The date is somewhere in the future and the world government has finally completed its gargantuan task – blotting out the written word.
In this world, the task of honored “fireman” is not to put out fires, but to start them as anyone with a book is considered subversive. Those in the underground who have saved libraries full of work are considered traitors, subject to termination.
If you live by the rules, everything is wonderful as Montag, the unlikely hero of the piece, finds with his boring wife Mildred who sits at home communing with here “cousins” on the family television wall.
One day, Montag meets a young woman on the tram on the way home from work. Losing her balance and dropping her tote, Montag notices her “reading” material as he spies a “banned” substance in her handbag, a book.
In the normal course of events, Montag, just a few days from promotion to a leader of his “fire brigade,” should have reported the young woman – Clarisse – but he does not. He finds her strangely compelling. They also just keep on running into one another as Montag goes home to a marriage he finds less and less fulfilling as Mildred and “cousins” find that hallucinogens and television are the only way to fulfill their lives.
Montag wants none of it and makes a fateful decision when he follows Clarisse’s home, where he finds a veritable underground “library” that, unfortunately – and to throw suspicion – away is reported. Answering the call, the “fire brigade” handles the traitors it finds with its usual dispatch even as the books they cherish burn around them.
Horrified by his own act of inhumanity, he separates from his team and finds a trove of books and he stuffs them into his bag, hiding them at the bottom. Meantime, the house burns down with Clarisse’s father going up protecting his books. Clarisse, meantime, escapes, and heads north to a land beyond the reach of the government. (She had shown Montag the “escape route” when she saw his slow conversion to the “book cause.”)
Now, every time his “fire brigade” responds, Montag finds more and more books to read and he reads voraciously, to the point, where Mildred can take it no longer and she leaves. Of course, being a good “cousin,” she reports him, and on their next run, his “captain” brings a pistol, having every intention of shooting the “traitor” Montag. In the ensuing struggle, Montag gains control of the gun and the course of events reverses itself. The run, by the way, is to Montag’s home.
The key to this, so far, is Bradbury’s keen understanding of human nature and his excellent writing style and ability. He makes the totally unbelievable, believable as we watch Montag’s transformation into a real person from being an automaton.
Realizing what he has done, Montag has no choice but to drop his “fire brigade” in its tracks so that it will never bother people again. He realizes the cost of his actions when he fills his house with gasoline and puts down his brigade. Of course, there will be a new one along soon, but now television, the real medium of this “age” begins to track the villain.
Montag hides from patrols by day and travels by night and is horrified when he sees his alleged capture and punishment (some innocent is gunned down by a helicopter) and all is right with the world.
Bradbury’s juxtaposition of the world where television (the “Internet” of its day) and his creation of a world where the “word” was the enemy was brilliant and his writing clear, concise, and powerful. The late author had few peers that could match him, other than Poul Andersen, Anne Taylor, and others.
This was a generation where the word was still king and good authorship and editorship were valued. Now with the Internet and Web, things are changing, but, the interesting note is that, if anything, they are making things freer.
Montag, by the way, does take the “escape route” where he finds Clarisse and him leader of the rebels and here he is forced to make the ultimate choice because each “rebel” becomes a book that he or she treasures, down to the watermark. Now, he must choose with the prophetic sentence: “I am born… ” from David Copperfield by Dickens. His transformation from Hugh Montag to Copperfield is complete.