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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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...

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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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Montag actually says this in reply to Clarisse's statement, which is significant. Here it is in context:

"You're our new neighbor, 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 the kerosene? My wife always complains," he laughed. "You never wash it off completely."

The kerosene represents the government's influence, which Montag can never escape. It is literally the fuel with which he is forced to drench books, as well as other belongings in people's houses when they are found hiding "dangerous" possessions. Montag comes to despise his work, but the government's influence in its citizens' lives is so complete that it seems impossible to ever completely rid himself of it. Even though he disagrees with the government, his occupation is the very core of their society, and any dissent to its policies causes people to simply disappear.

Kerosene represents total governmental control in deciding what citizens can and can never know, and Montag feels that this strength will forever dictate the lives of those in his society.

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Before the firemen set any books or homes on fire, they spray the entire scene with kerosene, which is an extremely flammable fuel oil that ensures the books will be completely destroyed. The smell of kerosene is also extremely pungent, and Montag tells Clarisse that he can never wash it off completely.

Kerosene can symbolically represent Montag's remorse and guilt for being an active participant in the government's strict censorship program. Montag inherently knows that he is wrong for being a government agent who destroys knowledge and information by burning books. However, Montag eventually accepts responsibility for his actions after examining himself.

Kerosene can also symbolically represent the oppressive influence of the government. The government is determined to eradicate intellectuals and books from society. As a fireman, Montag is an extension of the government's oppressive influence. As a citizen of the dystopian society, Montag also struggles to escape the government's oppressive influence, which is difficult to "wash off."

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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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When Montag first meets Clarisse, he is coming home from work, and she accurately guesses that he is a fireman. That is when he explains to her that the smell never really comes off.  The literal meaning of that is that because he uses kerosene at his job, it's hard to wash off, and so he always smells a little bit like it.  It's kind-of like a car mechanic who always has car grease under his nails.  It's just one of those things that happens in that profession.

To look at a deeper, or symbolic meaning, you could connect it to how later in the book, Montag feels horribly guilty for the books that he has burned, and the people that have died as a result; that knowledge and guilt "never washes off."  He has to carry the burden of what he has done as a fireman with him for the rest of his life, like a weight on his shoulders.  He can't get rid of it, just like he can't get rid of the kerosene smell from his job.  By the end of the novel you will see Montag do a complete turnaround--at the beginning he loved his job and kerosene was "like a perfume" to him.  By the end, he will have done very drastic things in the name of rebellion and independence, and that is something that he has to live with. He can't shake off his old life cleanly; the repercussions will stay with him.  I hope that those thoughts helped; good luck!

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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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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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