The novel opens with “fireman” Guy Montag exulting in his job of burning books: “It was a pleasure to burn.” In his futuristic society, where houses are built to be fireproof and firemen are no longer needed as firefighters, almost all books (with the exception of a few manuals and other material considered necessary) are outlawed. Firemen burn hooks, along with the interiors of the homes of the people who illegally possess them.
Firemen work at night, since the spectacle of burning—intended to be both lesson and entertainment for the citizenry— makes a more impressive show in the dark. Thus it is still dark as he is going home from work. Walking along the sidewalk near his house, he meets Clarisse, a young girl who demonstrates an extraordinary characteristic in this totalitarian state: tireless curiosity. She takes the time to stop and observe; as she observes Montag, he sees himself in her eyes, not the fireman who frightens most people, but “just a man, after all.”
Her gentle questions—“Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out. . . ?” “Why are you laughing?” “Are you happy?”—and pointed observations—“You never stop to think . . .”; “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly”—make him uneasy, but he finds that she, and the questions she has raised, remain on his mind as he enters his home. Her face is like a mirror, he decides, unlike the faces of other people, which he compares to torches that burn out, never reflecting hack on those around them.
He goes into his bedroom, expecting to find his wife, Mildred, asleep with little thimble radios called Seashells tamped tightly into her ears. She is asleep, but she has taken too many sleeping pills. As he turns to call the emergency hospital, jet bombers scream overhead.
In response to his call, two technicians arrive to pump out Mildred’s stomach and replace all the blood in her body; she is just one of the many such cases the handymen treat every night, and they leave after briskly demanding payment for their service. As Montag watches his sleeping wife, her color fresh with the replacement blood, he finds himself wishing they could also have replaced her brain, her memory, her flesh.
Opening the windows, he hears the conversation and quiet, unforced laughter of Clarisse and her family across the lawn. An unnamed yearning draws him into their yard, where he eavesdrops on their conversation, a rueful discussion of how people have become interchangeable and disposable. He returns home and goes to bed. tearfully realizing that the world in which he was once so self-assured, so pleased with his position in it, has changed: “I don’t know anything any more.”
The next morning, Mildred is hungry, as the emergency technicians had warned she would be. but she has no memory and little curiosity about what happened the night before. Later, when he tells her she had taken an entire bottle of thirty sleeping pills, she denies that she would do such a thing, then returns to studying a script.
She explains to Montag that she will have a part in the wall-to-wall circuit television program that comes on in a few minutes. By mailing in boxtops. she has bought the right to play the homemaker in the play; every few minutes, the characters on the screens on all three walls of the TV parlor will turn toward her and ask for her “opinion.” Her character, “Helen,” then responds with scripted answers: “I think that’s fine!” When Montag asks what the play is about, she tells him it’s about “these people named Bob and Ruth and Helen,” and urges him to consider buying an expensive fourth wall for the TV parlor so it w ill seem “like this room wasn’t ours at all, but all kinds of exotic people’s rooms.”
As he leaves for work, he meets Clarisse again, walking in the rain and holding the last of the season’s dandelion flowers. She rubs it under her chin, telling him that the yellow that rubs off means she’s in love. When she rubs it under his chin and proclaims that he is not in love with anyone, he vehemently denies the flower’s evidence, but cannot conjure up the face of his beloved.
Clarisse tells him she is on her way to see a psychiatrist, required for one so out of sync with the rest of society. She says she tells the psychiatrist that “sometimes I just sit and think. But I won’t tell them what. I’ve got them running.” Then she tells him that he is not like other people, who walk away or threaten her when she expresses herself. The night before, when she told him that if you look, you can see a man in the moon, he had stopped and looked. She finds the fact that he puts up with tier especially strange in a fireman, which makes her think that vocation is not right for him.
When he arrives at the fire station, he stops for a while to watch the Mechanical Hound sleeping. This contraption of metal, electrical circuits, and glass has been engineered to follow any programmed scent and kill its prey with an injection of drugs. During slow periods the firemen set the Mound on cats or chickens or rats, for a few seconds of fun in watching it work. Montag no longer takes part in the group game of betting which of its prey the Hound will catch first; now he stays upstairs, avoiding the bloodthirsty pastime. Yet he is fascinated by the machine. When he approaches and touches it, it wakens and growls, seemingly undecided about whether he is designated prey. Montag escapes quickly up the firepole and the beast goes back to sleep.
