Wilkie Collins, The Nineteenth-Century "King of Sensation," was born 8 January 1824, and died on 23 September 1889. He has been variously called "The Author of "Make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em wait" Books; "The Inventor of the Sensation Novel"; and "The Dickensian Ampersand."
William Wilkie Collins, the elder son of a popular landscape painter (William Collins, R. A., of Cavendish Street, London) was born on 8 January 1824. In fashionable Bayswater, young Collins attended the Maida Hill Academy prior to two years of travelling with his parents in Italy. At a private boarding school in Highbury, Wilkie Collins later recalled, he got his start as an author, for under threats from the class bully he "learnt to be amusing on short notice" (Michell vi). Upon leaving school in 1840, he worked for Antrobus and Company, tea importers, but found himself totally unsuited to the tedium of business life. Instead, he preferred to write stories and "escape to the vibrant atmosphere of Paris" (Michell vi).
At age 22, he became a law student at London's Lincoln's Inn; called to the bar in 1851 (the same year in which he first met novelist Charles Dickens, with whom he is still closely associated), he never practised, adopting literature as his profession instead. Between 1848 and his death in 1889, he wrote 25 novels, more than 50 short stories, at least 15 plays, and more than 100 non-fiction pieces. A close friend of Dickens from their meeting in March 1851 until Dickens' death in 1870, Collins was one of the best known, best loved, and, for a time, best paid of Victorian fiction writers. In 1852, working as a free-lance rather than staff writer, aged twenty-eight, he published "A Terribly Strange Bed" in Dickens's weekly journal Household Words. In Dickens's second weekly journal, All the Year Round, in 1862-3 he published No Name serially. His best known works, immensely popular in the mid-nineteenth century, especially in the United States, are The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1867). However, after his death, his reputation declined. Collins's work is currently enjoying a critical and popular resurgence. A continuing source of fascination for the reading public is the relationship between Wilkie's private life and his writing. The 'original' for the woman in white was Mrs. Caroline Graves, with whom Collins lived for most of his life after 1859, though he had three children by Martha Rudd.
Collins published "A Terribly Strange Bed" in his friend Charles Dickens's weekly literary journal Household Words, V, no. 109 (April 1852), pp. 129-137. This was the first of thirteen Collins pieces that Dickens published between April 1852 and September 1856, when he finally offered Collins a salaried position on his staff, by which time Collins had been paid nearly £250 as a free-lance writer. Dickens paid £7.10.0 for this initial short story. Source: Lillian Nayder, Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, & Victorian Authorship (Ithaca and London: Cornell U. P., 2002) page 9. For more on the relationship between Collins and Dickens: See Fred Kaplan's Dickens; A Biography (New York: William Morrow & Co.,1988).
A. Biographical Criticism
"What aspects of Collins's life and personality as detailed in the above biographical sketch are reflected in "A Terribly Strange Bed"? Why was this story so important in Collins's career as a writer? Since Collins loved Paris and most things French, speculate as to why he has placed anti-French sentiments in the mouth of his protagonist?
B. The First-Person Narrative Point of View and the Narrator
A narrative in the first person is told not by an objective observer or commentator but by one of the characters involved in the action. This character may be either major or minor, protagonist or marginal participant. It will make a considerable difference to the reader's perception of events as to whether the protagonist is telling his or her own story or whether somebody else tells it. This narrative point-of-view offers the advantages of immediacy, directness, and unity. However, there is always the danger that the narrator will transcend his knowledge, sensitivity, and powers of language. Further, the author who employs the first-person point of view has little opportunity for direct presentation and interpretation.
1. Apply the above definition of the first-person narrative point of view to Collins's "A Terribly Strange Bed."
2. The story is narrated by its protagonist, whose comments about himself and others reveal much about his own character. Explain how, in many respects, he is an "outsider" in the Paris gaming house he visits. How does he justify his presence in so unlikely a place?
3. Collins might have narrated this story with his trade-mark "testamentary" technique, that is, through the complementary but sometimes competing evidence (perhaps offered in a diary, letter, or court testimony) offered by other characters–in this case, the gambler's English friend, the old soldier, and the sub-prefect police. Speculate as to why chose the first-person narrative technique rather than his own particular brand of the epistolary technique exemplified by his narrative stance in The Moonstone (1867). How would the reader's reception of the story be different if we "heard" it from another narrator or other narrators beside or instead of Faulkner?
4. We may regard Mr. Faulkner, the story's narrator, as a unifying "voice" whose attitudes condition ours. He is not, however, an objective commentator, but rather a character very much involved in the action, first a dupe and a victim, then an agent of nemesis or poetic justice. Because of his relationships with other characters in the story, he is not entirely unbiased–indeed, he is by turn both naive and unreliable. How does Collins use these aspects of his narrator to create both pathos and irony? For instance, when he attempts to account for the unusual effect that the champagne is having upon him, what obvious explanation does he miss?
