Reading the Party
Festivity as Waste in Evelyn Waugh’s 1930s Fiction
This article outlines an approach to understanding festivity through the lens of literary texts. Studies of festivity in early twentieth-century literature center largely on the image of the party. Representations of parties in the literary texts of this period range widely, and the sheer number of parties found in this body of literature highlights the shared interest of writers of the time to explore the implications of festive sociability. Given these parameters a reader might expect the literature of the period to show parties positively: as utopian occasions for transformative jouissance leading to catharsis and (satisfying) narrative closure. Yet many texts of this time represent festivity not as pleasurable renewal but as unpleasurable waste. This is particularly the case in fiction by the English satirist Evelyn Waugh (1903–66). In Waugh’s texts, celebration tends toward destructive (rather than restorative) disorder. This paper will read Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies (1930) and short story “Cruise: Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure” (1933), using Roger Caillois’s theory of games, to explore the ways in which parties become sites of wasteful play. Moreover, as this article will demonstrate, literary texts are central documents for understanding the cultural history and subjective experience of parties. They evidence the felt and imagined experiences of social and moral transgression; bodily, mental and affective transformation; and class, race, gender, and sexual boundary-crossing occasioned by festivity. In that sense, the discipline of literary studies can contribute to a robust interdisciplinary approach to understanding festivity.