Guy Montag is a fireman in the future in charge of burning books. On his way home from work one evening, he meets his new neighbor, an inquisitive 17-year-old girl named Clarisse McClellan. She asks him about his job and tells him she comes from a strange family that does such peculiar things as talk to each other and walk places (being a pedestrian is, like reading, against the law). She asks him if he is happy and then disappears into her house. The meeting disturbs Montag, who is not used to talking with people.
He goes home and realizes he is not happy, that his appearance of happiness up to this point has been just a mask. He finds his wife, Mildred, in bed listening to earplug radios, just as he has found her every night for the past two years. He finds an empty bottle of sleeping pills by her bed and calls the emergency hospital just as a sonic boom from a squadron of jet bombers shakes the house. The hospital sends out two workers with machines that pump Mildred’s stomach and replace all her blood with fresh blood.
Montag goes outside and listens to the laughter and the voices coming from the McClellan house. Montag goes in again and considers all that has happened to him that night and feels terribly disoriented as he takes a sleep lozenge and dozes off. The next day, Mildred remembers nothing about her attempted suicide and denies it when Montag tries to tell her about it. He leaves for work and finds Clarisse outside walking in the rain, catching it in her mouth. She rubs a dandelion under her chin and says it means she’s in love when the pollen rubs off on her. She rubs it under his chin, but no pollen rubs off.
She asks him why he chose to be a fireman and says he is unlike the others she has met, who will not talk to her or listen to what she says to them. He tells her to get along to her appointment with her psychiatrist. After she is gone, he tilts his head back and catches the rain in his mouth for a few moments. Montag reaches down to touch the Mechanical Hound in the fire station, and it growls at him and threatens him. Montag tells Captain Beatty what happened and suggests that someone may have set the Hound to react toward him like that, and that it has threatened him twice before.
Beatty assures him no one would have done that and says he will have the Hound checked out. Over the next week, Montag sees Clarisse outside and talks with her every day. She asks him why he never had any children and tells him she does not go to school because she does not like it. On the eighth day, he does not see Clarisse. He starts to turn back to look for her, but his train arrives and he heads for work. At the firehouse, he asks Beatty what happened to the man whose library they burned the week before. Beatty tells him he was taken to the insane asylum.
Montag wonders aloud what it would have been like to have been in his place and almost reveals that he looked at the first line of a book of fairy tales in the man’s library before they burned it. He asks if firemen ever prevented fires, and two other firemen take out their rule books and show him where it says the Firemen of America were established in 1790 by Benjamin Franklin to burn English-influenced books. The alarm sounds, and they head off to a decayed, old house with books hidden in its attic. They push aside an old woman to get to them.
A book falls into Montag’s hand, and he unthinkingly hides it beneath his coat. They spray the books with kerosene, but the woman refuses to leave. Beatty starts to light the fire anyway, but Montag protests and tries to get the woman to go. She still refuses, and as soon as Montag gets out, she strikes a match and the house goes up in flames. The firemen are trangely quiet as they ride back to the station afterward. Montag goes home and hides the book he has stolen under his pillow. Mildred suddenly seems very strange and unfamiliar to him.
He asks her where they first met, but neither can remember. Mildred gets out of bed and goes to the bathroom to take some sleeping pills, and Montag tries to count the number of times he hears her swallow and wonders if she will forget later and take more. He feels terribly mpty and concludes the TV walls and the earplug Seashell radios stand between him and Mildred. He tells Mildred he hasn’t seen Clarisse for four days and asks if she knows what happened to her. Mildred tells him the family moved away and she thinks Clarisse was hit by a car and killed.
Montag is sick the next morning. He tells Mildred about burning the old woman and asks her if she would mind if he gave up his job for a while. He tries to make her understand his feelings of guilt at burning the woman and at burning the books, which represent so many people’s lives and work, but she will not listen. Captain Beatty comes by to check on Montag, having guessed he would be calling in sick that day. He tells Montag every fireman runs into his problem sooner or later and relates to him the history of their profession.
He says the firemen profession really started around the Civil War with the advent of photography. Mass media led to condensing books and ideas further and further down until finally thought was dropped altogether, and the world became a push-button society. Mildred’s attention falls away while Beatty is talking and she gets up and begins absently straightening the room. She finds the book behind Montag’s pillow and starts to call attention to it, and Montag screams at her to sit down. Beatty pretends not to notice and goes on talking.
