Fahrenheit 451 Part One: The Hearth and the Salamander Summary
Guy Montag is having a good time setting things on fire. It’s his job. He’s a fireman, and appropriately wearing a fireman’s hat with the number 451 engraved on the front.
Now, by “setting things on fire” what we mean is burning a house down. More info to come; stay tuned.
Back at the fire station, Montag hangs up his gear and takes a shower. (Gleefully destroying homes is dirty work.) He slides down the classic fireman pole and heads outside; it’s about midnight.
He takes the subway to the station nearest his home and exits to the dark street, where he has the same feeling he’s had for a few nights running: someone has just been there in the street.
The someone turns out to be a young woman, whom he discovers when he rounds the corner. She’s very pale and has dark, shining brown eyes, and is staring at the “salamander” on his arm and the “phoenix disc” on his chest, whatever that means. (These are simply the images depicted on his uniform.)
Anyway, Montag asks the girl if she’s his new neighbor, which she is. She introduces herself as Clarisse McClellan, but only after being spacey and weird about the fact that Montag is a fireman. She asks to accompany him home, and Montag agrees.
As they walk along together, Montag, despite the perpetual aura of kerosene that hangs about his person, smells strawberries and apricots in the air, which he knows is impossible this time of year.
Clarisse decides to dispense with the small talk and reveals that she is seventeen and crazy. Her favorite activities include walking around and smelling things. And also looking at things, like the sunrise. She then informs Montag that she’s not afraid of him.
Guy looks into her dark eyes and sees himself reflected. He senses a certain illumination in her face. (We’re sorry, we can’t make this less cheesy for you.)
Clarisse wants to know how long Montag has been a fireman. Since he was twenty, he says, so ten years ago. She asks if he’s read the books he burns; of course not, he answers, because that’s illegal.
He then recites a little rhyming ditty in which different authors are burned on different days. Clarisse wants to know if, long ago, firemen actually put out fires instead of starting them.
No, says Guy. (Dream-smasher!)
Clarisse laughs, is chastised by Guy for not showing respect, and without segue begins talking about the cars that speed down the highway too quickly to see the world around them. (She has time to think about things like that, she explains, because she doesn’t engage in normal, time-wasting activities.)
We get the sense that the cars really are unreasonably speedy when Clarisse talks about the two-hundred-long foot billboards. She discusses all the things people miss when they drive by so quickly, like the fact that there’s dew on the grass in the morning.
Montag admits he hasn’t looked in a long time.
Clarisse explains that she lives with her mother, father, and Uncle. Her uncle is the rebel, it seems. He’s the one who tells her about how things used to be. He also gets arrested occasionally for such crimes as…being a pedestrian.
They’ve reached their respective houses and Montag says good night. Before they part, Clarisse asks him if he’s happy, which he finds to be obnoxious. She’s gone before he can answer.
Once he enters his house, though, Montag can’t shake the question. Of course he’s happy! Right…?
The whole encounter has left a bad taste in his mouth. It was all very strange, he reflects, like this one time he ran into an equally odd old guy in the park. (Oh, subtle foreshadowing, where would we be without you?)
He also can’t stop thinking about Clarisse’s face, which he finds to be very beautiful. It reminds him of the face of a clock, illuminated in darkness, “all certainty and knowing.”
Then Montag yells at himself for being a moron and pondering such silly matters.
But back to her face. It seemed to him like a mirror, reflecting him when he looked in it. We get into some blurry identity business here, where Montag can’t separate himself from Clarisse.
He also thinks it’s weird that she was just standing in the street like that in the middle of the night, almost as if she were waiting for him…
Montag goes into his bedroom but doesn’t turn on the light. He’s not happy. He feels as though he’s been wearing a mask, and this Clarisse girl took it and ran away.
Before he flicks the light switch, Guy stands around in the darkness and wonders what it will look like when he turns on the light. He knows his wife will be lying on the bed, flat on her back, that she’ll have little Seashells in her ears (headphones, we gather) listening to sounds and talk from the radio.
Guy makes his way to his own bed (this is like a 1950s, Lucy and Ricky bedroom), but on the way trips on a metal object. He sensed that he was going to trip before he did.
