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From Beatty’s visit through the end of “The Hearth and the Salamander”
Captain Beatty comes by to check on Montag, saying that he guessed Montag would be calling in sick that day. He tells Montag that every fireman runs into the “problem” he has been experiencing sooner or later, and he relates to him the history of their profession. Beatty’s monologue borders on the hysterical, and his tendency to jump from one thing to another without explaining the connection makes his history very hard to follow. Part of the story is that photography, film, and television made it possible to present information in a quickly digestible, visual form, which made the slower, more reflective practice of reading books less popular. Another strand of his argument is that the spread of literacy, and the gigantic increase in the amount of published materials, created pressure for books to be more like one another and easier to read (like Reader’s Digest condensed books). Finally, Beatty says that “minorities” and special-interest groups found so many things in books objectionable that people finally abandoned debate and started burning books.
Mildred’s attention falters while Beatty is talking, and she gets up and begins absentmindedly straightening the room. In doing so, she finds the book behind Montag’s pillow and tries to call attention to it, but Montag screams at her to sit down. Beatty pretends not to notice and goes on talking. He explains that eventually the public’s demand for uncontroversial, easy pleasure caused printed matter to be diluted to the point that only comic books, trade journals, and sex magazines remained. Beatty explains that after all houses were fireproofed, the firemen’s job changed from its old purpose of preventing fires to its new mission of burning the books that could allow one person to excel intellectually, spiritually, and practically over others and so make everyone else feel inferior. Montag asks how someone like Clarisse could exist, and Beatty says the firemen have been keeping an eye on her family because they worked against the schools’ system of homogenization. Beatty reveals that he has had a file on the McClellans’ odd behaviors for years and says that Clarisse is better off dead.
Beatty urges Montag not to overlook how important he and his fellow firemen are to the happiness of the world. He tells him that every fireman sooner or later becomes curious about books; because he has read some himself, he can assert that they are useless and contradictory. Montag asks what would happen if a fireman accidentally took a book home with him, and Beatty says that he would be allowed to keep it for twenty-four or forty-eight hours, but that the other firemen would then come to burn it if he had not already done so himself. Beatty gets up to leave and asks if Montag will come in to work later. Montag tells him that he may, but he secretly resolves never to go again. After Beatty leaves, Montag tells Mildred that he no longer wants to work at the fire station and shows her a secret stock of about twenty books he has been hiding in the ventilator. In a panic, she tries to burn them, but he stops her. He wants to look at them at least once, and he needs her help. He searches for a reason for his unhappiness in the books, which he has apparently been stealing for some time. Mildred is frightened of them, but Montag is determined to involve her in his search, and he asks for forty-eight hours of support from her to look through the books in hopes of finding something valuable that they can share with others. Someone comes to the door, but they do not answer and he goes away. (Later it is revealed that the Mechanical Hound was the second visitor.) Montag picks up a copy of Gulliver’s Travels and begins reading.
We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the constitution says, but everyone made equal. . . . A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it.
In his explication of the history of book burning, Beatty equates deep thought with sadness, which he rejects as categorically evil. The immediacy of pleasure in this bookless society eliminates thought and, with it, the ability to express sadness, which is why people like Mildred carry around vast amounts of suppressed pain. According to Beatty, mass censorship began with various special-interest groups and minorities clamoring against material they considered offensive, as well as a shrinking attention span in the general populace. As a result, books and ideas were condensed further and further until they were little more than a series of sound bites; they were ultimately eliminated altogether in favor of other, more superficial, sensory-stimulating media. Mass production called for uniformity and effectively eliminated the variance once found in books.
The startling point of Beatty’s explanation is that censorship started with the people, not the government (although the government stepped in later in accordance with the people’s wishes). Most people stopped reading books long before they were ever burned. It is important to note that Beatty’s entire description of the history of the firemen has an oddly ambivalent tone. His speech is filled with irony and sarcasm, and his description of reading strikes the reader as passionate and nostalgic. His championing of book burning, on the other hand, has a perfunctory, insincere tone. Of course, this sarcasm reflects Bradbury’s attitude toward what he is writing about, and much of Beatty’s complexity stems from the fact that he is simultaneously Bradbury’s mouthpiece and villain—everything he says is deliberately ironic.
In the world of shallow hedonists in which Beatty and Montag live, everyone strives to be the same and “intellectual” is a dirty word. Superior minds are persecuted until they fall in line with everyone else. People who are not born equal are made equal. Funerals are eliminated because they are a source of unhappiness, death is forgotten as soon as it occurs, and bodies are unceremoniously incinerated. In this society, books are as morbid as corpses, because they contain dead thoughts by dead authors. This society idolizes fire, which represents the easy cleanliness of destruction. As Beatty explains, “Fire is bright and fire is clean.”