The novel opens with Guy Montag, a “fireman” in a futuristic society where he and his coworkers start fires, rather than put them out. Books are banned and burned upon discovery, and Montag has no qualms about his responsibility.
But then he meets Clarisse McClellan, a seventeen-year-old Bohemian girl who happens to be his neighbor. She’s very chatty, and opens his eyes to the world of nature, dew drops, and not being a stooge. After their first meeting, Montag returns home to find his wife overdosed on sleeping pills. He calls for help, but he gets plumbers instead of medics. This sort of thing happens all the time, they say. The next morning, his wife (Mildred) doesn’t remember anything and is happy as a clam.
Montag grows increasingly dissatisfied with his life and work as he talks more with Clarisse. He starts to wonder if perhaps books aren’t so bad, and even steals one from a book burning. Meanwhile Clarisse disappears (probably dead), and his boss, Captain Beatty, is growing suspicious. He lectures Montag on the dangers of books and explains the origin of their profession. Far from rejuvenated, Montag feels more rebellious than ever. He spends the afternoon with his wife reading a secret stash of books he’s been storing and decides he needs a teacher. He takes a Bible and tries to memorize some of it on the way.
He settles on an old ex-professor named Faber, whom he met in the park one day. Faber is reluctant, but finally agrees to work with Montag against the firemen. Faber provides Montag with a two-way radio earpiece and sends him on his way. That evening Montag loses his cool and reads some banned poetry aloud to his wife’s friends. Not such a great decision. That night at the firehouse, Beatty taunts Montag by quoting contradictory passages from the same books. He’s trying to prove that literature is confusing and problematic. Then he takes Guy to a fire alarm – at Guy’s own house, called in by his wife, who flees the scene. Montag torches his own house on command, then turns on Beatty and torches him, along with the very scary Mechanical Hound sent after him.
Now a fugitive, Montag makes his way to Faber’s house, where he watches his own chase scene on TV. The men make plans to meet up later and in a different place, as the city is pretty much off limits for them. Montag flees to the river at the edge of the city and some other random pedestrian is killed in his place (the authorities wanted a happy ending to the televised chase).
Guy gloats in the river and thinks about life for approximately 4 paragraphs before bumping into a series of forest-bound individuals who turn out to be ex-professors and other intellectuals. The head honcho, Granger, explains the situation: since books are now banned, they each have memorized one text. Guy would like to volunteer parts of the Bible he tried to memorize early, but his brain’s a bit foggy right now.
Then the city is bombed by a warring country. Everyone is dead except for Montag and these book people in the woods. They decide to rebuild society, and Montag remembers a very relevant passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes about a time to sew, a time to reap, and the tree of life.