Parties in Art and Fiction

Parties provide an excellent setting for getting people together. And when people are together this creates conflict, the backbone of any story.

Like other high-stress, socially critical events such as competitions and staged performances, parties also often happen at the climax of a story. Events leading up to the party garner suspense due to the ticking clock.

Kameeka is confident that today she will finally beat her rival, Jamara, and become the Hula-Hoopin Queen of 139th Street. But then Mama reminds her that today is their neighbor Miz Adeline s birthday, and Kameeka has a ton of chores to do to get ready for the party they are hosting.

Whenever I did creative writing exercises with high school students in English class, I knew it was no good asking them to write about autobiographical events which had recently happened. My own English professor at teachers’ college had told us that people need at least seven years of reflection before writing about our own lives well. Since these kids were about 13 and 14, I asked them to remember a time from when they were seven or younger. I didn’t ask them to discuss their memories with their classmates as part of the drafting process because I wanted them to come up with their own memories, but after a few years of doing this I finally learned something else — the vast, vast majority of kids will write about birthday parties and injuries. I got so sick of reading about stitches and broken bones that I asked them not to write about injuries. I also learned that there’s nothing inherently interesting about a birthday party.

Out of Ice Cream by Amos Sewell (1901-1983) The Saturday Evening Post cover June 27, 1953 party

However, birthday parties are important to young people, and of all the memories we make during childhood, parties are some of the most resonant. Not surprising, then, that parties feature large in children’s stories.

Where's my date, Charlie Dye (1906-1972), balloons party
Where’s my date, Charlie Dye (1906-1972).

Apart from bringing people together, promising conflict, there is another useful storytelling function for the tea party, demonstrated in picture books such as Pettson and Findus by Sven Nordqvist and the Mercy Watson series by Kate diCamillo. These stories have carnivalesque elements, and an inherent problem with the carnivalesque plot is that the hijinks must at some point wrap up. The tea party makes for an excellent conclusion to a fun, hygge children’s story. Typically, the small community sits down together and shares food. No matter what just happened, all is well with the world. In some long-running series, the sit-down food party concludes every single story.

Five O'Clock Tea, by American painter Mary Cassatt (1880). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Five O’Clock Tea, by American painter Mary Cassatt (1880). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Kate Greenaway [1846-1901] THE TEA PARTY from Marigold Garden c1892
Kate Greenaway [1846-1901] THE TEA PARTY from Marigold Garden c1892

In the pleasant green Garden
We sat down to tea;
“Do you take sugar?” and
“Do you take milk?”
She’d got a new gown on –
A smart one of silk.
We all were as happy
As happy could be,
On that bright Summer’s day
When she asked us to tea.

WHAT’S GOING ON IN THE WORLD OUTSIDE THE PARTY?

I always ask people caught in conflicts the same question: “Why did it take you so long to leave?” Or “Why didn’t you leave when you had the chance?” The answer is nearly always the same: because we never thought it would happen.

I remember summer afternoons in Damascus in 2012, standing on my hotel balcony watching a massive rave below me: partiers were dancing around a pool, beers in hand, rap blaring. On the edge of the city, bombs were falling — I could see the plumes of smoke in the distance. The pool party was an attempt to deny the inevitable and freeze time: a desperate, defiant last chance at normality.

America Shows Troubling Warning Signs of a Slide Into Civil War by Janine Di Giovanni, October 2020

Food, in general, is important in children’s literature.

Frederick Daniel Hardy - The First Birthday Party
Frederick Daniel Hardy – The First Birthday Party

DRESS UP PARTIES

This watercolour illustration of a fancy dress party is by Carl Larsson.
This watercolour illustration of a fancy dress party is by Carl Larsson.

TEA PARTIES

Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987), 1956 tea party
Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987), 1956 tea party
There are many beautiful tea scenes in the latest film adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 novel Emma (2020)
There are many beautiful tea scenes in the latest film adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma (2020)

THE BARN DANCE

Haugtussedans, 1903, Theodor Kittelsen
Haugtussedans, 1903, Theodor Kittelsen
An Unexpected Party -The Hobbit  Brothers Hildebrant 1977
An Unexpected Party -The Hobbit Brothers Hildebrant 1977

THE DINNER PARTY

CHARLES DANA GIBSON New Cartoons  dinner portrait
CHARLES DANA GIBSON New Cartoons

THE NIGHT PARTY

THE FUN PARTY SUBVERTED

Norman Rockwell after party kitchen
Norman Rockwell
MARTHA SAWYERS 'THANKS GIVING 1947 Collier’s Magazine
MARTHA SAWYERS ‘THANKS GIVING 1947 Collier’s Magazine
Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) 1943 after party
Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) 1943
November 26, 1949 Thanksgiving TV
November 26, 1949 Thanksgiving TV
Doggie Buffet cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine, January 5, 1957 By Dick Sargent, American illustrator
Doggie Buffet cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine, January 5, 1957 By Dick Sargent, American illustrator
Spanish Life Magazine Kodak
Spanish Life Magazine Kodak
Cicely Mary Barker (1895 - 1973) the party
Cicely Mary Barker (1895 – 1973) the party
Arthur Sarnoff New Year party
Arthur Sarnoff New Year party
Ben Kimberly Prins (1902 - 1980) 1955 'Party After Snowfall' illustration for The Saturday Evening Post
Ben Kimberly Prins (1902 – 1980) 1955 ‘Party After Snowfall’ illustration for The Saturday Evening Post
The Rabbits’ Christmas Party The Arrival Beatrix Potter 1892
Bear Party 1951 William Pène du Bois
Bear Party 1951 William Pène du Bois
A 19th century print depicting a Laughing Gas (Nitrous Oxide) party
A 19th century print depicting a Laughing Gas (Nitrous Oxide) party
Edwin Georgi (1896-1964) party
Edwin Georgi (1896-1964) party

Mrs. Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Header painting: Elenore Abbot (1875–1935)

Lemon girl young adult novella

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