The primary antagonist of Fahrenheit 451 is Guy Montag’s boss, the malevolent Captain Beatty. As the leader of the firemen, it is Beatty’s responsibility to uphold the status quo and destroy all illegal books. Beatty takes this responsibility seriously, yet he also understands the temptations of books. As Montag comes to find out, Beatty has actually read a lot of books. Beatty frequently quotes from literature and makes allusions to a wide variety of authors. In spite of his evident education, Beatty has conflicted feelings about the value of books. He seems particularly perturbed by the way books open themselves to multiple, sometimes conflicting interpretations. At one point he complains to Montag: “What traitors books can be! You think they’re backing you up, and they turn on you.” Beatty believes it’s important for his firemen to understand the danger of books, and he attempts to convince Montag of the disorienting and hence dangerous nature of knowledge:
‘Sweet food of sweetly uttered knowledge,’ Sir Philip Sidney said. But on the other hand: ‘Words are like leaves and where they most abound, Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.’ Alexander Pope. What do you think of that Montag?
Ultimately Montag disagrees with Beatty, which forces the confrontation in which Beatty orders Montag to burn his own home, and Montag burns Beatty instead.
Although Captain Beatty represents the most obvious antagonist in the book, Montag stands at odds with his society as a whole. Just as Beatty wishes to defend the status quo, others in Montag’s society appear committed to keeping things as they are. For example, Mildred invites her friends over to watch television, and after watching a particularly violent scene, Montag switches off the parlor walls. The women respond to Montag’s unwelcome action with looks of “unconcealed irritation.” Like addicts suffering withdrawal, the women experience physical tension in the sudden quiet:
Their faces grew haunted with silence...The perspiration gathered with the silence and the subaudible trembling around and about and in the women who were burning with tension.
Montag further heightens the women’s discomfort when he insists that they listen to him read a passage of poetry. Pushed to the brink, the women burst into tears and run out of the house. As Montag later learns, all the women immediately report him to the firemen. These women are representative members of a society that would prefer to keep things comfortable and unchanging, and it is this society that Montag resists and ultimately escapes.