Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which books burn, and burn they do. But why do people burn them? In general, the main purpose of a book burning is to dispose of and forbid knowledge that might expose an authority figure as being wrong in some way. Burning books has never been uncommon; it has always been used to prevent people from knowing the truth about various matters.
Unexpectedly, however, the chief fireman, Beatty, owns a large number of books in his home, but claims not to have read them; however, he speaks in an educated way, and often quotes books, which means that, not only has he read those books, but he is a liar. He lies to Montag when he tells him that books say nothing and are not worth anything, and he lies when he says he has not read the books that line his shelves. Why, though, would he lie about this? Obviously he fears negative repercussions when people discover that he has, in fact, read the books, but, as discussed in class, the point of burning books is to keep people from reading them, because then they watch their television walls instead, which they cannot control. As Emma W. pointed out, Faber tells us, “You can shut [books],” meaning that we can close a book and think about them. With the “parlor families,” that is not an option. Beatty knows that people do not own books because of the same fear we can guess he feels, but he also wants to have the ability to control the knowledge he gains from the books he reads.
Another question is, how can he read books and then still burn them? This probably relates back to the idea of controlling knowledge. If he burns books, nobody else can learn what he has learned. Knowledge is power, everyone says, and if Beatty has knowledge, he has power, and if he has power, then, as discussed in class (I forget who raised this point) Beatty knows nobody will come after him, that nobody will dare to burn his house down.
Later in the book, in the third section (spoiler alert: if you have not yet done the reading, stop reading this, finish the book, and then read the rest of my post) Montag turns the flamethrower on Beatty and pulls the trigger, burning Beatty to death as well as the mechanical hound. Beatty knew perfectly well that he was endangering himself in giving the flamethrower to Montag, and did nothing to protect himself when he found the flamethrower pointing at him. Perhaps burning books did have deep psychological effects on him after all; he read the books, he learned their value, and he destroyed them. Guilt causes people to do crazy things; perhaps he helped the authority figures who gave him power by becoming a martyr, while at the same time sentencing to death the man with the books who could eventually learn what Beatty had learned, but it is also possible that Beatty’s letting Montag kill him is, in Beatty’s mind, poetic justice for all the books he destroyed in the past.
Finally, we have to consider the ending. The people living in the woods, watching the chase and murder of “Montag,” know that the government is a fraud, and that they instill fear in people while at the same time publicly but, interestingly enough, secretly killing those who might dare oppose them, the people like Clarisse McClellan, the first person to open Montag’s eyes to the censorship under which he lived. The government, of course, forbids the publics learning that they are not infallible, which is why it is the ones in the woods, who live out of the law, that reveal this final secret to Montag. But is it possible for them to win? Faber confesses a regret for not speaking out when book burnings started and expresses the idea that it is now too late, but can he be wrong? Or do you think that the ones in the woods are optimistic beyond reality?