floats downstream and meets a group of older men who, to Montag's astonishment, have memorized entire books, preserving them orally until the law against books is overturned. They burn the books they read to prevent discovery, retaining the verbatim content (and possibly valid interpretations) in their minds. The group leader, Granger, discusses the legendary phoenix and its endless cycle of long life, death in flames, and rebirth, adding that the phoenix must have some relation to mankind, which constantly repeats its mistakes.
Meanwhile, the television network helicopters surround and kill another man (who regularly walks about) who they kill instead of Montag to maintain the illusion of a successful hunt.
The war begins. Montag watches helplessly as jet bombers fly overhead and attack the city with nuclear weapons. It is implied Mildred dies, though Faber is stated to have left the city. It is implied that more cities across the country have been incinerated as well; a bitter irony in that the world that sought to burn thought is burned itself. At the moment of the explosion, the emotion of seeing the city burned causes a key phrase from the Bible to emerge from the depths of Montag's memory. The final page of the novel shows this phrase to be Revelation 22:2.
The novel is concluded in a shocking but slightly optimistic tone. It is suggested that the society Montag knew has almost completely collapsed and a new society must be built from the ashes. Whether this new society will meet the same fate is unknown, but it is implied that the book-keepers will begin to build mirror factories (a literary allusion wherein mirrors are a metaphor for books) to show people who they are, what they have become, and how they can change with time and knowledge.
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