Rather than turning on the light, Guy simply flicks his lighter to illuminate the room. When he sees his wife, Mildred, she’s pale and her breath is shallow. The object on the floor is a bottle of sleeping pills, which used to have thirty capsules in it and now has zero.
As he stands there in shock, a series of jet bombers flies overhead, filling the sky with noise and shaking the bedroom. When they’re gone, he grabs the phone and dials whatever is the messed-up future-world version of 9-1-1.
Two guys show up to help with the emergency. They’re more like plumbers than doctors, much to Guy’s dismay. They use two machines on his wife, one to suck out her stomach and the other to clean her blood.
They’re rather callous and matter-of-fact, and ask Montag for the fifty dollar fee when they’re done. When he asks why they didn’t send a medical doctor, the men respond that these cases come ten a night, so they're pretty routine.
The handymen leave Montag alone with his still-sleeping wife. He ponders the immensity of the universe and the melancholy of being alone in a world of strangers.
Montag goes to the window. It’s 2 a.m. He hears the sound of laughter coming from Clarisse’s house. He walks over to their house and stands on the porch, listening to the words of a man he guesses is Clarisse’s uncle. This is an age of disposability, the voice says, when human beings are used and thrown away like napkins.
Guy moves back to his own house and falls asleep with the aid of a “sleep lozenge,” listening to the sound of the rain and concluding, “I don’t know anything anymore.”
The next morning, Montag wakes up to find his wife Mildred making toast and completely oblivious to last night’s fiasco, like that whole attempted suicide thing.
Instead, Mildred wants to talk about TV. Three walls of their parlour room are apparently made up of large TV screens, which she watches endlessly.
In this world, TV is interactive. Mildred sent in enough box tops to get a script, and she’s meant to stand in the middle of the room and read her part of the television show.
She also asks about getting a fourth TV wall put in, for 2,000 dollars. Guy responds that this is a third of his yearly pay.
Montag, who has had enough of his insipid spouse, walks outside in the rain. He encounters Clarisse, who is of course trying to catch the rain drops in her mouth.
She’s holding a dandelion and informs Guy that, if you rub the flower under your chin and your chin turns yellow, it means you’re in love. According to this test, Clarisse is in love. Guy tries it; he is not in love.
This makes him angry, probably because he’s married and being in love is sort of supposed to go hand-in-hand with the rings.
Clarisse explains that she has to go see her psychiatrist now. “They” want to know why she spends so much time thinking and playing around in nature instead of watching TV or engaging in other, equally brainless activities.
Guy remarks that she seems so much older than his wife, even though Mildred is thirty and she’s only seventeen.
Then she wants to know about how Montag got into his line of work. It’s strange, she thinks, for someone as open-minded as Guy to be a fireman.
Guy feels his body divide into two halves, which is probably hyperbole-speak for “identity crisis.” Clarisse heads out, and he stands around catching the rain in his mouth.
In the back of the firehouse lies the Mechanical Hound. It tracks its prey by sense of smell, which can be programmed into its mechanical insides, and kills them by lethal injection via its retractable four inch needle. When the firemen get bored, they program it to hunt down rats or chickens. (Whatever happened to Monopoly?)
Guy touches the hound on the head and it starts growling, which freaks him out. He backs away slowly until the hound closes its mechanical eyes again.
On the other side of the room, three of his coworkers and the Captain are all playing cards together. Montag comments that the hound doesn’t like him, but the Captain counters that a mechanical beast doesn’t have any such emotions.
It’s threatened him more than once, Montag replies. What if someone programmed it against him? Secretly, he worries about what he has hidden behind the ventilator grill back home (more on this later).
Captain Beatty makes a joke about Montag feeling guilty, which Montag does an all-around horrible job of playing off casually.
Montag continues to see Clarisse every day; she always walks him to the corner of his street. He comments that he feels as though he’s known her for years, and lest we start to think anything sketchy is going on, he insists that she makes him feel like a father.
She wants to know why he doesn’t have any children himself, and Montag, embarrassed, explains that his wife never wanted any.
