In Fahrenheit 451, why does the old woman choose to burn herself with her books, and what effect does her decision have on Montag?

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In Fahrenheit 451, the old woman chooses to burn with her books in order to voice her opposition to the practice of book burning. This obviously has a negative effect on Montag, and he is overwhelmed by guilt.

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In part 1, Montag arrives at a routine fire call only to witness a traumatic incident, where an old woman chooses to commit suicide rather than live without her book collection. After pouring kerosene throughout the old woman's home and instinctively stealing one of her books, Montag begs the woman...

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to leave her house before they set it on fire. Despite Montag's pleas, the old woman refuses to leave her book collection, quotes the sixteenth-century martyr Hugh Latimer, and commits suicide by lighting a kitchen match in front of the firemen. The woman committed suicide as an act of defiance against the authoritarian government and oppressive fireman institution.

The old woman recognized that she could not defeat the fireman institution outright but refused to acquiesce to their demands or passively accept the consequences of possessing books. By sacrificing herself, the old woman publicly opposes censorship and takes a dramatic stance for the preservation of knowledge, individuality, and humanity. Her suicide has a profound impact on Montag, who is influenced by her bravery and filled with guilt for being a fireman.

Following the traumatic incident, Montag acknowledges the destructive, inhumane aspects of his occupation and becomes curious about the contents of books. Montag tells Mildred,

There must be something in books, things we can't imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don't stay for nothing (24).

The old woman's suicide influences Montag to recognize that books must contain powerful ideas and contributes to his feelings of discontent. Her death is the final straw that makes Montag begin reading literature in an attempt to answer life's most pressing questions.

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Unlike most people in this dystopian society, the old lady is not prepared to go quietly. She's not prepared to sit back and allow these so-called firemen, these bibliophobic vandals, to destroy her large, extensive book collection without at least some resistance, however futile.

The old woman cannot defeat the firemen, but she can at least become a martyr to the cause of knowledge. Her self-identification as a martyr is confirmed by her quoting the dying words of the sixteenth-century English Protestant Hugh Latimer, burned at the stake as a heretic during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor.

Montag is deeply disturbed by the old woman's death. But he's also struck by the sheer bravery of her defiance as the flames lick around her. He figures that if people are willing to die rather than acquiesce in the destruction of their books, then there must be something special about them, irrespective of what the government might say.

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The woman was strongly affected by the presence of the firemen.  It says,

"She was only standing, weaving from side to side, her eyes fixed upon a nothingness in the wall, as if they had struck her a terrible blow upon the head." (pg 36)

She then quotes Hugh Latimer who was put to death for heresy by burning at the stake.  Heresy is not agreeing with the governments' or power in authority's stance on something.  The woman, obviously, did not believe in the government's stance on book burning.  She had made her decision at that time. She had in her hand a match.  She died by her own hand and chose to burn with her books. 

This had a profound affect on Montag.  He tried to save the woman. This was the first time he had seen a human victim. Before this,

"You weren't hurting anyone, you were only hurting things! And since things really couldn't be hurt, and things don't scream or whimper, as this woman might begin to scream and cry out, there was nothing to tease your conscience later." (pg 36-37)

But this was his first victim.  He felt that the police should have removed her first before they started burning the books.  He pleaded with Beatty to remove her.  Beatty just conceded that she was going to commit suicide and that was the way it was.

"She made the empty rooms roar with accusation and shake down a fine dust of guilt that was sucked in their nostrils as they plunged about." (pg 37)

Montag went home after that shift and felt deep sorrow.  He felt sick. The smell of kerosene made him vomit.  When he tried to talk to Mildred about it, he found his wife unfeeling.  He tried to talk with her and says,

"There must be something in books, things we can't imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there.  You don't stay for nothing." (pg 51)

This was the beginning of his rebellion.  It jelled his desire to read books with his passion to learn from them.  It was the impetus to move him forward and search out Faber.

The page numbers I have given you are from my version of the book, but they should be in close proximity.

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In Fahrenheit 451, how is Montag affected by the events that occurred to the old woman? Why?

After speaking with his insightful teenage neighbor, Clarisse, Montag begins to examine his life and discovers that he is not happy and his marriage is failing. Shortly after interacting with Clarisse and analyzing his life, Montag responds to a routine fire call and arrives at an old woman's home. While Montag is dousing her book collection with kerosene, he ends up stealing a book. Captain Beatty then instructs the old woman to exit her home before they set it on fire and she refuses to leave. The old woman makes the conscious decision to die alongside her book collection, and Montag witnesses her commit suicide.

The old woman's suicide has a profound effect on Montag, who comes to the realization that literature must be valuable and worth something since the woman refused to live without her books. Montag then refuses to go into work the next day and tells Mildred,

There must be something in books, things we can't imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don't stay for nothing. (Bradbury, 24)

Montag then makes the decision to turn to books for answers to life's most pressing questions before consulting Faber for advice. Overall, the old woman's suicide influences Montag to turn to literature for answers in hopes of attaching meaning to his life.

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In Fahrenheit 451, how is Montag affected by the events that occurred to the old woman? Why?

The ugly, violent incident occurs when an old woman kneels among her gasoline-soaked books and sets fire to herself before Montag's eyes. The unlocked doors to her home have been battered in, she has been assaulted, and her books and home are about to be burned; at that moment, she chooses to die rather than continue living in a tyranny that completely dehumanizes her, even denying her the right to think.

Montag is deeply shaken by what he witnesses; he moves from shock into a kind of emotional numbness. The old woman's act pushes him further into the spiritual and intellectual awakening he has begun to experience. Mildred's attempted suicide and Montag's conversations with Clarisse have created in Montag a new sense of discontent. He has begun to question whereas before he only accepted. For whatever deeply felt but unacknowledged reason, Montag surreptitiously takes one of the old woman's books with him when he leaves. He can no longer live life as he has known it.

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How does the unidentified old woman in Fahrenheit 451 affect Montag's life?

In Fahrenheit 451, the firemen are called to a house on Elm Street when they receive a tip that there may be books hidden in the attic. When they get to the house, they find the owner of the house recalcitrant and resolute; the old woman simply refuses to concede her defeat. She answers defiantly when the firemen question her about the whereabouts of books in her home.

You know where they are or you wouldn't be here.

In the past, the police had always preceded the firemen; they could always be depended upon to usher the inhabitants of the home away before the burning started. In this case, however, some human miscalculation has engendered such a twist in affairs that a rebel has managed to plant herself right in the path of the flamethrowers. As the firemen drench the books with kerosene, Montag desperately begs the old woman to come away with him. However, she refuses. Her resolve mirrors that displayed by two men, charged with heresy during Queen Mary's reign, who died courageously at Oxford on October 16, 1555.

Her courage in the face of death is the catalyst for Montag's own rebellion. He starts to question the wisdom of burning up a defenseless old woman with her books. In his conversation with Mildred, he reasons that the books must represent something of value if they are powerful enough to propel an old woman to die with them. Beatty's later explanation about the need to destroy controversy of any kind and the need to preserve uniformity at all costs fails to satisfy Montag.

We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it.

Due to the old woman's actions, Montag is no longer satisfied with the status quo. Far from accepting Captain Beatty's words, he finds himself compelled to confront the realities of his life and his work as a fireman. Bear in mind that all revolutions start this way: one man questions and seeks answers and then feels compelled to seek out others of like mind (later, you will see Montag join a group of book rebels). So, you can see what an impression the old woman's courageous death has on Montag.

Hope this helps!

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