In Fahrenheit 451, during his conversation with Clarisse, Montag says, "You never wash it off completely" referring to the kerosene. What could this symbolically mean?

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schulzie eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Initially, Montag was very proud of his job as a fireman spewing kerosene on books to burn them.  He saw himself as a

"....conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history" (pg 1)

He was proud of his job and of his accomplishments. When he meets Clarisse, she makes him realize how callous he has become.  He has lost a lot of his humanity. Not too much later, when the woman comes out of her house, and they burn her books and magazines, it is the first time that he has actually met the human aspect of his job. 

"Always  before it had been like snuffing a candle.  The police went first....and when you arrived you found an empty house.  You weren't hurting anyone, you were hurting only things.  And since things can't hurt, since things felt nothing, ,,,,,,there was nothing to tease your conscience later." (pg 36-37)

However, his conscience did get teased. All of a sudden he felt guilt for what he did.  It was this guilt that he could never wash away.  Symbolically, the smell of kerosene is the scent of guilt, the knowledge that he did this terrible thing. He would never be able to wash away the terrible things he had done.  He had to live with them. It would always be a part of him and could never be washed away. He tells Mildred,

"Last night I thought about all the kerosene I've used in the past ten years.  And I thought about books.  And for the first time I realized that a man was behind each one of the books.  A man had to think them up.  A man had to take a long time to put them down on paper..........then I come along and boom! It's all over." (pg 52)

Even when he makes the break with that society and becomes a living book, he has the memories and guilt of what he has done in the past.




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