Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Christmas Banquet

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 like an article from a pre-Freudian psychiatric journal; its linguistic, descriptive power instead 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 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. The character of Gervayse Hastings is introduced as the foil to depression, 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 bad or good 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 10000 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 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.

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Sharp Objects (2006)

The expert magician knows how to keep his audience focused on a specific object, so as to allow for his magic trick to unfold with precision, in a different part of the visual spectrum he represents, mind you. And so it is with the writer of mysteries, coloring her linguistic canvas with red herring detours of plot so that by the end of her novel, one can only blame oneself for the outcome they didn’t see coming.

Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects is just such the novel, going so far as to take a page from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934) to secure that which was unexpected, whether intentionally or not. Even as I suspected from the outset a certain character’s dubious disposition, I have to admit that I, too, was taken in by the element of surprise in the final act, though it’s nothing to be ashamed of; it’s what Flynn would’ve wanted. Of course, what followed was the observation of all the markers, replete with the feeling that it all should’ve been so obvious.

With that we have Flynn’s debut into the world of genre writing, impressive as it is. Following on the success of the movie adaptation of her third novel Gone Girl (2012), Sharp Objects was filmed as a ten-part series for HBO, and it was through this medium that I was driven to read the novel, because after the third episode, I was no longer able to allow myself to get strung along for another car ride with a spaced out Amy Adams.

What unfolded was that I had been, indeed, drawn in to reading a genre novel, but additionally, that I was reading something that was slightly more introspective than other genre novels that I’ve read. While the immediate claim is that the protagonist is the subject of focus for her inability to commit to a relationship, the writing does well to delve into the psychological underpinnings which facilitate the issue. Big time money in a small town, hellish coping mechanisms, drug abuse and peer-pressure are among the list of factors which contribute to the murder of two young girls.

If anything, Flynn provides an excellent contribution of thought to the realm of actual police detective work. Throughout the novel, Detective Richard Willis repeatedly insists that he is looking at anyone and everyone, and that it could be an outsider or a local, some transient or even a family member. It points to notions of seeking truth and justice in a manner that is not rushed and hurried; guilt can only be determined by the facts, and when the facts are slim, the need for patience is key. Sharp Objects is nearly an ode to the hundreds even thousands of those who have been wrongfully convicted by pressured detectives in a hurry to solve a case.

Stylistically speaking, Flynn’s novel moves at steady pace that is in keeping with the fundamentals of standard novel writing, though it must be stated, that the final reveal was out-of-step and awkward. Flynn offers insight into the writing process in her “Acknowledgements,” in which she states that she had “whittled” the book into shape. Multiple readers and readings were involved, along with law enforcement and medical consultations. The ending in this light seems to indicate the desire she had simply to finish the book.

At its heart, Sharp Objects is a “page-turner,” the craft of which is an important one to learn for the aspiring writer in this day and age, for as Stephen King once put it, loosely quoting, “literary fiction no longer sells.”

In the case of this novel, the introspective edge allowing for a glimpse into the darker behaviors of humankind render it something of a unique addition to the genre canon, for make no mistake, Sharp Objects is dark reading. Its tantalizing depiction of rural American Midwest evokes sensations of wariness as to its inhabitants, prompting Flynn herself to remark concerning people she knew in Missouri, of whom she was happy to say “were absolutely no inspiration for the characters in this book.”

Sharp Objects, most pointedly (pardon the pun), draws attention to one of the more confounding of teenage defense mechanisms against the world which traumatizes them. It’s no spoiler to highlight how the protagonist Camille Preaker is a “cutter,” someone who cuts themselves in superficial fashion so as to block the pain of a particular reality. Camille’s distinct style of cutting involves the inscribing of words into her flesh, providing a curious linguistic tension to what is already harrowing authorship. But when we consider the thought of one of our young loved ones taking a razor or a knife, or any “sharp object” to their flesh, it forces us to register, in all the wrong ways, just how painful certain experiences can be for young people. Sharp Objects lays bare what the world can do to the teenage mind, allowing us to consider more thoughtfully how to respond to someone who is young and experiencing trauma.

Our Beloved Authors

Call it author irony, or the writer’s paradox, but at its root the phenomenon of the existence of great literary works whose creators have endured hard times, or met with tragic ends, is something marveling, if not deeply unsettling to comprehend. One of the greatest known examples of this kind would have to be the writing of Wuthering Heights (1847), and the subsequent passing of its ever-too-young authoress, Emily Brontë. It seems she had been put on this earth for the sole purpose of writing this novel, and yet her story stands among many others whose lives of writing fell under similar kinds of circumstances.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Because of the infancy in the field of medicine, Mary Shelley was beset by the loss of her children in life, with only one to survive into adulthood. She was lucky that she herself did not die giving birth, like that of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the famous feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), who died within days of giving birth to her. With praise that is, at this point, beyond calculation, Mary Shelley is famous for her opus magnum Frankenstein (1818/1831). Yet her efforts as an author are overshadowed by this masterstroke of genius, since she rarely receives credit due for her immense contribution to the field of writing and publishing in general. Yet it is primarily because of her cautionary tale, written with such terror and love for the craft, that she is truly one of literature’s beloved authors, which is why the end of her life seems so tragic. As the Victorian Web tells us, by the time she reached the eldest of her years, she had “lost her will to live” (Source).

