As the novel begins, Guy Montag is taking an intense pleasure in burning a pile of books on a lawn. It's his job—he's a fireman. He loves the way things look when they burn and the way he feels when he burns them. When he's done, he returns to the fire station, changes out of his equipment (including his helmet with the number 451 on it), and takes the subway to his stop.
The opening plunges you into the different world of the novel. The job of the fireman is the opposite of what we expect—firemen set fires. Montag, the protagonist, likes his job. He seems happy, and he doesn't appear to think there's anything wrong with burning books.
As he walks home, Montag encounters a teenage girl standing alone. She introduces herself as Clarisse McClellan, a new neighbor, and asks if she can walk home with him. She notes that Montag is a fireman, and says that she isn't afraid of him and tells him that fireman used to put out fires rather than start them. Montag finds Clarisse fascinating, but she also makes him nervous. For some reason she reminds him of an early memory of candlelight.
Based on Montag's reactions to Clarisse, it's clear that she's unconventional simply for engaging him in conversation, but also for the things she knows. Montag's memory of candlelight seems to symbolize the flickering self-awareness that Clarisse awakens in Montag.
Clarisse says that in her family people actually walk places, in contrast to people in their jet cars who don't know what the world looks like. She says that she doesn't take part in the entertainments that her peers do. When she tells him that there's dew on the grass in the morning, Montag suddenly isn't sure if he knew that. When they reach Clarisse's house, all the lights are on because her family is still up talking. She asks Montag if he's happy, then runs inside before he can answer.
The fact that everything about Clarisse is strange to Montag reveals a lot about normality in this society. People are rarely out or even awake at night, they rarely walk anywhere or notice everyday aspects of the natural world, and no one seems to have deep meaningful conversations.
Montag enters his own house, troubled by Clarisse's parting question. Of course he's happy. But the image of Clarisse's face stays with him, reminding him of doubts he keeps in a hidden place within him—his "innermost trembling thought."
This is the first hint that Montag is dealing with inner doubts—doubts that he had managed to hide even from himself.
Upon entering the cold, dark silence of his bedroom, which the narrator compares to a tomb, Montag realizes that he is not, in fact, happy. His wife, Mildred, is stretched out as usual on her bed, with radio earplugs called "Seashells" filling her ears with sound. Montag accidentally steps on an empty bottle of sleeping pills on the floor and remembers that the bottle had contained 30 pills earlier in the day. He flicks on a hand-held igniter and sees that Mildred is pale and barely breathing.
The description of the bedroom as a cold, empty tomb with separate beds suggests that Montag's marriage with Mildred is dying. Notice also the contrast between Montag and Mildred: Montag admits to himself that he is unhappy, but Mildred avoids acknowledging her unhappiness and instead overdoses on sleeping pills.
Suddenly, a squadron of jet bombers rips through the sky overhead, shaking the house with a supersonic roar.
The bombers suggest a threat of war, and that this is a society capable of great violence.
Montag calls the hospital. Two technicians arrive with machines—one to pump out Mildred's stomach, the other to replace her blood with fresh, clean blood. The pump is also equipped with an Eye, a device that allows the machine's operator to clean out of the melancholy from a patient. The technicians chatter while they work, and Montag grows more upset. They finish, charge him $50, and leave to take another call for a similar case in the neighborhood.
The fact that technicians, rather than doctors, come to revive Mildred's indicates that suicide is very common in this society. The technicians use their machines to suck all the sadness out of a person and simply dispose of it like trash. No one addresses or even acknowledges the underlying causes of unhappiness.
Montag watches Mildred as color returns to her cheeks. He opens the window across the lawn and hears laughter coming from the McClellans' house. Montag walks across the lawn and stands outside his neighbors' brightly lit home, listening to their conversation. The uncle is talking about how people are treated like "disposable tissue."
Opening the windows and eavesdropping on his neighbors' conversation hints at the beginning of the process of opening Montag's mind. The McClellans' are happy, and are having a real conversation, about real issues and ideas. .
The next morning, Mildred has no memory of the previous night and denies taking the pills. Later, when Montag gets ready for work, Mildred is in the TV parlor preparing to watch a TV show that lets her participate. The TV fills up three full walls. Mildred complains that they don't have a fourth wall yet. Montag makes sure the TV program has a happy ending before leaving for work.
Mildred drowns her unhappiness in a constant media blitz. She keeps radio earphones in her ears and spends her day captivated and superficially content, surrounded by an interactive, three-wall TV. In doing so, she conforms utterly to the society around her.
