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Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature

Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature

James A. W. Heffernan
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 440
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  • Book Info
    Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature
    Book Description:

    In works of Western literature ranging from Homer'sOdysseyto Albee'sWho's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?the giving and taking of hospitality is sometimes pleasurable, but more often perilous. Heffernan traces this leitmotiv through the history of our greatest writings, including Christ's Last Supper, Macbeth's murder of his royal guest, and Camus's short story on French colonialism in Arab Algeria. By means of such examples and many more, this book considers what literary hosts, hostesses, and guests dotoas well asforeach other. In doing so, it shows how often treachery rends the fabric of trust that hospitality weaves.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-20684-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Crossing the Threshold
    (pp. 1-12)

    This book considers what hosts, hostesses, and guests do for and to each other in works of literature ranging from Homer’sOdysseyto Albert Camus’s short story “The Guest.”

    At their best, as most of us know from experience, the pleasures of hospitality approximate the pleasures of love. Few other stimuli can match, let alone surpass, the taste of a good meal in the house of old friends or convivial new ones. Ancient literature pays tribute to such pleasures. In theOdysseyhospitality and love quite literally converge when the shipwrecked hero is lavishly entertained by the king and queen...

  5. 1 Classical Hospitality
    (pp. 13-40)

    The final book of Homer’sIliadcontains one of the most extraordinary scenes of hospitality ever written. When Priam visits the Greek camp to ransom the body of Hector, he seeks hospitality from his son’s killer. He not only clasps the knees of Achilles but kisses the very hands that took Hector’s life, “the man-killing hands / that had slaughtered Priam’s many sons in battle” (Iliad24.478–80 / F 24.560–62).¹ Yet as Priam enters the tent of Achilles, he is himself compared to a killer: a murderer seeking refuge in a foreign land from a wealthy lord who...

  6. 2 Biblical Hospitality
    (pp. 41-80)

    In the poignant last lines ofParadise Lost, his epic reshaping of the book of Genesis, Milton describes how the fallen, exiled Adam and Eve walk out of the Garden of Eden:

    They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow

    Through Eden took their solitary way.


    With great reluctance they leave the quarters furnished for them by God, the most powerful and generous of all hosts. During their brief time in Eden they themselves play host to Raphael, whom they lavishly feed when he comes to remind them of their duties to God and to warn...

  7. 3 Beowulf and Gawain: Monstrosity, Reciprocity, Seduction
    (pp. 81-116)

    In the literary history of hospitality,Beowulftakes us back to something like the world of Homer even while subtly evoking the New Testament, which it follows by about one thousand years. On one hand, in making his name by killing dragons and finally giving his life to defeat one who threatens his people, the eponymous hero of this Anglo-Saxon epic evokes Christ as the serpent-crusher, the self-sacrificing victor over the diabolically serpentine enemy of humankind.¹ On the other hand, in fighting on behalf of a Danish king who feeds and houses him and his men, Beowulf recalls the soldiers...

  8. 4 Staging Hospitality: Shakespeare
    (pp. 117-148)

    Hospitality, like literature, is in many ways a child of its time. In the monstrous, vestigially pagan world ofBeowulf, it is at once a reward for services rendered by visiting warriors and a system of reciprocity that can be either brutally parodied by man-eating “gists” or twisted into murderous revenge. In the more civilized as well as far more explicitly Christian world ofSir Gawain and the Green Knight, it hovers between supreme comfort and perilous seduction. By the time of Shakespeare’s plays, written roughly two hundred years afterSir Gawain, it could entail two quite different things. On...

  9. 5 Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Spirit of Place
    (pp. 149-169)

    European romanticism is customarily defined by its sentimental return to a nature that classical poets are thought to have experienced directly and by its advocacy of revolution in politics, literature, and society.¹ But nature and revolution did not always mix. Though Wordsworth and Coleridge at first embraced and celebrated the liberating energies of the French Revolution, they later deplored its violence: not only its shedding of human blood but its assault on a nature they had newly discovered as something like a paradise on earth. Central to their experience of nature was a reawakened sensitivity to the genius loci, the...

  10. 6 Rousseau to Stendhal: The Eroticized Hostess
    (pp. 170-201)

    So far in this book I have applied the termseductiveto any hostess whose desire for a male guest prompts her to detain him or wish to do so. But in attaching the word to figures ranging from Circe to Hermione, from a heartless enchantress to a grossly mistreated wife, I have understated their diversity. Among the hostesses I have examined so far, the will to entrap a guest by means of seduction is seldom absolute and never irresistible for good. Once Odysseus has thwarted Circe’s plan to turn him into a pig, her beauty keeps him dallying for...

  11. 7 Fielding to James: Domesticity, Mating, Power
    (pp. 202-251)

    InThe Mysteries of Udolphoa wealthy nobleman named Montini marries the aunt of the orphaned heroine, Emily St. Aubert, tries to force the girl to marry his friend Count Morano, changes his mind when he learns that Morano is ruined, and then takes the two women off to his castle. When Morano turns up there late one night, Montini admits him as a guest but is soon after outraged to find Morano in Emily’s bedroom about to abduct her. Drawing swords, they fight until Morano is severely wounded and then, by Montini’s order, carried out of the castle.


  12. 8 Proust’s Hostesses
    (pp. 252-282)

    I begin with the sound of a bell.

    Near the very end of Marcel Proust’sÀ la recherche du temps perdu, as the narrator (Marcel) views a roomful of once-familiar faces now disguised by wrinkles, white beards, and silvery moustaches at a musical party given by the Prince de Guermantes, he hears within him—tinkled by the long fingers of memory—the bell on the garden gate of his parents’ country house at Combray, where he spent the summers of his childhood.¹ Marking the departure of his parents’ dinner guest, Charles Swann, long after the boy has been put to...

  13. 9 Joyce, Woolf, Camus
    (pp. 283-332)

    “I cannot see any special talent but I am a bad critic.”¹ Thus wrote Joyce of Proust in October 1920, when he was hard at work on the long Circe chapter ofUlyssesand had evidently read no more than a few pages ofÀ la recherche du temps perdu. What should we make of this comment? On the one hand, it is hardly surprising that a man preoccupied or even obsessed with the writing of his own monumental novel (and plagued with bad eyesight as well) could find no sign of special talent, let alone genius, in whichever of...

  14. Epilogue
    (pp. 333-336)

    Since this book has chiefly considered the worst that hosts and guests can do to each other in works of literature ranging from ancient times to our own, I wish to say something more about why literature tends to slight hospitality at its best. One reason, as I noted in the introduction, is that literature feeds on conflict. Eschewing harmony and contentment, it thrives on discontent, restlessness, jealousy, resentment, hatred, suspicion, desire, frustration—everything that ignites conflict and thereby motivates plot. Without, for instance, the suspicions maliciously roused by Don John, Shakespeare’sMuch Ado About Nothingwould be not much...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 337-387)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 388-404)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 405-426)