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The protagonist in the novel is Guy Montag, a 24th century fireman who starts fires rather than puts them out. His responsibility to the city is to burn houses that contain books, since books are illegal. Montag begins to question his acceptance of the status quo and learns to be a non-conformist. Various people and events encourage him in his pursuit of truth, including Clarisse McClellan and the old lady who dies in her home. By the end of the novel, Montag is the leader of a revolutionary movement dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.
The antagonist for Montag and for most of the people in the novel is their society, which is futuristic and dictatorial; thinking for oneself is censored and life has no meaning. It has been mandated that all men should be equally intelligent and informed; therefore, possessing books and seeking meaningful knowledge are criminal acts. Television and sleeping pills are the opiate escapes of nearly everyone. Captain Beatty and the other firemen are the foremost representatives of this oppressive social order. They burn the homes and belongings of all "criminals" who own or read books or defy the law in any other way. They create a Mechanical Hound, which is an emotionless, mechanical killing machine that can be programmed to seek out and destroy free thinkers, hunting them down by their scents; the hound is blind to anything but the destruction for which it is programmed. Of all the firemen, Beatty seems to be the harshest in his pursuit and punishment of criminals, particularly Montag. Perhaps it is because he has read and memorized many books in the past, but now refuses to accept them or act on his suppressed idealism.
The novel climaxes when Montag and the other firemen are called to burn a home they discover is Montag's. Millie, Montag's wife, has betrayed her husband and turned him in as a criminal. Montag confronts Beatty and decides he must be killed in order to save himself and humanity; it is the moment of climax for Montag, for there is now no turning back. Montag bravely fights the Mechanical Hound; although it cripples him, Montag manages to run away.
Although the story is a tragedy, it ends with a small ray of hope. Although Montag is driven from society, he manages to escape to the country, where he meets other self-exiled intellectual leaders. All of these men dedicate themselves to the goal of reintroducing books into the society. While Montag is in hiding, war breaks out, and Montag's city is destroyed. At the end of the book, Montag and the other exiles walk toward the destroyed city with the goal of rebuilding it.
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