Montag tells his boss, Captain Beatty, that the Hound dislikes him. Beatty says that is impossible for a mechanical contraption, but Montag hypothesizes that someone may have programmed the Hound with part of his chemical combination, making it react but not attack—something that has happened to him twice before. Beatty says he will have the Hound checked for malfunctions, but Montag wonders to himself whether someone has discovered that he has hidden books in his home and “told” the Hound about his crime.
For the next few days, he sees Clarisse every time he leaves his house, and soon feels he has known her for years. She stays out of school, saying she will not be missed because she is labeled antisocial, a classification she finds odd: So-called social people are rushed quickly from one activity to another, told what to think and never asked to think for themselves, either too tired to do anything at the end of the day except go to bed or out to wreak mayhem running down people with their cars.
She says she has no friends, but this is by choice: She is afraid of children her own age, who regularly kill each other. Instead she prefers to observe and listen to people; however, she points out to Montag, “People don’t talk about anything.” According to her, people see the same programs, tell the same jokes, and watch abstract patterns on the musical walls and at the museums, which no longer exhibit representational artwork.
However, after a few more days, Clarisse does not appear. Montag does not realize at first that she is gone, or that he misses her; he simply feels that something is the matter.
Back at the firehouse, as jets scream overhead, Montag fears that Beatty can sense his guilt, although he is not sure exactly w hat he is guilty of. He asks Beatty what happened to the man whose library they had burned the week before, and Beatty replies that he was taken, screaming, to the asylum. Montag protests that the man was not insane, but Beatty warns that anyone who tries to fool the government and the firemen is mad. Montag wonders aloud how it would feel to “have firemen burn our houses and our books,” but when Beatty asks him if he has any books, he denies it.
Their conversation is interrupted by a fire alarm, and the crew rushes to the home of an elderly lady who has been denounced by a neighbor. Usually the police take away the criminals before the firemen arrive to burn their homes, but a mistake has occurred and the woman is still in her home. As they rush inside, she recites a quote: “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”
As her precious store of books and magazines is tumbled out of the attic, Montag tucks one under his arm before dousing the rest with kerosene. The woman refuses to leave her home and, when Montag asks Beatty to force her to leave, the captain declines, saying suicide is a familiar pattern with such fanatics. Montag urges the woman to come with him, but she defiantly sets the fire herself with a kitchen match, and remains to burn with her books. Later, at the firehouse, Beatty tells Montag the source of her quote: a man burned for heresy in the sixteenth century.
That night, at home, Montag feels alienated from Mildred; he frantically asks her where they first met, but neither of them can remember—a fact that perturbs him but seems to bother her not at all. He reflects that the walls of the TV room, with their constantly present, pseudofamiliar cast of characters, are in effect a wall between him and his wife. The characters draw Mildred into their meaningless chatter; when he asks what they talk about and how the characters are connected to one another, Mildred cannot tell him. When he asks her about Clarisse, though, she remembers that she heard that the family has moved, and she thinks the girl was run over by a car and killed.
As he tries to fall asleep, he hears the Mechanical Hound sniffing outside his door.
The next morning Montag feels sick. He tries to tell Mildred about the woman they burned with her books, but she shows no interest, talking only about the programs on TV. When Montag asks how she would feel if he quit his job, Millie angrily criticizes the woman who upset him by dying, and worries that they will lose their home if Montag leaves his job.
Their argument is interrupted by the arrival of Captain Beatty, who says he expected Montag to call in sick today, after the death of the woman the night before. He has come to explain to Montag the history of their profession, expecting this knowledge will ease his distress.
Beatty tells Montag that long ago, when books appealed only to a few people, they could afford to cater to different tastes. But as the population expanded and mass media— “films and radios, magazines, books”—were everpresent, their content was increasingly tailored to appeal to the “paste pudding norm.” At the same time, everything speeded up, so books became shorter, were condensed and digested, cut down eventually to no more than an entry in a dictionary. As the pace of living sped up even more, learning and even thinking became unnecessary.
At the same time, the larger population was composed of large numbers of minorities, as people defined themselves as members of one or more subgroupings and insisted that the media not portray members of their group in any controversial way. Thus magazines became “vanilla tapioca,” designed to avoid offending anyone, and books—except for comic books and three-dimensional sex magazines—died out. Beatty summarizes: “There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”
“Intellectual” became a profanity, Beatty continues, and it became necessary for everyone to be made equal to everyone else. Thus, when houses were finally fireproofed, the firemen were given a new job: to burn the books that threatened to make people unequal, or to make them unhappy by giving them something to judge themselves against. The firemen, he says, are the custodians of society ’s peace of mind.
Not only books are burned in the effort to keep people happy, he points out; when people die, they are immediately incinerated so the survivors can get on with their lives without having to bother with memorials.