Herman Melville (1847–1891)

Herman Melville was a thoughtful, thoughtful man, evidenced in his highly elaborate narrative technique. It seems each and every sentence he ever wrote was endowed with the power of extreme perception, all the more genius in the uncanny notion that he was able to write what he did without the help of a word processor. The creator of America’s greatest novel is another one of those authors of whom, their many other works are dwarfed by the power of their masterpiece, and yet we find melancholy and even sadness in how the man was hardly praised during his day. He looked for jobs like the rest of us, working as a customs inspector for many years to support his family. In spite of his literary output, and whatever contemporary critical acclaim he did manage to attain, his passing evoked but a “single obituary notice” (Source).

Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616)

The powerhouse writer who produced Don Quixote (1605-1620) once served in the Spanish Navy Marines, but when he was captured by Ottoman pirates, it was his family who paid his ransom after five miserable years, not the Spanish government. It was later that this same government imprisoned him, though it was this very imprisonment which engendered the impetus to create what would go on to become — the novel of all novels. Sadly, “No graciousness descended on Cervantes’s domestic life” (Source). He faced hardship with his family, and though Don Quixote was a success as a publication, copyrights during the age did not work in his favor. The message that Cervantes sends to aspiring writers lay in the scale of his creative output, which began for him at the age of 57, serving to show that no matter the age, it’s never too late to get on the ball and get that novel written. What aspiring writers can also take from the life of Cervantes is that the life of a writer is not an easy one at all.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

My edition of the Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe feels like a brick when I hold it. And the font size is tiny. The man passed from this world at the age of 40, which is all to suggest that it was within this brief span of time that Poe produced literature to voluminous effect. We know that he paid to have his first works published, inspiration for Indie Publishers everywhere, but we also know that he struggled financially throughout most of his life. Poe was a gentle man who suffered loss after terrible loss, of the women he loved, and he died under conditions of poverty in the most abysmal of ways. To be simple-minded and non-intellectual in my commentary, I can only remark that it just doesn’t seem fair!

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

To say that Sylvia Plath was brilliant would be an understatement. Natural poetry and prose poured forth from her mind like pure water bubbles from a spring in the mountains. Her case is tragic because she was caught in a time when the odds were stacked against her. Simply speaking, she wanted to write creatively, and she did anything she could to that end, including the rejection of a scholarly career. Her husband left her with two children to care for, and it was at this point that she seemed on the verge of throwing her hands up about it, though we are lucky she did not do so before the writing of The Bell Jar (1963). Plath suffered from depression and her situation, living in London alone with her children, struggling to pay bills, pushed her to the limit. She had a passion for producing literature, but it was the inhospitable life of a writer that drove her to the end. We all feel that her suicide was unnecessary, but we are stuck with the reality of a bitter world and by proxy, the incapability of changing what happens in that world.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

What more can be said about the great Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway? Every writer who has ever lived wishes they could possess even a fraction of his talent. More so, his life stands at the pinnacle of author intrigue and excitement. He worked tirelessly as a journalist, saw the front lines in both world wars, traveled vastly, wrote seemingly until his fingers bled, and was published to great critical acclaim. His literary output is so impressive that to encapsulate it all within a series of blog posts would be a massive undertaking in and of itself. Which is why the downturn of his life is so inexplicable. After seeing so much, learning so much, experiencing so much, and influencing so much, the tragedy of Hemingway’s end is something that will never meet with a proper sense of understanding, and as mentioned elsewhere, it just doesn’t seem right.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Breaking ground, startling the modern world with a new “stream of consciousness” writing, Virginia Woolf lived the quintessential life of a writer. She started newspapers and literary clubs, ran publishing ventures and completed novels, all the while voicing pro-women’s rights during an age when the understanding of what civil rights even meant was an abstraction. It was an emotionally trying life, bolstered by complications of a sexual identity element and its association to public affairs. By virtue of the nightmarish international world of turbulence around her, Woolf came to connect “masculine symbols of authority with militarism and misogyny, an argument buttressed by notes from her clippings about aggression, fascism, and war” (Source), and with the English way of life under a direct Nazi threat, the turmoil took its toll. We want to imagine how strong people can become, the super men and women of whom we look up to, yet we sometimes fail to see the perplexing conundrum that is the often fragile nature of the human condition.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

The wit of Oscar Wilde is only paralleled by the way it tends to mirror what it reveals in ourselves. Wilde’s seemingly cavalier way of drawing out the nature of self-truth, the abyss no one dares to look into, means that we owe him a debt for revealing it for us. In spite of it all, I like to think of Wilde as having utterly and completely refined the linguistic style of the Victorian Era. To read Wilde is like the partaking of a filet mignon with fine red wine at a five star restaurant. Wilde shows us that reading can be both pleasurable and didactic at the same time. “However, due to his sexuality, he suffered the indignity and shame of imprisonment. For a long time, his name was synonymous with scandal and intrigue” (Source). It is harrowing to imagine that he was exiled. He came to wander the streets of Paris alone where, after having written with such impressive prowess for so many years, he died a broken man.