A Very Hawthorne Christmas

December 2, 2016 Published by Julie Arrison-Bishop

Republished from our December E-views

By: Alyssa G.A. Conary

My former sad experience, as you know, has gifted me with some degree of insight into the gloomy mysteries of the human heart, through which I have wandered like one astray in a dark cavern, with his torch fast flickering to extinction.

Thus states the narrator in the opening paragraph of Hawthorne’s tale, “The Christmas Banquet.” Leave it to Nathaniel Hawthorne to set the “gloomy mysteries of the human heart” across the backdrop of Christmas dinner.

This isn’t just any Christmas dinner, however. “The Christmas Banquet” is the story of an annual Christmas dinner, paid for by a bequest made in the last will and testament of an old man who lived “a long life of melancholy eccentricity.” The bequest stipulated that the guests invited to the banquet must be “ten of the most miserable persons that could be found.” Every year, the old man’s skeleton sits at the head of the table clothed in a black mantle.

Besides our dearly departed philanthropist, only one other man is invited to the Christmas Banquet consistently, with the rest of the group swapped out yearly. His name is Gervayse Hastings, and at every banquet he is disparaged by this “aristocracy of wretchedness” for not being miserable enough to deserve an invitation. Hastings has a stable life, a family, and a good job. How could his woes possibly compare with those of the sick, the heartbroken, and the dispirited.

Hawthorne’s story concludes with the explanation that, although Hastings’ life may appear satisfactory, it is his unfeeling emptiness that warrants him a place among the dejected. Hastings complains to his fellow banquet guests of “a chilliness – a want of earnestness – a feeling as if what should be my heart were a thing of vapor…” His despair exists in his “longing to exchange his load of ice for any burden of real grief that fate could fling upon a human being.”

So, what is the moral of the story? That there is value in sadness because at least it’s something you can feel? That a diagnosis of clinical depression is preferable to one of antisocial personality disorder? We’ll take it, Mr. Hawthorne, because this is what we love about you; your ability to shed light upon the darkest aspects of the human condition.

I highly recommend that you read this story, maybe just not on Christmas.

This post was written by Julie Arrison-Bishop