On his way to work, Montag meets Clarisse again. She is walking in the rain, tasting the raindrops and holding dandelions. She applies a childish dandelion test (rubbing the flower on his chin) to see if Montag is in love—her test shows that he isn't in love with anyone. Montag is upset and insists that he is in love.
Clarisse earlier forced Montag to think about a big question he'd avoided—whether he was happy—now she forces him to think about whether he's actually in love. Tasting raindrops is a perfect metaphor for interacting with the natural world.
Clarisse tells Montag that she thinks it's strange that he's a fireman, since other firemen won't talk to her or listen to her. Clarisse's comment makes Montag feel as if he's split in half. But rather than say anything, he sends her on her way to see her psychiatrist. The authorities make her see the psychiatrist because of her tendency toward independent thought.
Clarisse now also forces Montag to face his own individuality by making him see that he's not a typical fireman. But Montag isn't yet ready to say or do anything about it. Notice how the authorities try to control and silence independent people like Clarisse.
After Clarisse leaves, Montag opens his mouth to taste the raindrops while he walks to work.
Montag has been affected by Clarisse., though.
At the fire station, Montag looks in on the "sleeping" Mechanical Hound, a robotic creature that can be programmed to track the scent of an animal (or person), which it then kills with an injection of morphine or procaine. To entertain themselves, the firemen sometimes program the hound and let rats loose in the firehouse and watch the hunt. Montag doesn't usually participate. Now, when Montag touches the Hound's muzzle, it makes a growling noise, shows its needle, and moves towards him. Shaken, Montag escapes to the second floor.
The Mechanical Hound is one of the more chilling parts of the world of Fahrenheit 451. It's one of the firemen's terrible weapons, but it's supposed to be without personality or motive—a machine that attacks only what it is programmed to attack. Yet the Mechanical Hound threatens Montag. Maybe he has something to hide? Bradbury is foreshadowing later events here.
Upstairs, four firemen are playing cards. Montag complains to Captain Beatty (whose helmet has a phoenix on it) about the Hound's threatening gestures toward him. The Captain says the Hound doesn't like or dislike, it just does what it's programmed to do. Montag wonders if someone has programmed the Hound with his partial chemical fingerprint. The Captain dismisses this but says they'll have the Hound checked out. Montag thinks about something he has hidden behind the ventilator grille at home. Out loud, he says he wouldn't want to be the Hound's next victim. Captain Beatty asks him if he has a guilty conscience, looks at him steadily, and then laughs softly.
Captain Beatty is Montag's boss. Outwardly he reassures Montag, yet there's a quiet but distinct undertone of threat to what he says. When Beatty stares at Montag, it's almost as if Beatty can sense what Montag is thinking about. Beatty's phoenix insignia symbolizes rebirth through fire—but the renewed world promised by the firemen is one without books. This image of a phoenix will be contrasted with another image of a phoenix at the end of the novel.
For the next week, Montag sees Clarisse every day. They have conversations about their friendship, about children, about the smell of old leaves. Montag feels comfortable and peaceful. Clarisse tells him she's left school because they think she's antisocial. She describes the school day to Montag—TV class, lots of sports, making pictures, transcribing history, and memorizing answers. She also describes what passes for sociability among her peers—going to a Fun Park, breaking windows, daredevil games in cars, shouting, dancing, and fighting. Six of her friends have been shot in the last year. Clarisse prefers to talk, or simply to observe people and figure out who they are. She eavesdrops on conversations. She tells Montag that people talk without saying anything.
Bradbury uses the character of Clarisse to describe how mass media culture has affected the youth in Fahrenheit 451. Clarisse's peers have no respect for their elders and don't seem to value their own lives. They seek pleasure and instant gratification, they speed around in their cars and crash, they shoot each other, and they break things. Their education consists of learning answers without asking questions. In contrast, instead of searching out cheap thrills, Clarisse does what she can to try to understand and engage with other people.
Over the same seven-day period, Montag works at the firehouse, sometimes entering through the back door. Someone mentions that a fireman in Seattle committed suicide by setting the Mechanical Hound to his own chemical fingerprint. And then, one day, Clarisse is not there to walk him to the subway when he goes to work.
Montag's life actually does seem split in two during this period. On his walks with Clarisse he is his real self, at ease, talking, and listening. At the firehouse, the Hound preys on his peace of mind.
