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Captain Beatty, the senior fireman in Ray Bradbury’s science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451 and Montag’s superior, is an erudite individual given to literary references – an especially peculiar idiosyncrasy given the fact that, in Bradbury’s dystopian, autocratic society, possession of books is a serious crime. Throughout the first half of the novel, before Montag’s guilt over possession of books forces him to flee “civilization,” Captain Beatty is the fire department, and the novel’s corporate memory, with Professor Faber representing a dissenting perspective. In analyzing Beatty’s habit of quoting from or referencing historical texts, one can suggest that his deep knowledge of literature and of the history of this society in which they live emanates from the old adage provided by the ancient Chinese philosopher of war, Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu’s famous guide or manual on how to prevail in war includes this well-known bit of advice: “[I]f you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.” From this grew the oft-repeated refrain, “know your enemy.”
The key to Beatty’s effectiveness in running the fire department and keeping a lid on subversive activities, like reading, is his ability to understand the culture in which books were once highly valued. When he suggests to a woman whose house if being targeted by the firemen because of her newly-discovered cache of books, Beatty accuses her of having lived “locked up here for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel.” He later quotes the 16th Century English clergyman Hugh Latimer, burned at the stake for his religious beliefs, stating "We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” When he confronts Montag in the beginning of Part III with the knowledge that he knows of Montag’s perfidy, he accuses his once-loyal subordinate of wanting “to fly near the sun and now that he's burnt his damn wings, he wonders why,” a reference to the mythological story of Icarus and its warning against arrogance and hubris.
Captain Beatty repeatedly displays knowledge and understanding of literature from across the ages because he knows that the key to enforcing the legitimate dictates of the government is to understand that books once played a very important role in society, and that they now pose an existential threat to that same society. When Beatty visits Montag at the latter’s home, it becomes an opportunity for the former to enlighten the latter, whose commitment to his profession may be beginning to wane.
Beatty, though, understands that books retain a powerful pull on many, including those sworn to their destruction. Suggesting that what the reader knows to be true – that Montag is in possession of a book – is suspected by himself, the captain throws his subordinate the lifeline that Montage will fail to grasp:
"One last thing," said Beatty. "At least once in his career, every fireman gets an itch. What do the books say, he wonders. Oh, to scratch that itch, eh? Well, Montag, take my word for it, I've had to read a few in my time, to know what I was about, and the books say nothing! Nothing you can teach or believe. They're about non?existent people, figments of imagination, if they're fiction. And if they're non?fiction, it's worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another's gullet. All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun. You come away lost."
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