They continue to chat. Clarisse explains that she doesn’t go to school and that they don’t miss her there, since she’s very anti-social anyway. Most of the activities in school – watching TV, looking at pictures, playing sports – don’t seem really social anyway (you never have real conversations with people, she says), so in her opinion she’s not missing much.
Clarisse then reveals the staggering violence prevalent in her world. People are always hurting each other, and six of her friends have been shot in the last year, never mind everyone that dies in car wrecks.
So she occupies her day mostly by watching. She likes to ride the subway and listen and watch. In doing so, Clarisse has discovered that no one talks about anything substantial. Even art is abstract, though she’s heard that sometime in the past art actually showed you real people.
A week later, Clarisse is gone.
Playing cards at the firehouse one night, Montag listens to the news on the radio: war may break out any moment, it reports.
Captain Beatty asks him what’s wrong, and Guy wonders if it’s guilt that he’s feeling.
He looks around the table at the other firemen and realizes that they all look exactly like he does: dark hair, unshaven, sunburnt faces. Montag asks aloud what happened to the man last week, whose library they “fixed.”
Beatty explains that he was taken off to an insane asylum, since “any man’s insane who thinks he can fool the government and us.”
Montag looks to the typed lists of millions of forbidden books which adorn the walls of the firehouse. Again he remembers the ventilator grille back home and is somehow soothed by it. He begins to respond to Beatty by saying, “One upon a time,” but is interrupted – this is an odd thing to say.
Montag realizes he made a mistake; at the last fire he glimpsed inside one of the books they were burning and saw the line “once upon a time.”
So he re-words his question. Didn’t firemen used to put out fires, he asks, rather than start them?
The other firemen laugh and show him their rule books, which clearly establish that the organization was started in 1790, in the colonies, by Benjamin Franklin. The rules themselves are fairly simple and can be summed up as “Go. Burn. Come back.”
Meanwhile, the alarm goes off and the firemen all rush out of the station house.
They arrive at a three-story house and seize a woman who is by no means trying to escape. Standing outside her house, she repeats the words which Hugh Latimer, a British clergyman, spoke to his friend as they were both being burned as heretics: “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.”
Beatty slaps the woman in the face and insists she tell him where “they” are. But he already knows that the books are hidden in the attic, as reported by this woman’s neighbor.
As the firemen scurry into the house, Montag is irritated. He never minded burning books before because they were only things, just objects unrelated to people.
Up in the attic, Montag attacks the books with his flamethrower. As one falls open, he reads a single line: “Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine.” (This is from Scottish poet Alexander Smith’s Dreamthorp, a collection of essays.)
Montag’s hand reaches out and takes the book, hiding it inside his jacket. Not Montag – Montag’s hand. He believes it acted on its own.
Outside the burning house, its owner refuses to move. “You can’t have my books,” says the woman. Then she pulls out a match and lights everything on fire, including herself. Meanwhile, Montag wonders why the fire alarms always come at nighttime – maybe because fire is more beautiful against the night sky.
On the way back to the firehouse, Beatty is able to repeat, word for word, what the woman quoted from Hugh Latimer, and explain its historical source.
The firemen are so surprised that they drive right by the firehouse.
At home, Mildred asks annoying questions which Montag ignores while still blaming his hand for all his earlier actions. He hides his book under his pillow.
He climbs into bed and cries himself to sleep.
Montag wakes up in the middle of the night and sees his wife in her own bed on the other side of the room, with the “Seashell” audio device in her ear. He wonders if the best way to talk to her might be a similar device, where he could whisper to her while she’s sleeping. But he doesn’t know what he would say anyway.
Finally he wakes her up and asks if she remembers how they met; she doesn’t, even though it was only ten years ago.
Montag wonders if she would cry, were he to die. Probably not. He remembers the dandelion which reported his lack of love.
He feels there’s a wall between him and his wife, much like the three TV walls in the parlour. She thinks of the fictional characters as her family.
Guy reflects on the loud, overwhelming sounds that come from the TV room when Mildred is in there watching.