He says that eventually the public’s demand for non-confrontational pleasure caused printed matter to be diluted to the point that only comic books, trade journals, and sex magazines remained. Beatty explains that the firemen’s job changed after houses were fireproofed from its old purpose of preventing fires to its new mission of burning the books that could cause one man to excel over others and so make everyone else feel inferior. Montag asks how someone like Clarisse could exist, and Beatty says the firemen have been keeping an eye on her family and that they worked against the schools’ system of homogenization.
Beatty tells Montag not to overlook how important he and his fellow firemen are to the happiness of the world. He tells him every fireman sooner or later becomes curious about books and that he has read some himself before; he says they are useless and contradictory. Montag asks what would happen if a fireman accidentally took a book home with him, and Beatty says they would allow him to keep it for 24 ours and then come burn it if he had not done it himself already. Beatty gets up to leave and asks if Montag will come in to work later. Montag tells him he may, but secretly he resolves never to go again.
He tells Mildred he no longer wants to work at the fire station and shows her a secret stock of about 20 books he has been hiding in the ventilator. She tries to burn them, but he stops her and tells her he wants to look at them at least once and he needs her help. Someone comes to the door, but they do not answer and he goes away. Montag picks up a copy of Gulliver’s Travels and begins reading. Montag and Mildred spend the afternoon reading. The Mechanical Hound comes and sniffs at the door. Mildred complains that she prefers the people and the pretty colors on her TV walls to books.
Montag feels books must be able to help him out of his ignorance, but he does not understand what he is reading and feels he must find a teacher. He thinks back to an afternoon a year before when he met an old man named Faber in the park and talked with him; it was apparent that he had been reading a book of poetry before Montag arrived. Faber had given him his address and phone number, and Montag calls him. He asks him how many copies of the Bible, Shakespeare, or Plato are left in the country. Faber thinks he is trying to trap him, and he says none are left and hangs up the phone.
Montag goes back to his pile of books and realizes he took from the old woman what may be the last copy of the Bible in the country. He considers turning in a substitute to Beatty, but he decides if Beatty knows which book he took, he will guess he has a whole library if he gives him a different book. He decides he must have a duplicate made before that night. Mildred tells him some of her friends are coming over to watch TV with her. Montag asks her if the people on TV love her, and then he leaves. He takes the subway to Faber’s, and on the way he tries to memorize the Bible.
A jingle for toothpaste distracts him, and finally he gets up in front of all the passengers and screams at the radio to shut up, waving his book around. They start to call a guard, but he gets off at the next stop. Montag goes to Faber and shows him the book, which alleviates Faber’s fear of him, and asks him to teach him to understand what he reads. Faber tells Montag that books themselves are not what is missing from his life, but what used to be in books, which could be but is not in the current media. Faber tells Montag that what is needed is quality of information, leisure to digest it, and the freedom to act on what has been learned.
Montag suggests they organize an underground of old intellectuals who remember the value of books, but Faber refuses to listen to him. Montag begins to tear the pages out of the Bible, and Faber agrees to help, saying he knows someone with a printing press who used to print his college newspaper. Montag asks for help with Beatty that night, and Faber gives him a two-way radio he has created that will fit in his ear with which he can hear what Beatty has to say and prompt Montag. Montag decides to risk giving Beatty a substitute book, and Faber agrees to see his printer friend.
Montag withdraws money from his account for Faber and listens to reports over the radio that the country is mobilizing for war. Faber reads to him from the Book of Job over the radio in his ear. He goes home, and Mildred’s lady friends show up and disappear into the TV parlor. Montag turns off the TV walls and tries to engage them in conversation. They reluctantly oblige him, but he becomes angry when they describe how they voted in the last presidential election based on the physical appearance and other superficial qualities of the candidates.
He brings out a book of poetry and shows it to them, despite their objections and Faber’s (over the radio). Mildred explains that a fireman is allowed to bring home one book a year to show it to his family to prove what nonsense books are; Faber orders him to take the escape route Mildred has provided by agreeing with her, and he does. He reads them “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold. Mrs. Phelps bursts into tears, and Mrs. Bowles declares it is the evil of poetry and denounces Montag for reading it. Montag drops the book into the incinerator at Faber’s prompting. He yells at Mrs.
