What does the protagonist in Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 mean when he says, "you never wash it off completely," referring to kerosene?
When Montag, the fireman and protagonist in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451 meets Clarisse for the first time, they have the following exchange:
"Of course," he [Montag] 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
"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
"No, you don't," she said, in awe.
He felt she was walking in a circle about him, turning him end for end, shaking him quietly, and
emptying his pockets, without once moving herself.
"Kerosene," he said, because the silence had lengthened, "is nothing but perfume to me."
While Montag assumes a posture of professional nonchalance regarding the chemical tool of his trade, Bradbury could be argued to have another underlying context for his character’s observation that “you never wash it off completely.” Fahrenheit 451 opens with the following description of a typical workday for Montag and his fellow firemen:
“It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head . . .”
Kerosene is the chemical compound the firemen use to burn the books and houses of those found to have them. It is the firemen’s lifeblood. As the story develops, however, the other meaning for the observation in question – “you never wash it off completely” – becomes increasingly clear. Montag’s comment is intended not just as an innocent aside, as a simple observation, but as a metaphor for his inability to separate himself from his immoral and destructive job in the service of a totalitarian government. He will never be able to wash off the taint of his profession. As he ultimately seeks redemption and flees to parts unknown, Bradbury returns to the issue of the chemical smell that Montag carries with him:
“My name's Granger." He held out a small bottle of colourless fluid.
"Drink this, too. It'll change the chemical index of your perspiration. Half an hour from now
you'll smell like two other people. With the Hound after you, the best thing is Bottoms up."
Montag drank the bitter fluid.
"You'll stink like a bobcat, but that's all right," said Granger.
A radical transformation is required to break from his past, and the counteraction of chemicals offered by the people he encounters on his escape represents the final and definitive resolution of his moral quandary. He is no longer a fireman in the service of a dictatorship.