The time is the near future, and the place is an unnamed typical American city. Guy Montag, a thirty-year-old "fireman," is a model citizen of his community: he takes pleasure in his work, he earns a good salary, and he lives with Mildred -- his wife of ten years -- in a suburban house, with all the latest appliances and wall-sized TVs. But in this world, "firemen" don't fight fires -- they start them. Books and reading are banned, and the firemen's job is to burn down houses containing books... sometimes burning down the person inside, too.
Montag has always thought he was happy in his work, in love with his wife, and generally satisfied with life. But things start to happen which force him to question his perception of his world and himself. He meets a neighbor, seventeen-year-old Clarisse McClellan, who asks Montag profound questions about history, nature, and his own feelings. He discovers his wife, Mildred, attempting to kill herself -- but after he calls the paramedics to pump out her stomach, she refuses to acknowledge or talk about her overdose, instead returning to a life spent watching her full-wall TVs. And he starts to see the anomalies in his society which no one talks about: the way everyone watches TV instead of talking, the way the world moves so fast that people have no time to think and are always dying in car crashes, and the way his country is silently inching closer to war.
Montag finds that he is no longer happy. His boss at work, Fire Captain Beatty, teases Montag about his new squeamishness. Meanwhile, the Mechanical Hound -- a horrible hunting robot in the shape of a dog which helps the firemen hunt down book owners -- seems to become strangely hostile toward Montag. When the firemen respond to a fire alarm, and end up burning down a houseful of books with the woman who owns them still inside, Montag finds himself sickened and shaken. This sensation is heightened when he learns that Clarisse is dead, killed by a car.
Montag, half unconsciously, stole a book from the house just before burning it-- and we learn that he's been stealing books from burning houses for the past year. At home, he reveals his hidden pile of books to the horrified Mildred, and insists that she help him try to make sense of them. Montag also remembers meeting an old man named Faber in a park the year before: Faber, a former English professor, quoted poetry to Montag, and Montag decides to make contact with him. After much trouble, he convinces the passionate but frightened old man to join him in a scheme to destroy the firemen's network from inside, by planting forbidden books in their own firehouses and then calling in reports. He also gives Faber a rare Bible he's stolen, to be saved and reprinted in the underground printing network, and promises to give him money to help. Faber, in turn, gives Montag an electronic invention of his own: a tiny earplug that fits in Montag's ear like a "green bullet," through which Montag can hear Faber's voice and Faber can hear everything said to Montag. Faber, who is now "with" Montag all the time, begins to tutor him in literature, history and philosophy.
But when Mildred has invites two of her superficial friends over to watch television, Montag -- enraged by their smug attitude -- recklessly pulls out a book and reads them an ancient poem. The women leave angrily, and Mildred flees in tears. When Montag goes off to work, Fire Captain Beatty, apparently amused by Montag's recent self-doubts -- which he says are perfectly normal for many firemen -- gives Montag a lecture on why books are useless. Then an alarm sounds, and the firemen respond to it -- only for Montag to discover that they have arrived to burn down his own house.
As Mildred flees the house with a packed suitcase, jumping into a taxi for the city, the amazed Montag learns that Mildred herself phoned in the report of Montag's hidden books. Beatty orders Montag to burn his own house and books, and Montag numbly obeys. As the house burns in the darkness, Beatty mocks Montag and finally strikes him across the face. Montag's "earphone" falls out, and Beatty recognizes what it is. When he laughingly tells Montag that he will track down and arrest Faber too, Montag snaps and attacks Beatty with his kerosene-filled fire house, burning him to death. Then he burns the Mechanical Hound, which leaps out of the darkness to attack him. Montag knocks the other two firemen unconscious, grabs the few books which have not been destroyed, and -- hardly able to take in what's happening to him -- flees to the back alleys.
Montag heads to Faber's house. He gives him his books and the last of his money, and together they make plans: Montag will flee to the river and follow it to the wilderness, where it is said that hobo camps live outside of the urban societies. Faber will catch a bus to St. Louis first thing in the morning to see a printer he knows there. As he leaves Faber's house, Montag hears on his earplug radios, and sees on the televisions in the house windows, that there's a manhunt on: another Mechanical Hound is after him.
Montag reaches the river just before the manhunt find shim. He is washed downriver in the darkness, until he comes to a wide, dark land: the wilderness. Crawling ashore, he finds the railroad track Faber told him about, and follows it into the darkness. Suddenly, he stumbles across a campfire surrounded by old men. Montag joins them at their fire, and finds they already know who he is -- they have seen the news on their battery-powered television. The old men introduce themselves: They are a group of former professors, writers and humanists, part of a nationwide network of people who have fled modern society to live freely between the cities. And each of them carries, in his head, a book which he has memorized, and which they hope will someday be written down again when civilization has changed. Montag offers to add the little he knows: passages he's memorized from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible he gave to Faber.
On their television, Montag and the others watch the end of his manhunt. After Montag escapes, the authorities framed someone else, and the Mechanical Hound kills an innocent person to make the TV audience happy. Montag is now free from their persecution. He decides to join the old men, who, right now, are keeping a strange vigil: War has been declared, and they are waiting to see if the city will be bombed -- which would indicate an end, and new start, to civilization.
At sunrise the next morning -- before their very eyes -- a trio of jet bombers appear over the city, bomb it to smithereens, and as rapidly disappear. Civilization is clearly coming to a close, and -- the men hope -- to a new start. Montag stays with them as they begin the journey toward the city, to see what remains and what will happen now.
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