Still in bed, Guy asks Mildred if she’s seen the girl next door, Clarisse, since she disappeared four days ago. Mildred thinks she’s dead and that her family has moved away. Montag falls asleep with thoughts of the Mechanical Hound.
The next morning Guy is sick and asks his wife for aspirin, and to turn off the noisy screens in the parlour room. She doesn’t want to, since that’s her family.
He tries to tell her about what happened last night – the woman they burned with all her books – but Mildred doesn’t care and just keeps talking about her TV shows.
Guy wants his wife to call in sick for him at work, because he knows if he got on the phone with Captain Beatty he’d fold like a bad hand of cards and go to work anyway.
He asks her if she’d mind if he quit his job. There must be something special about books, he argues, since the woman killed herself over them.
But Mildred is logical and fears hunger-stricken poverty.
Montag realizes that a book isn’t just an object, it’s a part of the person who wrote it.
Mildred is upset, but Guy counters that she hasn’t been really bothered by anything, not ever.
Just then Captain Beatty pulls up outside. Once in the house, he orders Mildred to shut the TV up. Left with Guy, he explains that he’s seen this all before, that every fireman goes through this.
The rule book lies, he said – their job hasn’t existed as long as it claims. It came into being later, after movies and radio took people away from books. Everything got shorter, faster.
While he’s lecturing to Guy, who is still in bed, Mildred starts fixing up the room, fluffing the pillows, etc. She finds the book behind his pillow but Guy cuts her off and yells at her to leave before she’s able to draw Beatty’s attention to it.
Beatty has moved on to the topic of sports, which allow for the organization and therefore subjugation of the country’s citizens.
The biggest problem with books, Beatty explains, is that everyone is so obsessed with political correctness and not offending any minorities that the materials were over-censored. At the end of the day, all that was allowed to remain was comic books and porn. “Intellectual” became a swear word, because everyone has to be equal, no one smarty-pants allowed to rise above the rest.
So these men were persecuted, and their books burned.
At the core, people want to be happy. And since everyone is a minority of something (whether race, sexual orientation, or occupation), everyone was offended by something. Which means all books are offensive, and all books should be burned.
Montag asks how it is possible that someone like Clarisse exists. The odd duck happens now and then, says Beatty, which is why they try to take the children off to school at the earliest possible age – to indoctrinate them, to stamp out individuality.
People like Clarisse are better off dead, he concludes.
In school, they stuff the children full of facts, but eliminate the possibility of argument or disagreement. If they can’t disagree, they can’t possibly be unhappy. And happiness is the point of living.
Books, says Beatty, don’t say anything. They are fiction, philosophy, argument, but nothing tangible or real. They make you feel lost.
Montag asks what happens if a fireman accidentally takes a book home. Beatty responds that the fireman can keep it for a day, but that then they will come to burn it. Beatty stands to leave, asking if Montag will come to work tonight.
Though sure that he will never come to work again, Montag says “Maybe.”
Beatty drives away in his car (a beetle) and Montag, looking out at the street, remembers Clarisse talking about how people used to have front porches, before sitting and talking and thinking was looked down upon.
Montag continues to think aloud regarding his personal crisis. He wants to smash things, he’s unhappy, he doesn’t know if he’ll ever work again – he might even start reading books. He wants to do something big, but he doesn’t know what.
He tells his wife he wants to show her something – something behind the ventilator grill.
The something turns out to be an entire collection of books that Guy has squirreled away, one at a time, over the last year.
He tells Mildred that they’re in this together now; Mildred responds by shrieking and taking one of the books to the kitchen incinerator.
Guy stops her and pleads desperately with his wife. He wants to read the books just once, to see what’s in them. If there’s nothing there, he’ll burn them. But people like Clarisse made him curious, and he wants to know why men like Beatty are afraid of her.
The front door’s electronic voice notifies Mrs. Montag that someone is at the front door. She’s afraid it’s Beatty again, but Montag insists they ignore the visitor and start reading the books. He opens one and, after a dozen pages, comes to this line: “It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end.” (FYI: This is from Gulliver’s Travels.)
Mildred doesn’t know what this means, and concludes that it means nothing – that Beatty was right.
Montag says they should start over, at the beginning.