Fahrenheit 451: Summary: Part 1A
Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 begins with a description of the main character, Guy Montag, a fireman trained not to put out fires, but to set them. The number on his helmet reads 451. Coincidentally, this is also the temperature at which he and the other firemen burn the books they find. Montag seems to be a robot of sorts, a machine simply following orders, not thinking for himself in any way at all. His mission-a mission to destroy homes contaminated with books-is mandated by the government. Though he initially seems moderately content with his job and his life in general, Montag's mind reflects the condition of his futuristic society: empty. He walks home from work every night "thinking little at all about nothing in particular." In this world, very few people still bother to consider the deeper questions of philosophy and religion. They are consumed with instant gratification-gratification that distracts them from larger, more important yet unsettling issues. The government, which strongly promotes this lifestyle, is in the meantime struggling to sugarcoat a major world war, which threatens to tear the nation apart-physically.
On this evening, Montag is surprised when he rounds a street corner to come face to face with a teenage girl, Clarisse McClellan, who happens to be his neighbor. Clarisse admits herself that she is "seventeen and . . . crazy." Indeed she is out of place in this brave new world of sorts, where individual personalities are downplayed by society. More importantly, Clarisse thinks for herself-a trait definitely discouraged by the totalitarian government of the time.
On their walk, Clarisse asks questions that force Montag to think deeply, perhaps for the first time, about his life and himself as a person. For example, she laments over the incredibly fast speed of cars on the roads. "I sometimes think drivers don't know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly," she explains to the fireman. Clarisse brings up a good point: this society is too preoccupied with speed to enjoy the colors of nature. There is actually a minimum speed limit: vehicles driving too slowly will be pulled over by the police. Clarisse admits that she doesn't go to the government-sponsored activities, such as parlor walls or Fun Parks, and thus she has plenty of time to daydream and think deeply. This is all new to Montag, who can't believe his neighbor is so rebellious. Yet in a sense, Clarisse is an inspiration to Montag, who is beginning to feel rebellious himself.
Later, she asks him if he is happy, and he immediately becomes uncomfortable and embarrassed, not knowing what to say. It's obvious that Montag has tried to dismiss this thought, yet because of Clarisse, he begins to consider these deeper questions of life. For example, when he returns home and looks at his wife, in bed and listening to "little seashells" in her ears that serve to entertain her mind during the night, he realizes that indeed he isn't happy. Bradbury explains, "he wore his happiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask and there was no way of going to knock on her door and ask for it back."
In bed, Montag soon realizes that his wife, Mildred, has tried to kill herself by downing an entire bottle of sleeping tablets. Montag, still in shock, dials the police and soon two robot-type men enter the house, carrying two different machines to drain and replace Mildred's blood. Bradbury contrasts this very melancholy scene with the laughter of Clarisse and her family next door: "Above all, their laughter was relaxed and hearty and not forced in any way, coming from the house that was so brightly lit this late at night while all the other houses were kept to themselves in darkness."
This is too much for Montag's fragile emotional base. All the ideas fluttering around his mind are captured in Bradbury's stream-of-consciousness narration: "Clarisse, Mildred, uncle, fire, sleeping tablets . . . "
In the morning, when Mildred awakes, Montag questions her about her suicide attempt and she denies it, saying she "wouldn't do a thing like that." Soon, Mildred's obsession with her "family," or the fictional characters of her expensive three-walled television, is made known. Obviously Mildred fits the perfect profile of a modern human: she's just another robot; she doesn't think or feel, but simply absorbs the propaganda that the government feeds her.