Fahrenheit 451 Chapter 1, Part 1 (pages 1-21) Summary
The Hearth and the Salamander
The story opens by introducing the protagonist, Guy Montag, who is a fireman in the United States, most likely during the 21st century: "America has started and won two atomic wars since 2022" (69). He is hosing down a house with kerosene and setting it on fire. Because houses of the future are coated with a fireproof substance, firemen are no longer needed to put out fires; instead, their job is now to burn them down (turns out the houses aren't completely fireproof). The homes they burn down contain taboo contraband: books. This is why the fireman's helmet is numbered "451"—for this is supposedly the temperature at which paper ignites (Ray Bradbury acquired this information from a call to a fire station—the actual number varies depending on various factors.) Montag enjoys his job, as shown by his thoughts in the first line of the novel, "It was a pleasure to burn" (1). Montag meets a perceptive seventeen-year-old girl named Clarisse McClellan, who asks him if he is happy. This question, combined with the girl's interest in nature and her further interactions with him, set Montag to reevaluating his life and his culture.
Montag arrives home after his initial meeting with Clarisse, and while contemplating her question about whether he is happy, he remembers, "something lay hidden behind the grill" (8). The reader later learns Montag has hidden several books there—an offense that should a neighbor discover and phone in would bring the firemen to burn down his home. Montag then discovers his wife, Mildred, has overdosed on sleeping pills—a problem so common that when Montag calls in the emergency, instead of medical professionals responding to save her, two cigarette-smoking technicians arrive with machines to remove the poison and replace her blood. Once the technicians depart and Mildred is safely sleeping again, Montag finds himself drawn outside to eavesdrop on Clarisse's family. The scene also contains the first appearance of "jet bombers" (11), which regularly appear throughout the novel as reminders of the on-going war.
In the morning, Montag tries to confront Mildred about her near-death, but she refuses to accept that she could behave in such a manner and is anxious to join her "family"—a cast of blathering characters appearing on three wall-sized televisions in her "parlor" with whom she interacts via scripts and special devices. Montag leaves Mildred to her shows, and encounters Clarisse walking in the rain (the image of rain occurs frequently throughout the work.) He is less disturbed by her this time, but she does inadvertently make him realize he does not love Mildred.