The Christmas Banquet by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1846
The magic trick:
Keeping the nature of the successful man’s misery a mystery for most of the story
Oh, that Nathaniel Hawthorne. What a chipper, happy guy he must have been. Leave it to Nate to create a Christmas tale based on an annual dinner for the saddest people in all of society. Seriously, did this guy ever lighten up?
Anyway, the story’s concept, if you don’t mind a little holiday misery, is actually pretty brilliant. Hawthorne devotes much of the text to the three lengthy descriptions of the various party guests and their maladies; these sections are sharp and hilarious. The driving force throughout the story is the mystery surrounding Gervayse Hastings’ gloom. He seems to all other invitees to be a happy, well-adjusted, successful man of the world. So why does he keep getting invited to the doom room? The unanswered question keeps the reader reading.
So no, you might never want to invite Hawthorne to your Christmas party, but “Banquet” is a neat bit of suspense and social commentary. And that’s quite a trick on Hawthorne’s part.
“I know of but one misfortune,” answered Gervayse Hastings, quietly, “and that is my own.”
“Your own!” rejoined the philanthropist. “And looking back on your serene and prosperous life, how can you claim to be the sole unfortunate of the human race?”
“You will not understand it,” replied Gervayse Hastings, feebly, and with a singular inefficiency of pronunciation, and sometimes putting one word for another. “None have understood it, not even those who experience the like. It is a chillness, a want of earnestness, a feeling as if what should be my heart were a thing of vapor, a haunting perception of unreality! Thus seeming to possess all that other men have, all that men aim at, I have really possessed nothing, neither joy nor griefs. All things, all persons,—as was truly said to me at this table long and long ago,—have been like shadows flickering on the wall. It was so with my wife and children, with those who seemed my friends: it is so with yourselves, whom I see now before one. Neither have I myself any real existence, but am a shadow like the rest.”