For fiction writers, the party scene has always proved to be fertile space to create conflict, drama, surprise, and more. First, as a literary device, it’s an opportunity to bring a group of people together who might not have much else in common except knowing the host or hostess. Further, whether intimate gatherings or large celebrations, anything can happen at such occasions. People at fictional parties do a lot more than meet, chat, eat, and drink. They reveal secrets, start affairs, fight like vicious animals up to the point of murder, show off their ridiculous excesses, betray their gaucheness, and a whole lot more. And, as in real life, a fictional party provides many opportunities for close people-watching.
Jane Austen’s novels use parties and gatherings to sketch human behaviors with precision — like a scientist with lab specimens. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is filled with as many party scenes as it is war scenes. Henry James, in his books, prefaces and notebooks, admitted to being a plagiarist of anecdotes and happenings at dinner parties. Proust’s people traipse about from soirées to matinées even as he critiques their social communions. Virginia Woolf (who admitted her debt to Proust’s writerly “party consciousness”) created several major party tableaux in each novel with sharply-detailed observations of people thrown together in confined settings. Agatha Christie set many of her crime occurrences at parties so there could be a large number of suspects. Toni Morrison’s rich voice-driven storytelling comes from working-class Ohio where, from an early age, she sat with groups of adults gathered after a day’s work to take comfort in each others’ company.
Beyond the above writers, here are just a few more well-known parties from novels: the over-the-top Saturday night parties in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; the surreal spring ball in Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margarita; the wake in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake; the end of the world party in Smith’s White Teeth; the Black and White Ball (fictionalizing Truman Capote’s real-life version) in DeLillo’s Underworld; and the wedding celebration in Umrigar’s Bombay Time.
With a short story, a party as a focal setting takes on more intensity and purpose. Brevity means there isn’t much time for lingering banter or leisurely observations. It takes a certain expertise to ensure narrative progression while making use of every bit of dialogue and action to layer in subtext and meaning.
That kind of writerly finesse is certainly the forte of these five writers: Katherine Mansfield, Banaphool (tr. Arunava Sinha), Joshua Ferris, Nina McConigley, and Kirsten Valdez Quade. The parties described — a summer garden party, an elaborate tea function, an intimate couples dinner, a themed pre-wedding get-together, and an annual blueberry celebration — are not only life-changing for the protagonists but they are also memorably unique for readers.
‘The Garden Party’, by Katherine Mansfield (The Center for Fiction)
Mansfield wrote several short stories with party settings but none quite so famous as this one. It continues to be anthologized widely. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said of this: “It is my idea of the perfect story: realistic and subtle but never hiding behind the idea of art for art’s sake. It actually has something to say.”
While showing us class distinctions through the eyes of a child protagonist, Mansfield also gives us her unexpected coming of age tale. Laura, through a sudden brush with an accidental death, realizes how things are truly different for the haves and have-nots. The prose here is still so fresh and brilliant that, even after all this time, we experience Laura’s every mood swing intensely. The ending is a stunning feat as it conveys so much with a child’s inarticulate, two-worded question.
And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.
‘Nawab Sahib’ by Banaphool (Asymptote Journal)
Banaphool (meaning “wild flower”) was the pen name of the early-20th century Bengali writer, Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay. Despite a day job as a pathologist in Bihar, India, he managed to write thousands of poems, 586 short stories, 60 novels, five dramas, a number of one-act plays, an autobiography, and numerous essays.
Arunava Sinha is one of India’s most respected and most prolific Bengali-to-English translators. His fiction and non-fiction translations cover a wide range of classic and contemporary works.
This story is about a tea party where the narrator, a local doctor, is invited to rub shoulders with royalty. Not only is he invited, he is asked to play host by allowing his house to be used by the hosts. The preparations are way too elaborate for the ten attendees but described rather delightfully. As a slice-of-life vignette-style story — rather popular among the social realist writers of India during Banaphool’s time — it has no major epiphany or breathtaking ending. Yet, it leaves an unforgettable impression of a certain rare kind of nobility that once existed in India.
“Inviting ordinary people like you and me to tea would not have needed such elaborate arrangements. But it’s different when it comes to Nawab Sahib. His own people will cook for him—one head-cook and three general cooks. They will state their requirements in advance, and be here a day early to prepare the kitchen. They will arrive at dawn on the day of the tea-party and start cooking. There are lots of details to be attended to. Your house is both large and empty, so we were wondering…”
‘The Dinner Party’, by Joshua Ferris (The New Yorker)
This story, published in The New Yorker in 2008, is also the title story of a 2017 collection. A couple prepares for a dinner date with another couple that does not show up. Ferris is known for stories that are seemingly normal but have a lot of subtext and layers, often veering into the absurd and dark.
The main couple is unhappy, as many of Ferris’ characters tend to be, and somewhat bitter about their own childlessness. They’re not even keen on spending time with the couple they’ve invited. As the evening begins to take unpredictable turns, both of them react with alternating anger, bewilderment and finally, a deep sadness.
On occasion, the two women went to lunch and she came home offended by some pettiness. And he would say, “Why do this to yourself?” He wanted to keep her from being hurt. He also wanted his wife and her friend to drift apart so that he never had to sit through another dinner party with the friend and her husband. But after a few months the rift would inevitably heal and the friendship return to good standing. He couldn’t blame her. They went back a long way and you get only so many old friends.
‘White Wedding’, by Nina McConigley (Memorious.org)
This is my favorite story from McConigley’s collection, Cowboys and East Indians (Curtis Brown Unlimited, 2015) for many reasons. First, it takes me back to my times driving through and spending time in the American West. I miss those old mountains too. Then, there’s the intimate, wryly humorous first-person voice telling a story about her sister and her mother. And there’s an Indian wedding with a white groom — each turns out so differently, both in fiction and in real life.
Asha was getting married in two days, and we were days into what she had dubbed on her wedding invitations, “Western Week!” Tonight was a chuckwagon dinner, and everyone had been driven out to a location, then been moved less than a ¼ of a mile in a covered wagon to a campsite. A catering company whose name I never caught but whose logo was a pair of interlocking B’s that looked like a brand served up thick burgers, hot dogs, grilled corn, and chicken that still was pink on the inside.
‘Jubilee’, by Kirsten Valdez Quade (Guernica)
This story, addressing racism, was published in 2013 but reads as if it was written for 2018. Andrea Romero, the teenage protagonist, is sort of gate-crashing a party of rich folks where her father’s taco truck is the prime attraction. She feels out of place, yet full of bravado and is smarting from a lifetime of slights and insults. Things don’t go quite as she planned or imagined.
There’s a lot going on beneath the surfaces that everyone is trying hard to keep smooth but the lava-like emotion only bubbles over a couple of times. Quade makes those tiny moments count.
And why was Andrea here? Driving, she’d felt full of the brazen courage she would need to crash this party. She would show up full of breezy, sparkling confidence that would startle these people. Yes, Andrea was an equal now, a Stanford student, poised and intelligent, no longer just the daughter of one of their laborers, no longer an awestruck kid worshipping their cookies, and if the Lowells wanted to trot out her father and his taco truck to provide a little kitsch for their party, then they’d have to do it in front of her. By her very presence here today, she would prove to them their snobbery and make them ashamed of their entitlement and their half-hearted acts of charity towards her family. Admittedly, her plan was vague, but it involved making Parker eat a taco in front of her.