Class, Crime, and Cannibalism in The String of Pearls; or, The Demon Barber as Bourgeois Bogeyman
Keywords:Cannibalism, capitalism, hungry 40s, middle-class panics, penny dreadfuls, Sweeney Todd
Although the tale of Sweeney Todd is one with significant cultural resonance, little has been written about the text itself, The String of Pearls. This article argues that the text engages with anxieties about class conflict through a narrative that enacts exaggerated versions of various interactions. In the nineteenth century, critics objected to the cheap fiction pejoratively known as penny dreadfuls, asserting that the genre’s exciting tales of bloodshed, villainy, and mayhem would seduce readers to lives of debauchery and crime, but I argue that this concern about cheap fiction was not for the preservation of the souls of the poor and working classes but rather for the preservation of the middle classes' own corporeal bodies and the system that privileged and protected them. While there is no question that the narrative enacts extreme manifestations of problems facing the urban poor—among them, contaminated or even poisonous foodstuffs and the perils of urban anonymity—it also features an intractable and rapacious lower class and a subversion of the master-servant dynamic on which the comforts of the middle class were constructed, and so, in addition to adventure, detection, and young love, The String of Pearls offers a dark revenge fantasy of class-based violence that the middle-class critics of the penny dreadful were perhaps justified in fearing. tl;dr: Eat the Rich!