At the station that day, Montag and the firemen play cards as the radio in the background reports that war may be declared at any moment. Montag, meanwhile, feels that Beatty can sense his guilt. He says he's been thinking about the man whose library they burned last week—thinking about what it would be like to have firemen in their own homes. With a knowing tone, Beatty asks whether Montag has any books. Montag says no.
Although Montag's guilty secret hasn't yet been disclosed to the reader, it seems more and more likely that the secret involves books. Montag's guilt about burning the man's books also indicate that he's starting to rethink whether he really should be a fireman—he's starting to think for himself.
Montag asks if there once was a time when firemen prevented fires, rather than setting them. The other firemen scoff at this and take out their rule books, which state the history of the Firemen of America (established in the 18th century to burn books of British influence in the Colonies) and the basic rules of being a fireman—answer the alarm, burn everything, return to the fire station. They all stare at Montag. Suddenly, the fire alarm goes off.
In this future America, people are taught an alternate history that connects burning books to the patriotic acts of American independence—the first burned books were British-influenced books. But Montag's questions are starting to make him stand out from the others who merely accept this history without questioning it.
The firemen arrive at the house of an old woman whose neighbors reported her for having books. They break down the door and find the woman staring at the wall, reciting an obscure quotation. The woman remains in the house as the firemen ransack the house, pile up the books, and pump kerosene into the rooms. While they work, Montag grabs a book and instinctively hides it in his clothing.
The woman knows what will happen to her and, but she remains in the house. Unlike everyone else in this society, she has something to live and die for—books. By taking a book and hiding it, Montag signals that he may have his own secrets about books..
The woman refuses to leave the building. Montag desperately tries to lead her out, but she won't leave her porch. Kerosene fumes are rising from the books. Captain Beatty holds his igniter and counts to ten, but before he reaches ten, the woman strikes a match and lights herself and everything else on fire. The neighbors come out to watch the spectacle.
By choosing to burn herself rather than simply accept the burning of her books, the old woman becomes a martyr for books and the intellectual freedom they represent. Rather than letting the firemen kill her, she takes action and kills herself first.
Driving back to the firehouse, Montag asks what the woman was reciting when they entered. Beatty knows it by heart. It's a phrase that one man said to another before they were both burned for heresy in England in 1555: "We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."
The woman chooses an appropriate quotation for her death. Her hope is to serve as an example to others, to serve as a flickering light or inspiration in the minds of those like Montag who witness her burning.
At home that night, Montag hides the book he took from the old woman's house under his pillow. Mildred talks to Montag for a while but it seems to him that she is saying nothing. Later that night, as Mildred listens to her Seashells, Montag feels like she's a complete stranger. He asks her where they originally met. Neither of them can remember. Mildred gets up and goes into the bathroom, where she begins to swallow sleeping pills.
Mildred, who's entire life is consumed by watching TV and listening to the radio, has nothing to say for herself. She is empty, and can't even remember the facts of her own life. Montag suffers from the same affliction, but he at least tries to remember. Mildred doesn't try—she escapes her sad thoughts by taking pills.
Montag realizes he's not in love with Mildred anymore. He feels like he's lost her to high-speed driving, the Seashells that are always stuffed in her ears, and the chattering "relatives" on the three TV screen walls in the living room. On the occasions when he tries to watch TV with Mildred, he's overwhelmed by the noise and nonsense of it, and Mildred isn't ever able to explain what the "relatives" are arguing about, either.
Both Montag and Mildred are clearly unhappy. But while Montag begins to investigate why he's unhappy, Mildred uses the distractions provided by their society to hide her unhappiness, even from herself. Montag, by asking himself hard questions, is trying to find himself. Mildred, by avoiding the same questions, is losing herself.
Montag mentions to Mildred that he hasn't seen the neighbors in a while and wonders what happened to them. Mildred responds that the McClellans moved out four days ago. She adds that the girl (Clarisse) was run over by a car and killed.
Though it's never made clear, it seems likely that the McClellans were either forcibly relocated or killed by the authorities to eliminate their dangerous ideas.
The next morning, Montag feels ill and vomits. He's late for work and considers calling in sick. He tells Mildred that he's haunted by the woman that the firemen burned along with her books. Montag also describes his guilt over all the books he's destroyed. Mildred refuses to have a real discussion about it. The painful exchange is interrupted when Captain Beatty unexpectedly arrives.
Montag's guilt about the woman's death has made him physically unwell and has caused him to question his job as a fireman. The old woman succeeded in lighting a candle in his mind that won't go out. Mildred, as always, refuses to engage in any deep conversation.
