Part I – The Heath and the Salamander
In part one, we meet Guy Montag, a firefighter in the 24th century. In this 24th century, fire fighters burn down homes in which books are found rather than put out fires. Like many of his fellow fire fighters, Montag enjoys this.
The world that Montag lives in is very technologically advanced, but the technology has not necessarily enriched people’s lives. Montag’s wife, for instance, enjoys her interactive television shows and her radio, but she doesn’t have the mental depth to hold a real conversation. She uses external stimuli to occupy her mind during the day, and at night she prevents herself from having to think by taking sleeping pills. When she overdoses and must have her stomach pumped, the medics tell Montag that this is a common occurrence, leading him to believe that many people must be very unhappy with their lives.
This concept of technology replacing human thought and emotion is more relevant today than Bradbury could have known. As technology advances, we are able to expend less effort – both physically and mentally – to do everyday tasks. The fear of this reliance on technology has spawned numerous books and movies since Bradbury’s novel.
Two events play an important role in Montag’s transition from complacency to curiosity and dissatisfaction with his life. One is his conversations with Clarisse, a young neighbor who is the opposite of Montag’s wife. She is thoughtful, curious and mentally engaged. She causes Montag to doubt who he is and whether he is happy with that person. The other is the death of the old woman who chooses to burn along with her books. Montag is intrigued to see someone so passionate about something, and in an effort to understand this passion he steals a book from the woman’s house. We find out later that it is not the first book he’s taken.
Montag makes an effort to share his curiosity with his wife and shows her the books he has taken. She does not share his curiosity and instead becomes frightened and hysterical, telling him he must burn the books immediately.
Part II – The Sieve and the Sand
As Montag begins reading the books he’s stolen, he becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his life. He wonders about all the things that he doesn’t know and feels that he has been “numb,” going through his life without really feeling anything.
Montag tries to share his curiosity with his wife and engage her in conversation, to arouse her curiosity as well, but she is afraid to venture beyond her safe, superficial life. As Montag begins to broaden his mind and question the status quo, he becomes increasingly disgusted with his wife’s mindless behavior.
Montag finds himself unable to retain the information he reads in the books. He seeks out the help of a former English professor named Faber that he encountered once in the past. The professor represents the “old world” before the banning of books, but he also represents enlightenment and knowledge Montag enlists his help to try and overthrow the “regime.”
Part III – Burning Bright
Montag is trying to avoid punishment from his captain by turning in one of his books when he is called to an alarm that turns out to be his own home. He finds that his own wife has turned him in. After being forced to burn his own home and then turning his flamethrower on his captain, killing him, Montag struggles to escape. He is wounded by the mechanical hound used to track down “criminals” but manages to get away. He seeks the help of Faber, who directs him to a place where he will be safe. Before leaving the city, he sees the mechanical hound kill an innocent man whom the authorities then use as a cover, claiming that the man is Montag, caught and killed for his crimes. The realization that the society would rather kill an innocent man than allow any doubt of their authority by admitting that they had not caught him seals Montag’s disdain for that world. While a war begins and the city is destroyed by a bomb, he finds his way to the safe area to which Faber had sent him and starts a new life with a group of scholars and thinkers.
Throughout the novel technology plays the part of antagonist. It takes away people’s ability to think for themselves, it invades privacy, and it causes physical harm. Under the guise of protecting the people and providing a safe environment with no conflicts, the government system uses this technology to rule with an iron hand. The fear of this type of authoritarian rule was as relevant to Bradbury’s audience in the 1950’s as it is to today’s audience. At the time it was written, there was concern about what it would be like to live in a world controlled by Hitler-type authority, as well as concern about censorship by our own government. Today there is still a fear of being misled by our government, but now technology plays a larger role (as it does in the book). This technology provides nearly unlimited information, but it does not discern what is accurate information and what is “propaganda.” In a way our current situation mirrors the theme of the book in that our technology is providing convenience and a plethora of information, but it often is not contributing to greater understanding or true knowledge.