Montag asks Beatty about Clarisse; Beatty responds that such odd ducks are embarrassing, and she is better off dead. Luckily, such aberrations are rare, he says; most people respond well to the absence of choice, to encouragement to forget the impending war. People should be made to feel intelligent by being stuffed with facts, he continues, rather than being bothered with such “slippery stuff” as philosophy or sociology, which only promote melancholy.
Montag should be proud, Beatty concludes, of being among those who “stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought.” Then he warns that all firemen get the urge to read a book at some point—he, in fact, has read several, “to know what I was about”—and the authorities do not worry about their curiosity, as long as they burn the books within twenty-four hours. If they don’t, their fellow firemen will come and burn the books for them.
After this oblique warning, he asks Montag when he will return to work; he is surprised when Montag says he is not sure when he will return, and adds as he leaves that Montag will be missed if he does not show up.
When Montag tells his wife that he feels like smashing and killing things, she urges him to do what she does when she feels that way: take the car out into the country at high speed and run over animals. Montag replies that he does not want to get rid of the feeling, even though he is very unhappy. He says he may even start reading books. Millie says he will end up in jail, then turns away from “this junk” he is talking about to attend to the announcer on the television, who addresses her constantly by name (a function of a hundred-dollar converter).
Montag turns off the television sound and insists that Millie listen. He tells her that he has hidden many books in their home over the past year, pulling them out of their hiding places and piling them on the floor as he talks. He feels she has a right to know, since discovery would cost them both their home, and asks her to look at them with him to discover if the captain is right in saying that books have nothing to offer. He begs not only to look at the books but to try to save their marriage. He begins to read to her over her horrified objections. They hear the captain return but refuse to answer the door; later, they hear the Mechanical Hound sniffing around outside.
After hours of reading, Millie tries to explain that “books aren’t people. You read and I look all around, but there isn’t anybody!” She prefers the noise and color of her “family”—the images on the television that call her by name.
As Montag despairs of reaching Millie, he recalls a man he met in a park a year ago, a retired English professor named Faber who spoke to him in rhymeless poetry. At the end of their conversation the elderly professor had given Montag his address. Montag suspected the man owned books, so he had put the name and address in his notebook, but he had not turned the man in. Now he decides to visit Faber.
Faber knows Montag is a fireman, so he is afraid to let him in until he sees that Montag is carrying a hook—the Bible. Faber eagerly turns its pages, wondering if God would recognize his own son as he is now portrayed in the media, as a subtle huckster for commercial products.
As Montag reveals the internal crisis that has brought him here, Faber tells him that hooks themselves are not the antidote to what ails him; hooks are merely the receptacles for “infinite detail and awareness,” the places “where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget” The magic is not in the books, but in how they stitched the universe together. Books, Faber says, are important because they preserve information, and they encourage people to take the time to think about things in a leisurely fashion. These gifts are only useful, though, if people have the right to act on what they learn from books.
Montag suggests that they begin to upset the social order by planting books in the home of every fireman and then turning in all the firemen. Faber argues that reviving civilization will not be so easy, since most folks are happy with the status quo. As they talk, planes are fighting overhead, and Faber says they should just let the war kill off the technological society. But when Montag threatens to destroy the Bible he brought with him, Faber relents and agrees to go along with the plan.
Montag fears that the smooth-talking Captain Beatty may persuade him to betray his new enthusiasm, and asks Faber for help in resisting. Faber brings out a tiny radio device that fits in Montag’s ear; when Faber puts a second one in his own ear, they can speak to each other from a distance without detection. Faber says he’ll help Montag maintain his perspective by talking to him as he deals with Beatty.
Back home, Montag is eating when Millie’s friends, Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Bowles, arrive to watch television with her. After a few minutes, Montag turns the TV off and asks the women when they think the war will start. The women claim they are not worried—the army says the war will last only a day or two, and anyway, if their husbands are killed, their lives will go on.
The women are clearly uneasy, both at the absence of noise and at Montag’s insistence on conversation, but they answer his questions. One explains why she has no children: the second claims that children are really no bother, though on the few occasions when she sees hers, they seem to hate her. Millie suggests politics as a topic, and the women boast that in the last election they voted for the good-looking, well-groomed candidate with the noble name, rather than the fat one who mumbled.
Millie asks Guy to leave so they can return to their program, but he goes out only to fetch a book of poetry, which he insists on reading to the women. After he reads a poem. .Mrs. Phelps begins crying and is unable to explain why. Mrs. Bowles denounces Montag for hurting her friend, and the two women leave.
