How can I compare the two people who come and sit on the bench with Norman Gortsby in Dusk? 

How can I compare the two people who come and sit on the bench with Norman Gortsby in Dusk?

 

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When the story opens, Gortsby is sharing a bench with an elderly gentleman who has "a drooping air of defiance." His appearance in the story at all seems to be to serve as the rightful owner of the cake of soap Gortsby eventually discovers on the ground. There is nothing distinctive about this old man. He is a nobody. The author gets rid of him quickly. This shows that the old man has no immediate function in the story. When he reappears at the end, however, the reader will remember him and that he had been sitting there.

As he rose to go Gortsby imagined him returning to a home circle where he was snubbed and of no account, or to some bleak lodging where his ability to pay a weekly bill was the beginning and end of the interest he inspired.

Why would the old man buy a cake of soap? He is obviously poor and can't afford luxuries. It must be because he lives in a place where soap is not provided. The narrator suggests that he might live in "some bleak lodging," something like a rooming-house in what the English call "a bed-sitter," a one-room combination bedroom and living-room. He would have no private bath but would have to use a common bathroom and bring his own soap.

The young man who comes and sits beside Gortsby as soon as the old man leaves is a far more complex character. He pretends to be an affluent young country gentleman who has just come up to London. His dialogue suggests that he has been to Eton and Oxford. In actuality he is trying to be a confidence trickster and does not appear to have had much experience at it yet. He has composed a story which is intended to make Gortsby believe that he might have an opportunity to make a friend of a young man his age who belongs to a higher social class. The trickster says he doesn't know a soul in London. He is not asking for money but only for a loan until he can get back into his hotel room tomorrow. Gortsby thinks he has exposed the other man as a phony when he asks to see the cake of soap the young man said he had come out to buy when he lost his hotel. This leads to the trickster's retreating in embarrassment and confusion. But then Gortsby finds a cake of soap on the ground by the bench and thinks he has missed a golden opportunity to rise in the world.

This is where the elderly gentleman plays the part he was intended for. Gortsby chases after the young trickster, gives him a sovereign, plus the soap, and his card. When he passes the bench where he had been sitting, he sees the old man searching the ground all around the bench. 

"Have you lost anything, sir?" he asked.

"Yes, sir, a cake of soap."

The fact that the old man is spending so much time searching for his cake of soap near the bench, "poking and peering beneath it and on all sides of it," is completely in character. It cost him a lot of money, relatively speaking. He is no confidence trickster but just an old former clerk living on a pension and required to buy a cake of soap for his personal use. Saki only created him and placed him on the bench beside Gortsby because he needed him for his surprise ending. Since Gortsby gave the old man's soap to the trickster, from whom he now realizes he will never hear again, Gortsby may feel obliged to pay the old man for his lost soap. It has been a bad evening for Gortsby.