Bowles to go home and think about her empty life, and the women both go home. Mildred disappears into the bedroom. Montag discovers she has been burning the books one by one, and he re-hides them in the backyard. Montag heads off to the fire station, and Faber scolds and then consoles him on the way. Montag hands his book over to Beatty, who throws it into the trashcan without even looking at the title and welcomes him back after his period of folly. Beatty browbeats Montag with a storm of literary quotations to confuse him and convince him books are better burned.
An alarm comes through, and Beatty glances at the address and takes the wheel of the fire engine. They arrive at their destination, and Montag sees that it is his house. Mildred rushes out of the house with a suitcase and drives away in a taxi, and Montag realizes she must have called in the alarm. Montag gazes over at Clarisse’s empty house, and Beatty guesses he ad fallen under her spell and berates him for it. Beatty orders him to burn the house by himself with a flamethrower, and he warns him the Hound is on the watch for him if he tries to escape.
Montag burns everything, and when he is finished, Beatty places him under arrest. Beatty sees that Montag is listening to something and strikes him on the head. The radio falls out of Montag’s ear, and Beatty picks it up and says he will have it traced to find the person on the other end. Montag turns his flamethrower on Beatty and burns him to a crisp. The other firemen do not move, and he knocks them out. The Mechanical Hound appears and injects Montag’s leg with procaine before he destroys it with his flamethrower. Montag stumbles away on his numb leg. He goes to where he hid the books and finds four that Mildred missed.
He hears sirens approaching and tries to go on down the alley, but he falls and begins to sob. He forces himself to rise and runs until the numbness leaves his leg. Montag puts a regular Seashell radio in his ear and hears a police alert warning people to be on the lookout for him, alone and on foot. He finds a gas station and washes the soot off his face so he will look less suspicious. He hears on the radio that war has been declared. He starts out to cross a wide street and is nearly hit by a car. He creeps into one of his coworkers’ houses and hides the books, then calls in an alarm from a phone booth.
He goes to Faber’s house, tells him what happened, and gives him some money. Faber tells him to follow the old railroad tracks out of town to look for camps of homeless intellectuals and says to meet him in St. Louis sometime in the future, where he is going to meet a retired printer. Faber turns on the TV news, and they hear that a new Mechanical Hound has been sent out after Montag. Montag takes a suitcase full of Faber’s old clothes and tells him how to purge his house of his scent so the Hound will not be led there, then he runs off into the night.
Montag pauses to look through windows at people’s TV walls to watch the Hound’s progress. He sees it hesitate at Faber’s house and then run on. He continues on his way toward the river, and he hears the announcer on his Seashell radio tell everyone to get up and look out their doors and windows for him on the count of ten. He reaches the river as the announcer counts ten and all the doors in the area open up to look out. He douses himself with whiskey and dresses in Faber’s clothes and wades into the river and drifts away. He avoids the searchlights of the police helicopters and sees them turn and fly away.
He washes ashore in the country. He steps out of the river and is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds and smells of the countryside. He finds the railroad track and follows it to a fire with five men sitting around it. The leader of the men sees him in the shadows and invites him and introduces himself as Granger. Granger has a portable TV set and says they have been watching the chase and expected him to come. He gives Montag a bottle of colorless fluid to drink and tells him it will change the chemical index of his perspiration so the Hound will not be able to find him.
Granger tells him the search has continued in the opposite direction, and he explains the police must be looking for a scapegoat to catch to save themselves from the humiliation of losing their quarry. The men gather around the TV to watch as the camera zooms in on a man walking down the street whom the announcer identifies as Montag. The Hound appears and pounces on him, and the announcer declares Montag is dead and a crime against society has been avenged. Granger introduces Montag to the other men, who are all former professors and intellectuals.
He tells Montag that they have perfected a method of recalling anything perfectly that has been read once, and they all have different books stored in their memories. He tells him that they are part of a network of thousands of people all over the country with bits and pieces of different books stored within them. They put out the fire and walk downstream in the darkness. Montag tells them his wife is back in the city and worries aloud that something must be wrong with him because he does not miss her and would not e sad if she was killed in the bombing that will come with the war.
Granger tells him about when his grandfather died. Suddenly, they see jets flash over the city and drop their bombs, and the city is vaporized in the explosion. The men tumble over from the shockwave and cling to the earth beneath them. Afterward, Montag suddenly remembers the Book of Ecclesiastes and repeats it over to himself. The aftershock dies down, and the men rise and have some breakfast before turning up river to help the survivors try to rebuild from the ashes.