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 something to ponder, testament to the 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 creating an annual Christmastime banquet that invites “ten of the most miserable persons that could be found.” The element of interest considers how the man’s estate continues to fund the banquet, and how his skeletal remains are displayed at the head of the table at each subsequent gathering. This man had been noted for his “melancholy eccentricity” when he was alive; 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 poring 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 head of the table, the whole thing comes off as rather an 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 relieved 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 introduces the subject of mental health as a social issue to be addressed. Considering 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 in our day and age into the notion that clinical depression is a condition to be recognized, diagnosed and treated. The need to wear a mask is no longer necessary as modern society strives to de-stigmatize conditions of mental illness, psychological or psychiatric.
Some of the banquet’s invites appear to have entirely given up on life, and we are meant to consider that in reality, Quixotic ideals can be useful. To realize a dream is to follow through on that dream no matter the amount of failure we might 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 become frustrated trying to achieve them, which in turn leads to the passage of time, depression, and the notion that a person may have never been good enough in the first place. Perseverance, then, is the way to keep the devils of depression at bay.
Other dinner guests have lost themselves in the hectic, hustle and bustle of getting through life; there is contemporary Thoreauvian philosophy to read into this. Henry David 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 merely 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 times of focalized 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 or a moment of our time.
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.