Fear of the Working Class in “A Terribly Strange Bed”

“We had come to see blackguards…the English stranger was going to break the bank” (Collins 29).

I was first drawn to this passage because of the story’s strange fixation with silence. As I did more of a close read, however, I noticed other word clusters and binaries which suggest something more than just eerie quiet. Collins repeats the phrase “never spoke” three times when describing specific guests of the gambling hall. Other words, such as “mute,” “quiet,” “whispered” and “staring” (because when one is staring, he is not speaking) are distributed throughout the passage. But there is so much more to unpack, which leads me to believe that the haunting silence simply adds to the aesthetic rather than being Faulkner’s main concern, as was my original thought. After all, what about silence agitates the Victorian and not me?

I think this has more to do with the people who produce the unnatural quiet than the lack of sound itself. Collins’ alliteration (“…the flabby fat-face, pimply player who pricked his piece of pasteboard perseveringly…”) draws negative attention to the type of client the gambling house attracts. Faulkner describes the hall’s patrons as being “thin,” “haggard,” “dirty,” “sunken,” “wrinkled,” “desperate,” “hungry,” and as having “sunken…vulture eyes.” Collins’ word choice in describing the scene (“spirits,” “atmosphere,” “weird,” “strange,” “superstitious”) is oddly reminiscent of the supernatural–that to which the lower class Victorians were notorious for subscribing. “Blackguard,” a rude or unscrupulous person, repeats twice, again noting the type of people who haunt the gambling hall. Faulkner describes a man who merely watches with his greedy “vulture eyes” as the other gamblers play. He cannot participate, however, because he has gambled away “his last sou.” This desolation, juxtaposed with Faulkner’s apparent luck at winning (the word “won” repeats four times in one sentence) “incredibly,” “prodigiously,” suggests that success in a seedy gambling house such as this one is exceedingly rare. Or, rather, it suggests that success–in a more general sense–among the people who frequent the hall is abnormal. Luck does not often visit the members of low society. Faulkner tells Mr. Kerby that he had “entered the place to laugh,” but that the “spectacle before [him] was something to weep over.” “Tragedy” repeats twice, and words such as “horrible,” “depression” and “unfortunate” are scattered about the passage. I think that the immediate disgust Faulkner has for the patrons is a facade for a deeper feeling among the high and middle class Victorians. This was the height of the Industrial Revolution, and while it was also the Age of Reform, living conditions for the poor, working class citizens of Europe had hit rock bottom. Though Faulkner does not sympathize with the regulars, he fears them because they evoke a feeling of guilt from his subconscious. Some, when they see a homeless person on the side of the road, feel anger or repugnance. But this revulsion masks subconscious feelings of guilt and sorrow. We cannot but feel guilty and remorseful for being better off, and I think that this is what the passage is hiding.

One thought on “Fear of the Working Class in “A Terribly Strange Bed””

  1. Considering how unprecedented the Industrial Revolution was, the rise of the middle class, the ‘working class’ was even more, if not equally unprecedented. Having a society with these workers having almost as much, if not equal say in matters made for some good source of aggravation amongst the upper class, perhaps not so much an element of self-resentment for being better off, but rather feeling more threatened by the idea of workers being more powerful. The thought of there being an air of pity behind the mask of resentment is an interesting take on Victorian mentality though, but I don’t find it one too prevalent.

Comments are closed.