Once inside, Beatty tells Montag that he anticipated Montag would call in sick. He says that all firemen, at some point, struggle with the issues now bothering Montag. Beatty then tells Montag the real history of firemen, beginning with the development of mass media. It's the story of life speeding up in the 20th century, the world getting more crowded, and people having less time. Books were condensed to digests and tabloids and 15-minute radio shows. Information was delivered faster and faster, in briefer and briefer packages, with an emphasis on instant gratification. Education was simplified and shortened. Entertainment was everywhere.
Beatty's knowledge of the subject implies that he at one time shared Montag's concerns and researched the subject, even if he ultimately chose to remain a fireman. Incidentally, Beatty's critical descriptions of omnipresent entertainment and media distractions, dumbed-down news coverage, condensed literature, and shortened attention spans—all envisioned by Bradbury midway through the 20th century—look like fairly accurate predictions of early 21st-century society.
Another factor in the dumbing down of culture, according to Beatty, were the demands made by every imaginable minority group (geographical, ethnic, occupational, religious, and so on). No one would accept being offended, no one wanted to offend, and so books and magazines became bland and harmless, and people stopped reading, turning instead to comic books and sex magazines. No governmental censorship was necessary in the beginning. The effects of technology and the pressuring tactics of minorities of every sort were enough to make people hate debate and deep thought, and resort to burning books.
Beatty describes how a society comes to value and impose conformity on itself out of an innocent desire to avoid offending anyone. But being a free individual among other free individuals requires a willingness to offend and be offended. Bradbury again predicts the future with remarkable accuracy—though the term "political correctness" didn't exist when Bradbury wrote this novel, modern critiques of political correctness as censorship often echo Beatty's account.
As Beatty talks, Mildred starts straightening up the house. She soon discovers the book that Montag hid behind his pillow. When she tries to point out the book to Beatty, Montag snaps at her to sit down. Beatty notices the exchange, but continues speaking as if he hadn't noticed.
Beatty's willingness to overlook the book that Montag has taken suggests again that Beatty has been where Montag is now and is willing to let Montag work it out for himself.
Beatty says the word "intellectual" became a swear word. No one wanted to feel less intelligent than anyone else—everyone wanted to be equal. Books were like weapons used to make some people feel inferior. The job then fell to firemen to become the "official censors, judges, and executors" and to enforce the ban on books. Beatty comments that, after all, people just want to be happy, and this culture provides pleasure.
This society equates happiness with not feeling offended and having easy access to instant gratification. To ensure that they attain this state of "happiness," society has empowered firemen—who don't necessarily have any training in literature, or ethics, or law—to destroy books and knowledge.
Montag asks about Clarisse, and Beatty reveals that he'd been keeping an eye on the McClellan family for some time because of their odd and independent behavior, adding that it's for the best that Clarisse is dead.
Beatty's comment here makes it clear that in addition to destroying books, firemen are also willing to kill people.
Before leaving, Beatty mentions that every fireman eventually feels the urge to read a book. Montag asks what would happen to a fireman who accidentally took a book home. Beatty says the fireman could keep the book for 24 hours, but then would have to burn it, or else the rest of the firemen would come burn it for him. Beatty leaves, expecting Montag to return to work later that night. After Beatty leaves, Montag is angry and confused, and finds that he wants to hold onto these feelings.
Again, Beatty implies indirectly that he was once in a situation similar to Montag's and that he chose to remain a fireman. But it's clear that Montag will make a different choice. Unlike everyone else in this society, Montag lets himself remain unhappy, instead of drowning his feelings in entertainment or drugs.
Montag tells Mildred he never wants to work as a fireman again, and shows her a secret he's been keeping behind the ventilator grille: 20 books. Mildred becomes hysterical and tries to burn them, but he stops her. He says that they're both emotional messes, whether she admits it or not, and says that maybe there's something in the books that can help. She's reluctant, but he convinces her that they should give themselves 48 hours to look at the books, and if what Captain Beatty says is true—that books are meaningless—then they'll burn the books together. Montag wants to understand why someone like Beatty would be afraid of someone like Clarisse. Montag and Mildred sit on the floor and start reading.
This is the emotional climax of the first part of the book. Montag is at last voicing his fears about his relationship with Mildred, as well as his curiosity and hope about the books he's been hoarding without reading. He has a creeping suspicion that what the firemen stand for is wrong, while what Clarisse represents is right. He's ready to try to engage intellectually with other people's ideas and ways of looking at the world. He starts to read.