‘In a New Bottle’ by Arnold Bennett: Short Story Analysis
‘In a New Bottle’ has a similar setting as Arnold Bennett’s ‘Five Towns’ novels. The theme of this short story is about how people try to localize a story they have heard from another place. Such people try to ‘put an old story into a new bottle’ and make the story something closer to home. People, in this case, are such tellers of tall tales that they even claim to have been part of the concerned story or episode. Bennett in his usual excellent prose style portraying the English provincial life, tells the story of how a baby declared dead came to life after the inquest was over. This was a startling incident that caused the doctor of the baby to lose his job, but our story revolves around the undertaker in charge of getting the baby’s coffin ready. His name is Edward Till and it is he who tells this story to the narrator of ‘In a New Bottle’. The narrator goes to great lengths at the beginning of the story to tell how people have tried to claim that the story happened in their locality.
There are three people in the short story, who claim to have firsthand knowledge of the baby waking up from the dead:
- An old herbalist.
- An undertaker from Hull.
- Several people from the USA who claimed the incident took place in their part of the country.
All were liars because the narrator knows exactly who was concerned with the story. He criticizes such liars or people who tell tall tales. He is also upset because probably, people were not inclined to think that the extraordinary story could have ever taken place in a small place in the area of the ‘Five Towns’ which is the semi-fictional towns of Arnold Bennett’s novels and other fiction. He conclusively states that this story took place in one of the Five Towns. The story of the resurrected baby was only part of the story. The rest of the story centers around Edward Till, the forgetful undertaker. The characters are described to perfection that makes a lasting impression on our minds. The character of Edward Till is drawn very beautifully for us, especially his forgetful nature. His forgetfulness is the crux around which the latter part of this extraordinary story takes place.
This is a story of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The baby was found to be alive but there was no way to inform this to the undertaker Edward Till. He arrives at the house only to be told that the baby coffin which he was lugging around would not be needed anymore as the baby was alive. There is a mention of subtle irony here that even in such a circumstance, the parents of the baby were wanting to save money and did not pay for the extraordinarily small coffin. They suggest that the unusual story of the baby ‘rising from the dead’ should be reward enough for Edward. The poor man has nothing to do but go back home. In the middle of all this comes the topic of Gorgonzola cheese.
Mrs. Till wanted the cheese and requested her husband Edward Till to get it while he was on his mission with the baby’s coffin. Now, we are all aware how terribly Gorgonzola cheese stinks; it was this large cube of cheese that Edward Till buys from the cheesemonger with whom he had good relations, having buried three of the cheesemonger’s children. There is a mention in the story of how the undertaker too dies and that is a disturbing truth which is slightly hilarious. Do remember that Edward Till was dead when this story about him was being told by the narrator.
Well, Edward gets the cheese and with the cheese under one arm and an empty baby’s coffin under the other, he enters the third-class compartment of a railway carriage, between Longshaw and Hanbridge, belonging to the North Staffordshire Railway Company. He is a very forgetful man and during the travel, he gets a sort of a frightening revelation. He is afraid that there was a possibility he would forget the coffin and cheese here in the carriage and arrive home empty-handed. The loss of the coffin would not be a bother because no one would rob a baby’s coffin, but the cheese was another matter. Plus, he did not want to upset his wife whom he adored. Mrs. Till is quite an understanding woman who is patient with her forgetful husband. This is shown in a subtle humorous scene at the beginning of the story when she reminded him to tie a knot in his handkerchief because he had to remember, to remember something!
So, ultimately, so as not to upset his wife by coming home empty-handed, Edward Till did the unspeakable. He took the cheese and locked it into the baby’s coffin. There is a subtle hint here showing that for an undertaker, death and corpses were part of everyday life. Therefore, it did not feel repugnant to Edward Till to place the Gorgonzola cheese in the baby coffin. In comes a very comic Parson into the same carriage who is Reverend Claud ffolliot. No, it’s not a mistake on my part; the Reverend is a man who spells his surname with a small alphabet in the beginning – ‘ffolliot’. That should indicate to you what a specimen of creation we are dealing with. According to the narrator, the Reverend was not the brightest spark in Five Towns. He gets into the carriage and after getting a whiff of the Gorgonzola cheese, looks up from his ‘Church Times’ newspaper and thinks:
- That the smell was from the dead baby’s body lying in the coffin.
- That the undertaker was a bereaved parent carrying the dead body of his child in the baby coffin.
- That since the body was smelling, it meant that it was decomposing and so the ‘parent’ or rather Edward Till should consider himself lucky as at least by the decaying body, one knew that the baby was really dead. It also indicated that the baby was not in a trance-like state.
- He felt Edward Till should be glad that his baby was really dead and not in a trance otherwise there would be a problem that he was burying a person alive.
The crux of the story is that the Reverend was glad that the baby was really dead and not in a trance. This would indicate that maybe the Parson knew of the resurrected Baby’s story by now and would probably consider a dead baby better than a ‘buried alive’ baby. Maybe, he too would have gone on to tell the tale of the baby that came to life, probably claiming to have been a part of the whole episode. Bennett ends this story in this manner leaving us with a comical anti-climax. We can only laugh and think what an idiot the Reverend was. This is also ultimately, a story of English provincial life where such news items get passed on like the flu. This is one of the many stories of provincial, humble, and simple life very much common in Arnold Bennett’s works.
I have read only two novels by Arnold Bennett which are Anna of the Five Towns and The Old Wives Tale. I have however read many of his short stories over the years, especially when I was helping out in my Bombay Scottish School library about which I have chronicled in my bookish memoir Scenes of the Reclusive Writer and Reader of Mumbai. I hope to get back to reading more of Bennett’s works and will then review them on my blog.
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