Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of Guy Montag and his transformation from a book-burning fireman to a book-reading rebel. Montag lives in an oppressive society that attempts to eliminate all sources of complexity, contradiction, and confusion to ensure uncomplicated happiness for all its citizens. As Montag comes to realize over the course of the novel, however, his fellow citizens are not happy so much as spiritually hollow. People in this world are constantly bombarded with advertisements and shallow entertainments, leaving them no space to think for themselves or assess their own emotional states. The result is a society that grows increasingly selfish, pleasure-seeking, disconnected, and empty.
Montag begins to grow conscious of the problems his society faces soon after his initial encounter with the free-spirited Clarisse McClellan. At first, the young woman confuses him. For all of her puzzling, unorthodox behavior, Montag remains intrigued, and after they part ways he fixates on Clarisse’s final question: “Are you happy?” In the moment he has no idea how to answer, but the question strikes a chord. Upon arriving home, his first response is denial: “Of course I’m happy. What does she think? I’m not?” Yet a realization dawns on him: “He was not happy...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.”
The timing of this recognition has great significance in the novel, since it occurs just before Montag discovers his wife, Mildred, unconscious in bed after overdosing on sleeping pills. When the EMTs arrive to pump Mildred’s stomach and give her an emergency blood transfusion, they casually inform Montag that this kind of event happens all the time. Mildred appears unfazed by her near-death experience, and Montag realizes that his wife has become so vacant that she’s essentially asleep even when she’s awake.
Between the recognition of his own unhappiness and the realization of his wife’s vacuousness, Montag becomes dimly aware that something is wrong with the status quo. The shock of witnessing a rebellious woman burn herself alive incites Montag’s transformation. He awakens into full consciousness of his society’s deep-seated problems when he witnesses this woman choose to die rather than let the firemen take away her books.
When Montag steals a book during the episode with the rebellious woman, he draws himself into a tense conflict with the sinister Captain Beatty and with society at large. Beatty immediately suspects Montag of harboring illegal books and pays him a visit, during which he explains the social and technological history that led to the banning of books. Beatty wishes to deter Montag from reading, but his speech has the opposite effect. After Beatty leaves, Montag decides to make sense of the very thing he’s dedicated his life to destroying: books.
Montag’s decision to seek out the value of books leads directly to the novel’s climax. Mildred strongly resists Montag’s reading project, and the conflict between the two comes to a head when Montag returns home to find Mildred and her friends watching television in the “parlor.” Montag grows furious with their shallowness and forces them to listen to a passage from a book. Although he tries to shrug his actions off as a joke, he visibly upsets the women, who leave the house and immediately turn him in to the firemen. The novel’s climax comes when Beatty orders Montag to burn his own house down. Instead of obeying, Montag sets Beatty on fire and flees. Montag escapes the city, floating down a river that ushers him out of the city and into the country. There he meets a roving band of like-minded intellectuals who devote their lives to preserving great books by committing them to memory. The novel concludes with a bomb falling on the city, reducing it to rubble. The band of intellectuals, led by Montag, head toward the destroyed city, hoping to rebuild.
By novel’s end, Montag’s transformation is complete. Although he has yet to master the information he receives from books, his thinking undergoes enough of a change to enable him to reject his society and embrace the possibility of a new one. Whereas the previous society collapsed due to its refusal of knowledge, knowledge will serve as the foundation for the new society.