"You're one of the few who put up with me. That's why I think it's so strange you're a fireman, it just doesn't seem right for you, somehow."
He felt his body divide itself into a hotness and a coldness, a softness and a hardness, a trembling and a not trembling, the two halves grinding one upon the other. (1.207-8)
Montag’s identity crisis begins during his conversations with Clarisse. We immediately sense conflict between his desire to be a dutiful member of society and his inner belief that something is wrong.
Montag swallowed. "Its calculators can be set to any combination, so many amino acids, so much sulphur, so much butterfat and alkaline. Right?"
"We all know that."
"All of those chemical balances and percentages on all of us here in the house are recorded in the master file downstairs. It would be easy for someone to set up a partial combination on the Hound's ‘memory,’ a touch of amino acids, perhaps. That would account for what the animal did just now. Reacted toward me." (1.228-30)
This is an interesting passage as it raises the question: how do we define identity and being? If it’s all just chemical in the end, what is the difference between a Mechanical Hound and a real one? What’s to stop a piece of technology from experiencing "human" emotions?
Fool, thought Montag to himself, you'll give it away. At the last fire, a book of fairy tales, he'd glanced at a single line. "I mean," he said, "in the old days, before homes were completely fireproofed–" Suddenly it seemed a much younger voice was speaking for him. He opened his mouth and it was Clarisse McClellan saying, "Didn't firemen prevent fires rather than stoke them up and get them going?" (1.309)
Montag escapes the guilt of betraying his duty by ascribing his actions to other things: in this case, to another person (Clarisse).
And then he shut up, for he remembered last week and the two white stones staring up at the ceiling and the pump-snake with the probing eye and the two soap-faced men with the cigarettes moving in their mouths when they talked. But that was another Mildred, that was a Mildred so deep inside this one, and so bothered, really bothered, that the two women had never met. He turned away. (1.560)
Remember when Montag talks about having a mask of happiness? Exactly; Mildred still has hers.
Montag's hand closed like a mouth, crushed the book with wild devotion, with an insanity of mindlessness to his chest. (1.336)
As the identity crisis worsens, Montag distances himself from parts of his own body, blaming his hands for his actions and pretending he has no agency over them.
Part Two: The Sieve and the Sand
The numbness will go away, he thought. It'll take time, but I'll do it, or Faber will do it for me. Someone somewhere will give me back the old face and the old hands the way they were. Even the smile, he thought, the old burnt-in smile, that's gone. I'm lost without it. (2.73)
Montag isn’t just talking about the numbness in his legs; he’s afraid of his new rebellious, fugitive self.
The old man would go on with this talking and this talking, drop by drop, stone by stone, flake by flake. His mind would well over at last and he would not be Montag any more, this the old man told him, assured him, promised him. He would be Montag-plus-Faber, fire plus water, and then, one day, after everything had mixed and simmered and worked away in silence, there would be neither fire nor water, but wine. Out of two separate and opposite things, a third. And one day he would look back upon the fool and know the fool. (2.353)
Remember an earlier line about friendship being formed drop by drop? It was from a book that Montag read. He learns all these lessons not from reading them, but from experiencing them himself.
Part Three: Burning Bright
He waded in and stripped in darkness to the skin, splashed his body, arms, legs, and head with raw liquor; drank it and snuffed some up his nose. Then he dressed in Faber's old clothes and shoes. He tossed his own clothing into the river and watched it swept away. Then, holding the suitcase, he walked out in the river until there was no bottom and he was swept away in the dark. (3.225)
This isn’t just about getting the smell out of his clothes – Montag is symbolically cleansing himself of his old being.
"When I was a boy my grandfather died, and he was a sculptor. He was also a very kind man who had a lot of love to give the world, and he helped clean up the slum in our town; and he made toys for us and he did a million things in his lifetime; he was always busy with his hands. And when he died, I suddenly realized I wasn't crying for him at all, but for the things he did. I cried because he would never do them again, he would never carve another piece of wood or help us raise doves and pigeons in the back yard or play the violin the way he did, or tell us jokes the way he did. He was part of us and when he died, all the actions stopped dead and there was no one to do them just the way he did. He was individual. He was an important man. I've never gotten over his death. Often I think, what wonderful carvings never came to birth because he died. How many jokes are missing from the world, and how many homing pigeons untouched by his hands. He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on." (3.361)
This is the solution to the big identity question in Fahrenheit 451: identity is crafted by action. Montag takes this lesson to heart. Mildred, he realizes, doesn’t actually do anything – which is why she seems to have no real identity.