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...
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.