Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Christmas Banquet” derives from a notebook entry of his, circa 1836-37, later to be revised and published in the Democratic Review in 1844 (Cody 1), where it ultimately finds its way into a collection of tales entitled Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). Google Books has the story listed as being randomly published in 2017, by someone unknown from CreateSpace, who characterizes Hawthorne’s content as “VERY funny,” with sections that read “sharp and hilarious” (Source). This perception of the story is certainly something to ponder, testament to the sometimes quirkiness of reader-response theory, in that Hawthorne’s story reads as anything but a literary piece at which to laugh.
The premise concerns a man named Roderick, his wife Rosina, and a sculptor as they consider the description of a person, or a group of people, who are a “hopeless puzzle.” In this day and age when storytelling is mired in the sheer demand for plot, Hawthorne’s piece reads more like an article from a pre-Freudian psychiatric journal; its linguistic, descriptive power propels it into what has been anachronistically termed an “allegory of the heart.” To read the piece in the modern age is to understand it as a meditation on the phenomenon of clinical depression.
In the attempt to describe the “hopeless puzzle,” the character of Roderick draws on a manuscript in his possession. It outlines the story of a man who seeks to define society’s depressive types by funding an annual Christmastime banquet that invites “ten of the most miserable persons that could be found.” The fictive element of interest involves how the man’s estate continues to pay for the banquet, and how his corpse is displayed at the head of the table at each subsequent banquet. This man is noted for his “melancholy eccentricity” during life, where his purpose in founding the banquet reads as follows:
“It seemed not to be the testator’s purpose to make these half a score of sad hearts merry, but to provide that the stern or fierce expression of human discontent should not be drowned, even for that one holy and joyful day, amid the acclamations of festal gratitude which all Christendom sends up. And he desired, likewise, to perpetuate his own remonstrance against the earthly course of Providence, and his sad and sour dissent from those systems of religion or philosophy which either find sunshine in the world or draw it down from heaven.”
Much of the reading is spent in going over the details of the many different guests, year after year, ten per year, how wretched they are in their lives. And with the figure of death at the table’s head, the whole thing comes off as a grotesque exercise in anthropological cynicism. But there is beauty in everything Hawthorne creates, “dark beauty” as Herman Melville might’ve called it. A character by the name of Gervayse Hastings is introduced as the foil to depression, and he is a representative of the worst of all human conditions known to mankind: the state of being indifferent. Through this character, by the end of the narrative, we come to feel relief in the notion that we as readers are not icicles of society, that no matter how sketchy things can get, it’s the ability to feel that is most important.
Themes vary from this point. For Hawthorne’s time, the text is a sketch that builds on the introduction of mental health as a situation to be addressed. In light of the era’s lack of research, the idea that a person was expected to mask their psychological problems is evident. Roderick suggests: “He [the depressive] looks like a man; and, perchance, like a better specimen of man than you ordinarily meet.” This translates into our day and age into the notion that clinical depression is a condition that is to be recognized, diagnosed, and treated. The need to wear a mask is no longer necessary as society comes to understand conditions of mental illness, psychological or psychiatric.
We also get the idea that Quixotic ideals are self-help concepts to pursue and embrace. To realize a dream is to follow that dream no matter the amount of failure that we face. As Thomas Edison once put it: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” People are often quick to give up on goals when they realize frustration, which in turn leads to the passage of time, depression, and the notion that a person was never good enough. Perseverance, then, is a way to keep the devils of depression at bay.
There is some of Thoreauvian philosophy to read into this. We find people bogged down by the way society has driven them mad with the hustle and bustle of trying to make life work. Thoreau suggested that people not forget their connection with nature, and to seek out that connection to bring spiritual health to the mind and body. Getting caught up in the game of living to get by is to survive; balancing our responsibilities and necessities with our deeper and divine selves, preferably by seeking to be in tune with nature, leans more towards harmony.
Additionally, the Banquet highlights the statistical probability that not everyone is a joyous chap during the holiday season. The presence of such pervasive festivity can bring on the harbingers of depressive, even suicidal ideation in those who have no family, nowhere to go, no one to turn to in loneliness. The season of peace demands that we consider the plight of those who are less fortunate or alone, possibly even to entertain the notion of lending a comforting, helping hand.
The curiosity is that somehow, the crafting of literary dread is how Hawthorne ignites these underlying themes of constructive positivity. Again we have the art of literature performing work for the greater social good, of which Hawthorne was an indisputable master. Here is the author who brought us Hester Prynne, America’s beloved heroine of the Puritan Age, Miles Coverdale, professed supporter of women’s rights, and Young Goodman Brown, whose experience encourages us to keep a careful eye on our leaders. “The Christmas Banquet” may be weighty thematic material for someone who isn’t used to peering into the abyss of human despair, so condensed and refined as it is in such a short space of writing; yet it’s Hawthorne’s keen eye for the human condition paired with his genius skill for language that has scholars continuing to examine exactly what it is, the difference between a standard story of plot and that which constitutes a unique specimen of literature.
Cody, David. “Invited Guests at Hawthorne’s ‘Christmas Banquet’: Sir Thomas Browne and Jeremy Taylor.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 11, no. 1, 1980, pp. 17–26. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3194164.