5. A prose fiction that places an emphasis on interior characterization, on the thoughts and feelings of the characters, "and on the motives, circumstances, and internal action that spring from, and develop, external action" (Harmon and Holman 417) may be described as "a psychological story."
Stream of consciousness, the continuous flow of sense-perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and memories in the human mind; or a literary method of representing such a blending of mental processes in fictional characters, usually in an unpunctuated or disjointed form of interior monologue. (Baldick 212)
To what extent is "A Terribly Strange Bed" a psychological story which employs a "stream-of-consciousness" technique? Consider, for example, the flashback of the Welsh picnic. What in the protagonist's behaviour and thought-processes indicates he is "gambling-drunk"?
6. Enumerate and describe the essential qualities of the various "voices" we hear in the story, explaining how Collins distinguishes them. Which "voice" are we most inclined to credit, and why?
C. Matters of Theme, Thesis, and Moral
1. We should be careful to draw the distinction between "theme" (whether implicit or stated, the central observation or insight about human nature offered by a literary work), "thesis" (what a literary work, usually an essay or other piece of non-fiction sets out to "prove" or attest to), and "moral" ( the lesson in life that the author is attempting to "teach" his or her readers). Apply these three terms to "A Terribly Strange Bed," stating which you feel to be the most significant and why.
2. We may regard the old soldier and the sub-prefect of police as competing aspects of human nature, as well, of course, as necessary elements in the plot. From his behaviour and motivation, what theme may we derive from the old soldier? What moral does the prefect of police point for us after he has apprehended the culprits?
D. Vocabulary, Diction, and Allusion
1. Explicate and then explain the significance of Collins's using the following expressions: entresol, Mille tonnerres, procès-verbal, croupier, vive le vin, Rouge et Noir, nom d'une pipe, sou, Monsieur le Sous-prefet, Credié, posse comitatus, Sacré, mille bombes, and sacré petit polisson de Napoleon.
2. Explain the following allusions, then indicate what they indicate about the narrator: "lonely inns among the Hartz Mountains," "Childe Harold," "tribunals of Westphalia," "Guido Fawkes," "Palais Royal," "the Inquisition," "Austerlitz," "Le Maitre," "Voyage autour de ma Chambre," and "Grand Army."
E. Details of Plot in "The Tale of Mystery"
1. The aporia or deconstructive contradictions of the story seem to lie in the disappearance of Faulkner's companion and in the construction of the "frightful apparatus" (note the total absence of creaking while it is in operation). How does the narrator attempt to account for these apparent contradictions?
2. What clues does Collins provide that indicate that the protagonist should have been suspicious of the old soldier and the waiter?
3. List the precautions that the protagonist takes once he has arrived in his room, evaluating each for their effectiveness. Ultimately, which of these are responsible for his surviving? Explain.
4. How does Collins employ the plot device of "a picture of a fellow in a high Spanish hat" in creating suspense?
5. Why is it important that, once his instinct for self-preservation galvanizes him into action at the last possible moment, the narrator drops "noiselessly" to the floor? Explain whether this is a probable or improbable coincidence.
6. Ironically, how does his imbibing the drugged coffee after drinking so much drugged champagne actually save the protagonist's life? What thematic reflection regarding this excess on the part of the antagonists does this fact provoke?
7. What convenient coincidences afford the protagonist almost certain escape from the perilous room in "a House of Murder" once he has extricated himself from the bed? To what extent has this rapid dénouement been dictated by the short story form? Explain.
8. Structurally, how does Collins avoid the necessity of introducing a deus ex machina?
9. Once the protagonist has escaped from the bed, how does Collins create and sustain suspense? Why, for example, should the police credit the confused tale of a drunken Englishman?
10. To what extent is the punishment of the old soldier and his chief myrmidons merciful, and to what extent is it poetic justice or nemesis?
11. Select the incident that you feel qualifies as the climax (i. e., the moment of greatest intensity) in "A Terribly Strange Bed," then justify your decision by reference to the rising and falling actions of the story.
12. Only at the conclusion of the story do we learn the protagonist's name ("Faulkner"): why has Collins waited so long before introducing this detail?
Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1991.
Holman, H., and Harman, W. A Handbook to Literature. (8th edn.). Toronto, ON, and Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000.
Michell, Sheila. "Biographical Note." Wilkie Collins: "The Biter Bit" and Other Stories. Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1983, rpt. 1986, 1990. Pp. vi-x.
Last updated 21 August 2003