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

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 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.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 10, 2020
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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.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on October 10, 2019
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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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