Intimations of Mortality: “Toga Party,” a short story by John Barth

October 22, 2007 at 5:38 pm (books, Short stories)

best.jpg “Toga Party” is the second story in the latest edition of The Best American Short Stories. Begun in 1915, and published by Houghton Mifflin since 1978, this annual collection has a series editor – Heidi Pitlor at present – and a different guest editor each year. The editor for year 2007 is Stephen King.

“Toga Party” at first seems to be yet another tale of silliness in the suburbs, but there’s an undercurrent of anxiety from the outset. Prompted by what? The fear and dejection felt by Dick Felton at the prospect of illness and old age. Felton and his wife Sue, now both retired, live on Maryland’s Eastern Shore (a place my husband and I love). He’s 75; she’s in her late 60’s. A strong bond of companionable love has been forged in the course of their forty-plus years of marriage. Lately, they have been working on their wills, a task that almost inevitably evokes feelings of sadness and foreboding. This has been especially true for Dick .

As the story opens, the Feltons have just received an invitation to a toga party from the Hardisons, a couple who have just built a lavish house in their gated community, Heron Bay Estates. Perhaps this rather outlandish celebration will be the tonic they need to help them ward off melancholy. They make preparations to attend; Sue even researches costumes on the internet.

The party is at the outset a great success. As they arrive, guests are supposed to supply Latin aphorisms as passwords in order to gain entry: phrases such as “ad infinitum” and “ars longa vita brevis est” ring out merrily and float over the partygoers. At one point, someone compares the festivities to Trimalchio’s Feast. This is a scene from a fragmentary work that probably dates from some time during the reign of the Emperor Nero (54 – 68 A.D.): “Satyricon” by Petronius. I was forcibly struck by this reference, as I had only recently learned about Trimalchio’s Feast a few days ago while listening to The Teaching Company’s Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition. It is a description of a dinner party thrown by a newly freed slave Trimalchio, an occasion that descends rapidly into vulgarity and debauchery.

The Hardisons’ party does not degenerate into a Trimalchio-style orgy, although guests are encouraged at one point to participate in some rather tasteless, juvenile games. As the evening wears on, Dick Felton’s anxiety reasserts itself and seems to spread throughout the company (or, was it just my feeling that this was happening?). I was reminded of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.”I began to get the sense that something dreadful lay in wait. I was right. The phrase “timor mortis conturbat me,” while never given explicit voice in this story, kept ringing in my head. It can be roughly translated as “fear of death confounds me” and is frequently encountered in medieval literature, specifically in the prayer called The Office of the Dead. I first encountered “timor mortis” some years ago in a short story by Joyce Carol Oates. (Wouldn’t you know it…)

I don’t want to be misleading as to the cause of Dick Felton’s unease. He is not so much afraid of death as he is of old age and its concomitant decrepitude. And more than his own death, he dreads losing Sue and fears likewise for her should he die first. He cannot help imagining the “raw and overwhelming” grief implicit in the loss of one’s life partner. So, as a reflection of the prevailing zeitgeist, “timor mortis conturbat me” seems more than a little apt…

barth2.jpg barth.jpg Like Paul Theroux, whose Elephanta Suite I reviewed recently, John Barth is a writer more people should know about. In 1960, he published a raucous, sprawling historical novel called The Sot-Weed Factor, a real masterpiece of the genre that, in tone and spirit, hearkens back to the novels of Henry Fielding. Barth was born in 1930 in Cambridge, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and taught from 1973 to 1995 at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Admittedly, this story had a special resonance for me because of the setting, the ages of the protagonists (more or less the same as mine), and the allusions to the classics. Still, I think it is terrific, worthwhile reading for anyone interest in the art of the short story. Every once in a while, I come across one of these gems that, despite its brevity, seems to encompass a world of feeling in the way our great novels do. “The Music School” by John Updike is one such; “Toga Party” by John Barth is another.

7 Comments

  1. Darby Larson said,

    Interesting comments on Toga Party. I’m part of a discussion group and we’ve been trying to figure out the strange narration of the story, the “If Sam were telling this story…” comments at the beginning and end. The way the narrator seems to almost converse along with the characters. There doesn’t seem to be a solid reason for it. It’s been suggested that the narrator is not reliable, but I don’t think there’s any reason to think that. I’m curious as to your comments about the narration.

  2. Kathy Cleveland said,

    I thought the ending was improbable.
    Also, it seemed that the name of Sam’s dead wife, Ethel, changed to Edith in the course of the story, or did I miss something?

  3. Roberta Rood said,

    Kathy,
    I just skimmed through the story again and I didn’t see a reference to an “Edith,” but I may have missed it. I see that kind of mistake with dismaying frequency in recently published books.
    As for the story’s ending, It was rather improbable in that it didn’t seem to me to be in character for Dick Felton to propse such a thing. What really resonated for me in the story was the depiction of a loving couple contemplating the inevitable separation mandated by death. Let’s just say, it hit close to home for me.

  4. Robert Sachs said,

    Up to page 25, she is Ethel. On page 27 her name has been changed to Edith, and then as Sam lie dying he refers to her as my dear Edie. So, poor editing or do we have an unreliable narrator?

  5. Best American Short Stories 2007 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] beautifully written, and highly original. One of these I’ve already written about: John Barth’s “Toga Party.” Here are some others of that same high […]

  6. Steve - Electronic Cigarettes Fan said,

    Interesting points here Do you allow guest posts? Nicely done, Steven.

  7. A tale of two bookstores, with a digression concerning Maryland’s Eastern Shore « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] had never heard of the Choptank until I read – with astonished wonder! –  John Barth‘s  magnum opus:  […]

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