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Montag is the protagonist and central character of the novel. Throughout the plot, he steadily grows and changes; by the end of the book, he is a completely different person.
At the start of the novel, Montag is a total conformist who has bought into the totalitarian system in which he lives without thought or question. He is married to Mildred, an insipid woman who spends her days in front of three television sets and lulls herself into sleep at night with music and sleeping pills.
Montag works for the government as a fireman, burning the homes of "criminals" who dare to possess books and setting loose the Mechanical Hound to track down those victims who dare to seek knowledge. Montag actually enjoys his cruel and destructive work and amuses himself by watching the suffering he inflicts. He and his fellow firemen even play masochistic games in which they set small animals loose and send the Mechanical Hound after them, betting on the outcome. Despite the seeming pleasure he receives from his job, Montag is hungry for knowledge. Instead of burning all the books in the houses of the criminals, he has actually stolen some of them and hidden them in his own home. He knows that it is an offense that is punishable by death.
When Montag meets Clarisse, his seventeen-year-old neighbor, he is amazed at her independent thinking and open defiance of convention. She is fresh and exciting, uninterested in the technological trappings of the ultra-modern society. She also challenges Montag when she asks him if he is happy. When faced with this question, Montag acknowledges that his life has no meaning; the more he thinks, the more he is dissatisfied with the vacuum of his life. By the end of Part I, Montag is poised for change, ready for a new, more meaningful existence.
Montag reveals his independent thoughts to his wife, but she is incapable of understanding them. When he shows her one of his books, she is horrified at his bravery. Unable to discuss his ideas at home, Montag, in total frustration, turns to Faber, an old English professor, for friendship and advice. The two of them devise a plan to reintroduce books into society; they will plant their books in the homes of firemen and in the firehouses themselves. When all firemen are destroyed, there will no longer be anyone to burn the books. To keep each other posted on the progress they are making and to boost each other's spirit, the two men communicate constantly by way of a small two-way radio, invented by Faber and planted in Montag's ear.
The people around Montag grow increasingly alarmed at his behavior. Beatty grows suspicious that Montag may be stealing and hiding books instead of burning them; he sets the Mechanical Hound of Montag's trail in order to frighten him into confession. Mildred is extremely concerned about the risk that her husband has placed both of them in. When he dares to show one of the books to her neighbor friends, she is too frightened to continue. In the end, she reports him to the authority. As a result, he, as a fireman, must burn his own home. Amazingly, he takes pleasure in seeing it burn.
Through the implanted radio, Faber warns Montag to run, but his feet seem unable to move. When he looks at Beatty, he knows he must destroy the man if he and his plan are to survive. He fires his igniter at his boss and watches him burn. He then tries to escape from the Mechanical Hound. When he is captured, he fights the Hound bravely and manages to escape after the iron creature has injected poison into his leg. As Montag hobbles away to find Faber, he stops at the home of Mrs. Black, who also reported him to the authorities. He plants some of the stolen books into her kitchen and then rings the alarm. The deed pleases him greatly, for he has gotten his revenge on his accuser and also destroyed his next fireman, for her husband, Mr. Black, works at the firehouse.
Finally arriving at Faber's house, Montag is told about a group of exiled intellectuals who will give him refuge. Through careful planning and determination, he manages to stay ahead of the new and improved Mechanical Hound, who is trying to hunt him down and destroy him. By jumping into the river and floating downstream, Montag cannot be detected by either the Hound or the helicopters. He finally comes ashore by a forest and finds the exiles within. They welcome Montag into their midst and share their plans of saving books and knowledge with him. Montag is given the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes to memorize.
At the end of the novel, war has begun and a bomb has destroyed Montag's city. From a distance, the intellectuals watch the flames of destruction and determine they will go back and rebuild a new society, where books and new ideas are not only permitted, but eagerly welcomed. As the novel closes, they are seen walking toward the bombed out ruins to begin their task; the hope of their recreating the city is the one bright spot in the entire novel.
Bradbury uses the symbol of fire to describe much of what is happening to Montag. Like the phoenix that appears often in the novel, Montag's life is finally purified and reborn by the very fire he has been spewing for years. During the course of the plot, Montag evolves from an apathetic, conformist fireman, the very essence of socially acceptable stagnancy, to a new man filled with strong ideals and beliefs. He has a new purpose in life, to preserve books and the knowledge they contain. At the end of the novel, he hopes for the future and no longer dreads the present.