Fahrenheit 451 Questions and Answers
by Ray Bradbury

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In Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Montag says that "You never wash it off completely," referring to the kerosene. What could this mean symbolically?

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Walter Fischer eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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When, in the opening passages of Ray Bradbury's science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag encounters Clarisse McClellan, a teenage girl newly-arrived in Guy's neighborhood, she wastes no time engaging him in conversation about his line of work. Montag is a fireman. In Bradbury's depiction of a futuristic dystopian society in which books are banned because of the knowledge and ideas they contain, a fireman serves to destroy through the use of fire any books located hidden among city residents' homes. The firemen also burn the homes in which the books were hidden. In the novel's opening passages, Montag is still a committed 'public servant,' carrying out his orders without question. The novel's opening sentence suggests the enthusiasm and commitment with which Montag, and his colleagues, carry out their assigned duties: "It was a pleasure to burn." When Montag encounters Clarisse, the young, cheerful independent-minded teenager, he is a little bewildered by this newcomer to his world. Note in the following exchange the first suggestion that Montag may be growing weary with the destruction he has devoted his life to inflicting on others:

"Of course," he said, "you're a new neighbour, aren't you?"

"And you must be"-she raised her eyes from his professional symbols-"the fireman." Her voice trailed off. "

"How oddly you say that."

"I'd-I'd have known it with my eyes shut," she said, slowly.

"What-the smell of kerosene? My wife always complains," he laughed. "You never wash it off completely."

"No, you don't," she said, in awe.

When Montag observes regarding the kerosene used in the performance of his duties that "you never wash it off completely," he is not only stating a fact with regard to personal hygiene and the resilience of the highly-flammable liquid he uses to burn books, but he is also, subconsciously, commenting on the moral responsibility he carries with him for inflicting so much pain on others for the benefit of an autocratic regime. His observation is prescient, as he will soon rebel against this totalitarian system he has faithfully and diligently served. The traces of kerosene in his pores and on his clothes is a daily reminder that he carries out a highly immoral function from which he cannot easily escape.

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Tim Mbiti eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The smell of kerosene could be symbolic of guilt. Montag informs Clarice that his wife always complained that even after washing his work attire, the smell of kerosene still lingered. This acted as a constant reminder to all those that practiced the fire fighting profession of all the books they had burnt, property they had destroyed and lives they had ruined as a result. For Montag in particular, after meeting Clarice and having her evoke thoughts that had never been evoked before, he began to question his job as a fire fighter. After they burnt the old woman alive alongside her books in her house, Montag was haunted by the image of the woman several times. It was during this incident that Montag stole his first book and this marked the start of his journey with efforts to preserve knowledge. In the end, he flees the mechanical hound to join other social outcasts who share his vision. The kerosene is thus symbolic of the guilt that follows fire fighters and provokes them to question their profession and eventually turn from it and join those that are fighting to preserve knowledge.

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mrs-campbell eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Consider what Montag really does for a living. He destroys people's lives; he burns their homes, heralds their removal from society, and takes away everything that they knew and loved.  This is not something to take lightly.  Montag will never be able to wash off the responsibility of what he has done to people's lives.  He can never wash off the guilt of what he has done to others.  Later in the book, an old lady, Mrs. Blake, chooses to perish in the flames rather than be removed; this weighs heavily on him.  He is so distraught and tormented by guilt that he becomes physically sick at the thought of her dying in her house, and that he was the one that lit the match.  So, he is not able to wash off the guilt of what he has done.  It will serve as a constant reminder of how his society got to that point, and will hopefully propel him to change for the good.

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churro1990 | Student

That you can never wash away your sins. Only make them seem less obvious to other people.