The Night the Bed Fell

by James Thurber

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What is Briggs Beall's biggest fear in "The Night the Bed Fell"?

Quick answer:

Briggs Beall's biggest fear is dying from sleep apnea. He worries that he will stop breathing in his sleep and suffocate. To prevent his death, Briggs sets an alarm clock to wake himself up throughout the night. When his cousin who shares his room vetoes this strategy, Briggs sleeps beside a glass of camphor. He believes its strong aroma will wake him up and save him. Ultimately, though, he nearly suffocates from its odor.

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In “The Night the Bed Fell,” the narrator’s first cousin, Briggs Beall, visits and sleeps in the narrator’s room. Briggs Beall fears that he will suffocate because

He was likely to cease breathing when he was asleep.

Therefore, he sets an alarm clock to ring intermittently throughout the night keep him from dying in his sleep due to asphyxiation.

By falsely claiming to be a light sleeper who would awaken if Briggs stopped breathing, the narrator convinces Briggs not to set the alarm clock. One night, Briggs “tests” the narrator by holding his breath after he thinks the narrator falls asleep, but the narrator himself pretends to be asleep and actually stays awake to catch Briggs’s trick.

Nevertheless, as a backup plan, Briggs keeps

a glass of spirits of camphor on a little table at the head of his bed.

Therefore, if the narrator does not wake up to save a suffocating Briggs, the fumes from the camphor would revive and save Briggs.

Briggs’s fear is so engrained that on the titular night of commotion when everyone is shouting, he wakes up and immediately assumes that

he was suffocating and that we were all trying to “bring him out.”

Comically, he grabs the camphor; instead of sniffing the odorous oil, he douses himself with it. The room fills with the aroma. Briggs nearly suffocates himself with camphor, which is supposed to save him:

“Ugf, ahfg!” choked Briggs, like a drowning man, for he had almost succeeded in stopping his breath under the deluge of pungent spirits.

He frantically jumps out of bed and breaks a window to access fresh air. Ironically, the remedy for Briggs’s worst fear—suffocation from sleep apnea— becomes the cause for his near suffocation:

“Gugh!” gasped Briggs, floundering in his camphor.

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