A Bed for the Night

Author

Brecht, Bertolt

Genre

Poetry

Overview

Bertolt Brecht was an influential German poet and playwright whose most famous works are Mother Courage and Her Children and, in collaboration with composer Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera. Brecht insisted that a playwright should both make his audience aware of social problems and move them to bring about change. Brecht's simple poem, "A Bed for the Night" tells of a man who procures beds for the homeless by standing on a corner and "appealing to passersby." This seems like a good deed, so why does the narrator tell us that "it won't change the world"? Are we to be glad that "a few men have a bed for the night" or despair that "it will not shorten the age of exploitation"? The poem marks a rich beginning for conversation about the relation between philanthropic giving and social change.

Full Text*

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Type

Reading

Themes

Impact and OutcomesJustice and EqualityLeadership and ResponsibilityMotives and ValuesPoverty and NeedRoles and BoundariesServing and VolunteeringSocial and Political Change

Big Questions

How do we identify desired outcomes? Who decides?What are the limits of my ability to help or serve?Must action, to be meaningful, always lead to social change?What kind of change am I making? What kind of change does the world need?

Publication

Civically Engaged Reader

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. What is the man on the street doing? What is his appeal to passersby?
  2. Why does the man in the poem solicit help for the homeless by standing outside in the winter weather?
  3. Why does the narrator make a point of telling us that a bed for the night “won't change the world… won't improve relations among men… will not shorten the age of exploitation”? What do you think this means?
  4. In speaking of the men who have a bed for the night, why does the narrator say that the snow is “meant for them”?
  5. What does the narrator mean by “don't put the book down on reading this man”?
  6. What kind of change is the man making?
  7. Who do you identify with most in the poem—the man on the street, the narrator, the passersby, or the homeless? Why?
  8. What motivates people to try to put themselves into situations similar to those of people they would help? Is this useful?
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