Montag looks for his books and realizes Millie has burned some of them: he takes the rest and hides them outside, then leaves for work with Faber’s whispered encouragement in his ear.
When Beatty sees Montag. he holds out his hand, and Montag hands him a book. The captain says he hopes Montag’s “fever” is over and invites him to join the card game the firemen are playing. Montag is nervous, and Beatty begins baiting him. quoting lines about knowledge and truth from many different authors.
Faber tries to calm Montag. Just as Montag opens his mouth to respond to Faber—and thus reveal the secret radio in his ear—the fire alarm sounds.
Beatty drives the Salamander, as the fire truck is called, and Montag is stunned when their four-man team pulls up in front of his own house. Mildred comes out with a suitcase; she has turned him in. and is leaving him. She apparently watched him hide the books and retrieved them: now they litter the floor, their covers torn off.
Beatty insists that Montag set fire to his books himself, using the flamethrower to burn them individually rather than using kerosene. Faber, in his ear. urges Montag to run away; Montag cries out that he cannot because of the Hound. Beatty, thinking Montag is talking to him. agrees that the Hound is nearby and warns him not to try any thing. Montag sets the house afire, room by room, and Beatty tells him that when he is finished, he will be placed under arrest.
Again Montag hears Faber telling him to run away. Beatty sees him tilt his head, listening, and hits him so the radio flies from his ear. The captain picks up the radio, hears Faber, and says they will come for him next. At the threat to his friend, Montag releases the safety catch on the flamethrower. Moving toward him, Beatty taunts him to pull the trigger, and Montag turns the flame on the captain, killing him. He knocks out the other two firemen but, before he can escape, he is attacked by the Mechanical Hound. He fights it off with the flamethrower, but not before it has injected him with a bit of its poison, which numbs his leg. He limps away, then returns to find a few books that Millie had missed near the garden fence. As he hurries away, he realizes that Beatty taunted him because he wanted to die.
Searching his pockets, he finds money he withdrew from the bank to finance the plan to plant books in firemen’s homes and a thimble radio, on which he hears a police bulletin ordering his capture. As he flees, he realizes he is running to Faber’s house, not because he believes the old professor can help him but simply because he wants to see him once more, to reinforce his faith that such people exist. As helicopters search for him, he makes his way to Faber’s door, stopping on the way to plant one of his books in the home of a fellow fireman and to phone in an alarm to report the hidden book. On the way, he hears a news report that the war has begun.
When he arrives at Faber’s, he reassures his friend that the radio device that could have betrayed him has been destroyed. Faber advises him to head for the river, and then follow the old railroad lines into the countryside, looking for hobo camps. The professor is leaving, too, heading for St. Louis to see a retired printer; they will use the money Montag gives him to begin printing books.
On Faber’s small television, they follow the manhunt and learn that a new Mechanical Hound has been brought in to track Montag by his scent. Faber gives Montag some of his old clothes to put on later, tho throw the Hound offtrack, and Montag tells the professor how to remove the fugitive’s scent from his home. Then he runs to the river, where he strips off his own clothes and dons Faber’s. He walks into the river and allows it to carry him away. When he is three hundred yards downstream, he sees the Hound and the helicopters reach the river, then turn back toward the city, as if they have picked up the scent again.
Some time later, hearing no sounds of pursuit, he leaves the river and eventually comes upon the railroad track. As he follows it away from the city, he is suddenly certain that “once, long ago, Clarisse had walked here.”
After a short time, he spots a fire in the woods. He approaches warily, then realizes this fire is warming rather than burning—a new perspective on the element that he has known only as a tool of destruction. Gathered around the fire are men in conversation; they call out to him to join them. They know who he is, and give him a chemical to drink that will keep the Hound from tracking him. On their portable, batten-powered television set. he sees the Hound attack and kill an unsuspecting stranger in the city as the announcer crows that it has caught and killed “Montag.” The men explain that the government faked a quick, decisive resolution to the chase, and they point out to Montag that the face of the victim was never shown clearly.
The men then introduce themselves: most of them are former professors or authors. Each of them has memorized a book, to preserve the knowledge it contained, then burned the book so it cannot incriminate him. Montag says he has read Ecclesiastes, but protests that he cannot remember it all. The leader, Granger, tells him not to worry, because they have perfected a method of recovering the memory of any text that has been read once.
The group begins moving along the river, when suddenly, in the space of a few seconds, the war begins and ends. They see from afar the bombing of the city, which is completely destroyed: Montag realizes Millie has died, but is relieved to remember that Faber should be on a bus between cities, and thus safe. The group decides to turn back and find people who will need their help. Eventually, they hope, the books they earn inside them will help rebuild civilization.