A Closer Look at Beatty in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Length: 1515 words (4.3 double-spaced pages)
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“Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it(61).” Beatty, while lecturing to Montag, lets this confession slip out. With the words “I know, I’ve tried it,” Beatty became a very complex, deep character. Beatty, although obviously portrayed as the villain, is a wounded, misunderstood character.
Beatty’s beginning is of utmost importance to understanding the character as more than just a villain. In the afterword, Ray Bradbury told the story of how Beatty becomes the fire chief making him a more developed and complete character. When Montag is in the library he says, “Once you must have loved books very much.” Which Beatty beautifully replies “Touché! Below the belt. On the Chin. Through the heart. Ripping the gut. Oh, look at me, Montag. The man who loved books, no, the boy who was wild for them, insane for them, who climbed the stacks like a chimpanzee gone mad for them (171).” Beatty brought Montag into his home to display the library he has hidden there. Beatty boasts that he has never read any of them but clearly shows his love for them by hoarding them in his house. A pattern starts to emerge about Beatty, he is a paradox; he loves books enough to quote them at length and keep a hidden library in his house but blames books for all the unhappiness in the world. He hates books to the extent of taking a job where his only purpose is to burn books.
While the main plot of the Fahrenheit 451 deals with the change of Montag’s personality from an unthinking automaton, to a thinking, feeling, emotional individual the greatest change in personalities has to be Beatty’s descent from a book loving, idealist to an angry, cynical fire chief. Montag asks the fire chief the reason for his betrayal of books. Beatty replies, “Why, life happened to me (171).” Beatty goes on to describe what he means by life happened, “The love that wasn’t quite
right, the dream that went sour, the sex that fell apart, the deaths that came swiftly to friends not deserving, the murder of someone or another, the insanity of someone close, the slow death of a mother, the abrupt suicide of a father (171)…” Beatty even refers to himself as being a failed Romantic. Beatty’s standards of life at the time were very high because he was well read; he read love stories and poems and believed that life should be like that and expected a love story of his own. When everything was going to hell for him he turned to books for comfort and guidance, but found that none would help his specific problem. This crushing blow turned Beatty against his books and having no job and no love at the time he enlisted to become a fireman. I believe if Beatty would have found his love story he would have never turned his back on books; unfortunately though, he becomes a cynical genius of the fire house on a crusade to end thinking and unhappiness.
Beatty might even be a case of somebody that is too smart for their own good. Through the story he plays the role of poking and prodding Montag about his changes with a sharp intellect and an intuitive knowledge of the emotions Montag feels. Beatty makes the most speeches throughout Fahrenheit 451 all of them condemning books for the stability of the nation. “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war (61).” In this excerpt, from one of Beatty’s rants against thinking people, Beatty explains how by burning the books you burn people’s choices for them. He finds that people are happier when they have no choice in the matter. Beatty believes people live simply for pleasure and nothing else and with this in mind it is easy to see that a person that doesn’t think about politics and only is concerned with entertainment is easy to make happy. He also sounds as if he wishes he could forget; a lot of his speeches have a sad undertone, Beatty wishes he could forget his life and be happy like everybody else. He doesn’t want the ability to think, so he makes it his job to stop others from thinking before it’s too late for them. Beatty goes on to say, “chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving (61).” This clearly states his goal of stopping the majority from thinking.
When the firemen are at the house of the woman who burns herself you can see how far Beatty has given up on feelings and emotions. He orders the house to be lit even though the old woman won’t leave, knowing she will die in the fire. He doesn’t have any remorse in killing her just for having books, even though he has a library of his own. When Montag asks about what she said Beatty repeats the quote from memory, “’We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out… A man named Latimer said that to a man named Nicholas Ridley, as they were being burnt alive at Oxford, for heresy…” It is obvious Beatty knows this story and how he just fulfilled the woman’s version of the story by having her set on fire with her books. When Montag and Stoneman stare at Beatty all he said was, “I’m full of bits and pieces. Most fire captains have to be. Sometimes I surprise myself.” He seems to be joking around about the incident. Watching a woman burn alive would be a horrible thing to watch; when I first read this part I only saw Beatty as a cold, ruthless intellect, only concerned with his job. Now that I know Beatty is an old Romantic I am sickened by his ability to turn away from who he used to be.
The most tragic part of Beatty’s story is the fact that he wanted to die. Everything he believed in when he was younger, books, love, a happy life fell through and it burned him so much he needed to burn back. It is easy to turn on the things that were once loved after being hurt by the very things that were loved. It is easy to turn, but it is impossible to forget what they meant. Beatty shows this in his final showdown with Montag. Beatty makes Montag burn his own house down and then prods Montag about how he feels knowing books are responsible for this disaster. Montag has the flamethrower in hand, “Beatty glanced instantly at Montag’s fingers and his eyes widened the faintest bit.”(119) Beatty knew what was coming; he knew Montag had murder on the mind but instead of shutting up he pushes further. He quotes Shakespeare one more time, “There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats, for I am arm’d so strong in honesty that they pass me as an idle wind, which I respect not!” And immediately follows up that taunt with a straight insult and an order, “Go ahead now, you second-hand litterateur, pull the trigger.” Beatty wants to die because in doing so he plays out a character worthy of a book; in a way this is what he wanted from the beginning, to be a character in one of his books instead of living in the real world. I think also Bradbury might be insulting his own writing, calling Montag, his main character, second-hand litterateur through Beatty.
Before reading the afterword I felt most connected to Clarisse and Montag, but after reading how Beatty’s metamorphosis took place I feel a very strong connection with him. I think it would be easier to have no expectations and then find beauty, like Montag, then to find beauty in the books you read and not be able to find it in your own life, like Beatty. To be a Romantic is a wonderful thing and perhaps if circumstances were right Beatty would have been the greatest hero, stronger and sharper than Faber, but when love and life turn on you I can see where it would be hard to keep an optimistic view on life. I don’t find Beatty as a complete villain, he is very misunderstood and cynical, completely crushed by life by the age of thirty in a warped way he was only doing what he saw best for humanity.