|REVIEW by John C Adams|
The Christmas Banquet by Nathaniel Hawthorne
At just twenty pages this story is pretty snappy. It was published in 1844, following the success of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol the year before, but providing none of the heart-warming, family-oriented character development and happy ending. If you’d like an eerie, ghostly tale for Christmas but want to sidestep the worst of the saccharine element to which seasonal fiction is especially prone, I’d heartily recommend The Christmas Banquet.
Rosina, Roderick and their mutual friend ‘the sculptor’ discuss an acquaintance of Roderick’s—a hopeless puzzle and attempt to understand his psychology. Roderick warns his friends that comprehending someone who gives every impression of being carved out of marble will be no easy task. But he begins his tale anyway.
An old gentleman died, leaving an unaccountable bequest for an annual Christmas Banquet to be held in his honour, but specifies that the guests must be the most miserable people available. He then attends it—or rather his skeleton sits at the head of the table.
He devised a considerable sum for establishing a fund, the interest of which was to be expended, annually, forever, in preparing a Christmas Banquet for ten of the most miserable persons that could be found.
Sadly, the dead man’s intent isn’t to spread a little joy. He seeks rather to reassure himself from the afterlife that some souls cannot be touched by the joy of Christmas.
Bah humbug, indeed!
The first banquet proceeds, the guests even cope with the skeleton sat at the head of the table, and none rise to any kind of happiness or merriment. The guests are varied but depressing. I felt sorry for all of them—the hypochondriac, the depressive, the sufferer from heart disease. And so on. The final guest is chilling in a wholly different way—he’s smooth, cold and immune to all kinds of suffering or emotion. We all know people like that and personally I find them terrifying.
The banquet goes on for years and years. Unfortunates come and go, with the stewards searching high and low for the worst afflicted people to invite as guests. But the one constant is Gervayse Hastings and the most terrifying thing of all is his response to the sufferers with whom he dines once a year at Christmas.
I loved this dark tale with its emphasis on psychology. There are moments when the heart-warming decency of A Christmas Carol hits the spot but for me there are just as many, if not more, when the chill of The Christmas Banquet, fits the bill.