The novel’s protagonist is thirty-year-old Guy Montag, who has followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps to become a fireman and has performed his job for ten years without thinking twice about the implications of his actions. He has simply gone about his duties with “the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame;” he has smiled the same smile for as long as he can remember and even sleeps with “the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles.”
Montag’s life is irrevocably changed when he meets Clarisse McClellan, his new neighbor who describes herself as “seventeen and insane.” She is a misfit in the world of the novel because she enjoys conversation and takes the time to observe and appreciate her surroundings. Her psychiatrist is concerned because she likes to walk in the woods, watching birds and collecting butterflies. Clarisse challenges Montag about the nature of his work and in their brief conversations teaches him to pay attention to the outside world. Once Clarisse has raised his consciousness, Montag realizes that he cannot go on burning books and must instead do whatever he can to save them.
Montag’s wife of ten years, Mildred, stands in stark contrast to Clarisse. She numbs her mind with sleeping pills and with the babble provided by the mass media. When she is not watching the huge television that takes up three of her living room walls, Mildred wears thimble-sized radios that plug her ears against outside stimulation. She refers to television characters as her “family,” yet when Montag asks her what a show she watches is about, she only responds, “There are these people named Bob and Ruth and Helen.” Neither she nor Montag can even remember how they originally met each other. Bradbury portrays Mildred as a typical citizen of twenty-first-century America; she is so brainwashed that when Montag starts to collect books to satisfy his thirst for knowledge, she turns him in.
Montag’s most significant adversary is Beatty the fire captain. An intuitive man, Beatty realizes immediately when Montag begins to have doubts about his profession. Beatty has read a few books himself in the line of duty but insists that they are worthless because they contradict one another and because the people they portray never actually lived.
Faber, an English professor until the last liberal arts college was closed forty years ago, turns out to be Montag’s most important ally in his quest to preserve books. At first Montag seems in danger of following Faber’s orders as unthinkingly as he followed Beatty’s, but with Faber’s encouragement, he learns to think independently.
Bradbury’s primary theme in Fahrenheit 451 is the importance of independent thought and intellectual freedom. He sees reading as a key method of cultivating intellectual curiosity. Books confront readers with a variety of conflicting opinions and ideas, forcing them to think for themselves.
Bradbury portrays an overdependence on technology as a threat to intellectual development. Montag’s escape from the supposedly infallible Mechanical Hound shows that an active human mind is superior to even the best technology. In Bradbury’s novel, education’s emphasis on technology leads to a culture where people understand how things are done but never bother to wonder why things are done. Such an education discourages people from developing their creative abilities, and as the narrative points out several times, those who cannot build destroy. The result is a society where fanatical, destructive behavior, such as the firemen’s book-burning, flourishes.