The Eleventh


Barbusse, Henri


Short Story


Published in 1918, “The Eleventh” was written by French novelist, editor, and journalist, Henri Barbusse about the arbitrary nature of philanthropy and giving. The narrator of Barbusse's story, a young assistant to the Master of a luxurious hospital, is charged with the task of admitting ten--and only ten--vagabonds into the hospital at the start of every month. After thirty days of free health care within, the ten are dismissed and ten more are accepted. The assistant, however, finds himself obsessed with each month's eleventh, with the next vagabond in line, the one who falls just outside the hospital's temporary but luxurious welcome. This story raises questions about the limits of charity, the rules and logic associated with giving, and whether detachment hinders or helps us in serving or giving to others.

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The Civically Engaged Reader, eds. Adam Davis & Elizabeth Lynn (Great Books Foundation, 2006)




Exclusion and BelongingGiving and ReceivingHealth and HealingImpact and OutcomesJustice and EqualityLove and CompassionMotives and ValuesPoverty and NeedRoles and BoundariesServing and VolunteeringSocial and Political ChangeWork and Vocation

Big Questions

How do we respond to strangers?How do we respond to the suffering of others? How would we like others to respond to our own?What should our goals be? What is the best way to identify them?Can there be justice without equality?Should we love the people we serve?Should personal happiness be our ultimate goal? Why or why not?Is ending poverty possible?What are the limits of my ability to help or serve?What role do I play in my organization? Who determines this role?Is my service effective? How do I know?Why do we serve?What enables change? What gets in the way?What do I hope my work accomplishes?


Civically Engaged Reader

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. What do we know about the narrator? Why does the narrator consider his monthly deed “evil”?
  2. Do you recognize the “happy pride” that the narrator feels at the beginning of the story? What about the dissatisfaction that he feels at the end?
  3. What do you make of the author's description of the first ten people admitted every month: “the first ten, no more, no less, no favors, no exceptions, no injustices?” Are there really “no injustices” here? Why or why not?
  4. Why does the narrator start “lowering [his] eyes” when he encounters “the eleventh”?
  5. Have you ever seen your own “eleventh” face to face? How did it make you feel?
  6. Who gets shut out when you give?
  7. What frustrates you about giving?
  8. How do you stay committed to giving when you are confronted by difficult choices, your own doubts, and the realization that you cannot possible give to everyone who deserves it?
  9. What advice would you give to the narrator of the story?
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