Great Parties in Literature We Wish We Could Have Attended


After our recent roundup of 25 great parties on film, it occurred to us that movies aren’t the only medium to have depicted fantastic fêtes. So, to help you gear up for a celebratory July 4th weekend, we reached out to Flavorpill staff and readers alike to get their nominations for liteature’s best bash. With their help, we’ve come up with a list of ten great gatherings we would love to have attended. Keep the party going by adding your favorites in the comments.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

From its first sentence (“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”), the action of Mrs. Dalloway happens on a day when the socially gifted titular heroine is preparing to throw a party full of royals and politicians. Woolf gives us a psychologically realistic portrait of the way a hostess magnifies her tiny anxieties and pleasures to the extent that they seem enormous; indeed, this day encapsulates the entirety of Clarissa Dalloway’s life, which finds both climax and resolution at the party. As the novel’s simple but loaded final words put it: “there she was.”

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

“Let’s Fuck Christmas Together,” reads the invitation Less Than Zero protagonist receives to a holiday party thrown by his girlfriend, Blair. This is pretty much your typical back-at-home-for-the-first-time-since-going-away-to-college bash, with the added glamour of a lavish mansion filled with California showbiz types, omnisexual teenagers with omnisexual parents, unusually strong punch, and guys who look like David Bowie. The fact that it happens on Christmas gives the affair the extra frisson of behaving badly at what is supposed to be the most wholesome time of the year.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Life is little more than a series of parties for the turn-of-the-century New York socialites in The House of Mirth. There are days-long gatherings at country mansions, where guests play bridge late into the night, and lavish weddings. Our favorite, though, is the party thrown by the Brys, a Jewish family hoping to make inroads into society, featuring two touchstones of contemporary entertainment: “tableaux vivants and expensive music.” Amid the fascinating tableaux, designed to recreate famous paintings, it is our protagonist, Lily Bart, who steals the show (and the evening): “Here there could be no mistaking the predominance of personality — the unanimous ‘Oh!’ of the spectators was a tribute, not to the brush-work of Reynolds’s ‘Mrs. Lloyd’ but to the flesh and blood loveliness of Lily Bart,” writes Wharton.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

Perhaps this is cheating a bit, because The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is the true account of the time Wolfe spent with Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters in the ’60s. But the story reads like a novel, punctuated by vivid descriptions of the gang’s psychedelic adventures. We’re not generally big Grateful Dead fans, but we can’t resist Wolfe’s account of the Pranksters’ first big, public acid test, soundtracked by Jerry Garcia and company:

… suddenly acid and the Worldcrazewere everywhere, the electric organ vibrating through every belly in the place, kids dancing notro c dances, not the frug and the—what?—swim, mother, but dancing ecstasy, leaping, dervishing, throwing their hands over their heads like Daddy Grace’s own stroked-out inner courtiers—yes!—Roy Se-burn’s lights washing past every head, Cassady rapping, Paul Foster handing people weird little things out of his Eccentric Bag, old whistles, tin crickets, burnt keys, spectral plastic handles. Everybody’s eyes turn on like lightbulbs, fuses blow, blackness—wowwww!—the things that shake and vibrate and funnel and freak out in this blackness—and then somebody slaps new fuses in and the old hulk of a house shudders back, the wiring writhing and fragmenting like molting snakes, the organs vibro-massage the belly again, fuses blow, minds scream, heads explode, neighbors call the cops, 200,300,400 people from out there drawn into The Movie, into the edge of the pudding at least, a mass closer and higher than any mass in history, it seems most surely, and Kesey makes minute adjustment, small toggle switch here, lubricated with Vaseline No. 634—3 diluted with carbon tetrachloride, and theyripple, Major,ripple, but with meaning, 400 of the attuned multitude headed toward the pudding, the first mass acid experience, the dawn of the Psychedelic, the Flower Generation and all the rest of it…

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

We already gave Gatsby a nod in our roundup of great parties on film, but we couldn’t resist a chance to quote Fitzgerald’s description of Gatsby’s glamorous, all-night celebrations: “The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light.”

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

You wouldn’t want to live in a world where everyone’s crazy, but you might well enjoy a party there. Such is the appeal of Alice in Wonderland‘s famous “Mad Tea-Party,” populated by characters whose sheer hilarity makes up for their exasperating doublespeak. Tea parties are underrated, and those of the psychedelic variety are practically non-existent — so consider this our appeal to bring them back.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Patchett’s 2001 novel kicks off at a birthday party “of unreasonable expense” for the head of Japanese electronics company, at the beautiful country home of a South American vice president. The black-tie affair is packed with ambassadors and wealthy businessmen eating a luxurious dinner and anticipating a performance by a renowned opera diva. We would love to attend this most exclusive of celebrations — although ideally we’d abscond before disaster strikes.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Those looking to plan a literary-inspired dream wedding should take note of Charles and Emma’s party in Madame Bovary. Flaubert’s description of the meal alone is enough to send foodies into a reverie:

The table was laid under the cart-shed. On it were four sirloins, six chicken fricassees, stewed veal, three legs of mutton, and in the middle a fine roast suckling pig, flanked by four chitterlings with sorrel. At the corners were decanters of brandy. Sweet bottled-cider frothed round the corks, and all the glasses had been filled to the brim with wine beforehand. Large dishes of yellow cream, that trembled with the least shake of the table, had designed on their smooth surface the initials of the newly wedded pair in nonpareil arabesques. A confectioner of Yvetot had been intrusted with the tarts and sweets. As he had only just set up on the place, he had taken a lot of trouble, and at dessert he himself brought in a set dish that evoked loud cries of wonderment. To begin with, at its base there was a square of blue cardboard, representing a temple with porticoes, colonnades, and stucco statuettes all round, and in the niches constellations of gilt paper stars; then on the second stage was a dungeon of Savoy cake, surrounded by many fortifications in candied angelica, almonds, raisins, and quarters of oranges; and finally, on the upper platform a green field with rocks set in lakes of jam, nutshell boats, and a small Cupid balancing himself in a chocolate swing whose two uprights ended in real roses for balls at the top.

Of course, as the rest of the book proves, a lavish wedding won’t guarantee you a happy (or even faithful) marriage.

Ecstasy Club by Douglas Rushkoff

Douglas Rushkoff’s 1997 debut novel takes place in those heady end-of-millennium years, when all sorts of people started to get nervous about the end of the world. The titular club is home to a particularly colorful group of cyberpunks who live communally in an abandoned piano factory, subsist on illicit drugs, and whose lives are one big, never-ending rave. They also have a serious purpose — their lifestyle is an attempt to transcend, and ultimately travel through, time. We don’t know about that, but we certainly wouldn’t mind spending a night at one of their shindigs.

Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s plays are full of great, action- and language-rich parties. But for our favorite, we’ve chosen the masquerade in Much Ado about Nothing, where Don Pedro plans to help Claudio win over Hero. Because this is a Shakespeare comedy, Don Pedro’s brother inserts himself into the mix, telling Claudio that Don Pedro wants her for himself. What follows is a Renaissance-era scene that wouldn’t be out of place on Gossip Girl. Luckily, after some confusion, the friends realize what has happened and reconcile. Claudio and Hero’s engagement follows — but there’s still much more ado to come.