Part 1: The Hearth and the Salamander Summary

Chapter 1 of Fahrenheit 451 is aptly named because both the hearth and the salamander have to do with fire, something that is ever-present in the life of novel's protagonist, Guy Montag. The hearth is a traditional symbol of the home, as a gathering place and a source of warmth. However, the very idea of home for Guy Montag is called into question in this chapter. The life that he has built in the society he calls home is something he is no longer sure of. The salamander, on the other hand, is a creature that was once believed to live in fire without being damaged by it. In the book, it is a symbol for the firemen: they wear it on their uniforms and they call their fire trucks "salamanders." The juxtaposition of these two symbols in the title suggests a conflict between Montag's work life and the person he is outside of work.

The chapter begins by introducing several of the key character in the novel. Guy Montag is a fireman, but not a fireman as we would think of it today. Instead of putting out fires, his job is to create them by burning books. In fact, the book begins with a description of how exhilarating he finds the experience of burning books.

Also in this chapter, Montag meets his new neighbor, Clarisse McCellan, when he arrives home from work one day. Montag has an unnerving conversation with her, in which she tells him of the fireman of the old days, of her own strange family, and which she ends by asking if Montag is truly happy with his life. At first Montag laughs at her absurd question, but the more he thinks about it, the more he realizes that she has seen right through him. He is not happy with his life at all.

Montag enters his home and goes into his bedroom, where he finds his wife Mildred in bed. After kicking a bottle of pills that lies on the floor, he realizes she has attempted suicide. He calls the hospital, and shortly, two workers come to pump her stomach. The next day, Mildred denies her attempted suicide, and Montag leaves for work. This chapter shows a distant, disconnected relationship between these two characters. Mildred spends her days with her television "family," and this is all she ever wants to talk about with Montag even when he has real-life concerns he wants to discuss.

As he leaves for work, Montag again meets Clarisse, who serves as an obvious foil to Mildred in this chapter. Whereas Mildred attempts to engage Montag in her shallow TV shows, Clarisse is a free thinker and ponders the world around her. Clarisse tells Montag that she is seeing a psychiatrist because the authorities see her ability to think independently as an alarming attribute. She tells Montag that he is different from other fireman she has met because he is willing to listen to what she says.

Montag then goes to work at the fire station, where the Mechanical Hound growls at him. Montag is concerned-as this has happened before-and brings it to the attention of Captain Beatty. Montag worries that someone may have set the Hound to react to him this way, suggesting that he perhaps has an enemy in the fire station. Beatty tells Montag not to worry and that he will have the Hound checked out-though he seems somewhat suspicious of Montag. Meanwhile, some of the other firemen tease Montag about his worries regarding the Hound.

Over the next several weeks, Montag sees Clarisse every day outside of his home. She confides to him that she has started skipping school. On the eighth day, he becomes concerned when he doesn't see her as usual. Though he starts to look for her, he heads to work instead. At the station that day, Montag askes Captain Beatty about a man's whose library they burned the week prior. Beatty tells him that he was taken to an insane asylum. Here, Montag wonders about the man, and he almost reveals that he read the first line of a book of fairy tales before burning the man's library.

Later, the alarm sounds, and the fireman rush to the house of an old woman who has books hidden in her attic. A book happens to fall in Montag's hand during this process and, without thinking, he hides it under his coat. The firemen try to get the old woman to leave before they burn the books; however, she refuses. Beatty suggests they leave her and light the fire anyway. Montag protests, and Beatty retorts with his reasoning for burning books. He compares books to the Tower of Babel from the Bible, which caused the universal human language to split into thousands of languages. Beatty feels that books, with so many different opinions, are similarly divisive. Despite Montag's protests and Beatty's willingness to continue the burning regardless, the woman takes matters into her own hands. She lights the match herself, choosing to be burned alive with her books. Montag's protests, however, show him to have a great deal more empathy than most other people in his world.

When Montag arrives home that night, he hides the book beneath his pillow so his wife will not see it. Suddenly, his life seem unfamiliar to him, and he feels unbearably empty. He asks if his wife knows anything about Clarisse; she says the family moved away and that Clarisse was hit by a car.

The next day, Montag is sick, overwhelmed by a smell of kerosene, representative of the fact that he feels guilty over the woman who was burned with her books. He asks Mildred if she would mind if he gave up his job for a time, trying to make her understand the tremendous guilt and conflict he feels. She will not listen, and an argument erupts. However, their argument is interrupted when Captain Beatty arrives at the house.

Captain Beatty tells Montag he is visiting because he suspected Montag would not show up to work that day after what he had seen. He then goes on to explain why the firemen exist in the first place. He tells Montag that because of photography, television and film, information over the years has become much easier to digest and process, which eventually made books-a slower, more difficult medium to process-much less popular. Beatty goes on to say that there was eventually pressure for all books to have the same opinion and be easier to read. Finally, books became objectionable to so many people that the government started to burn them. After all homes were fireproofed, firemen became burners of books because, as Beatty insists, they must maintain happiness in society by getting rid of divisive, opinionated books. Books, in his mind, are dangerous.

Beatty leaves, and Montag tells Mildred that he does not want to continue working at the fire station, and he shows her a stash of some twenty books he has been hiding in the ventilator. Mildren tries to burn the books, but Montag asks for her help in using the books to search for a reason for his unhappiness. This section ends with Montag beginning to read a copy of Gulliver's Travels.
Related Links:

Literature Summaries
Fahrenheit 451
Part 2 : The Sieve and the Sand

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