Why does the old lady say "Play the man, Master Ridley" in the first section of Fahrenheit 451?

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The old lady is quoting Hugh Latimer, who said this as he was being burnt at the stake in 1555 for heresy. The woman is depicting her imminent death as that of a martyr. She wants to make known to the firemen her view that they cannot extinguish the metaphorical flame represented by those willing to preserve the knowledge embodied by books.

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In making these comments, the old lady is emphasizing her martyrdom. The original quotation—“Play the man, Master Ridley”—was made by Hugh Latimer, burned at the stake along with his fellow Protestant prelate Nicholas Ridley during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary.

For many years afterwards, Latimer and Ridley were hailed as Protestant martyrs. The old lady in Fahrenheit 451 is also a martyr in her own way, a martyr to the cause of books and their crucial role in furthering civilization. She sees books and what they contain as so important that she's prepared to die for them rather than meekly acquiesce to the incineration of her extensive library.

Montag is struck by the woman's death, so much so that he begins to intensify his questioning of society and its values. Contrary to what the authorities may say, there's clearly something very special about books that makes people prepared to die for them.

In due course, Montag will find out for himself just what certain something is. As a consequence of this journey of exploration, this voyage of self-discovery, he will become ever more estranged from the book-hating society in which he lives until the point where he becomes an enemy of the state, hunted down by the authorities.

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The woman makes this statement, first, to draw a parallel between the martyrdom of Hugh Latimer, who was burned at the stake as a heretic, and the fire burning through her own house for the heresy of owning books. But more to the point, she is like, Latimer, willing to sacrifice her own life to the flames rather than compromise her beliefs. The old woman, who has refused to leave her house, immolates herself by throwing a lit match on the kerosene that the firemen have poured all over it:

The woman on the porch reached out with contempt for them all, and struck the kitchen match against the railing.

Latimer was a Protestant who died when Mary I, known as Bloody Mary, came to the throne as a Roman Catholic queen. This book-owning woman is also a protester. Beatty calls her a "fanatic" because of the huge number of books and magazines the firemen find hidden in her home. She is a true believer in the books, which makes her a heretic.

The woman dies in a way that leaves a deep impression on Montag. He has already begun questioning his society, and her action causes him to wonder what makes books so special that a person would be willing to die rather than do without them. Already, through Clarisse, Montag has come to realize there is another, better way to live than his deadened life. Now he has witnessed another person with a passion, and he wants to understand what motivates it.

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In the first part of Fahrenheit 451 by American writer Ray Bradbury, the old woman says,

“Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

She says this to let the firemen know that she wants her death to be the "spark" that lights an enduring flame burning in caring individuals who want censorship and the extremes of a totalitarian government to end. She knows she will now die. She will not give the firemen the sense of satisfaction of taking her into custody. Their desire is to take her away – not kill her – but destroy her home and its cache of books, which are illegal to have.

She, in essence, is making them feel guilty. She refuses to leave her home and is willing to go up in flames with the house. In fact, she ensures this will happen as she has a simple kitchen match that she will light to ignite the kerosene. Therefore, the firemen have no choice but to let her die as they back out the door and down the driveway to save themselves before she strikes the kitchen match. She does this and she is consumed in flames along with her home.

The neighbors have come out onto the street as this happens. This is what the old woman wants. She knows that some will love this spectacle of death and will feel she has this coming to her.

However, her hope is that some small minority of people will have their consciences stirred at the barbarism of the authorities. Her hope is that their passion for ultimate justice will “light such a candle” that the flames of an uprising against the brutal government will never go out until justice is achieved.

Therefore, the woman hopes to start the ball rolling. She says these words as she feels she is now to be a martyr for the "cause" of letting people be free in a democratic society, with the freedom to own and read any book they desire. Her hope is that people will look back on her act of bravery and change the current society for the better.

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The lady quotes a 16th Century British Clergyman Hugh Latimer who said:

Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.

Later, Captain Beatty will tell Montag (pg. 40):

A man named Latimer said that to a man named Nicholas Ridley, as they were being burnt alive at Oxford, for heresy, on October 16, 1555.

The woman burned knows her history from reading books, which is the heresy of the future world in F451.  The quote reveals a willingness to martyr oneself for personal beliefs which go against the state.  The lines also reveal light imagery, which is ironic, since she is being burned along with the books.  But the candle is symbolic of an awareness for those witnessing the execution and hope that they will continue the fight of the condemned heretics.  The woman does indeed reap a convert in Montag, who begins to hide books thereafter.

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