“The Dinner Party” is a very short story by Mona Gardner about a disagreement over how women react to a crisis.
First, we’ll look at the setting and characters in “The Dinner Party”. This is followed by a summary and a theme analysis.
“The Dinner Party” Setting
“The Dinner Party” is set in India when it was a British colony. It’s likely set in or around the year the story was first published, 1941.
“The Dinner Party” takes place in a large, open-air dining room with a marble floor. It has wide glass doors that lead to a veranda.
“The Dinner Party” Characters
The identified characters in “The Dinner Party” include:
- The host and hostess, Mr. and Mrs. Wynnes. Mr. Wynnes is a colonial official, so he works for the British government in India. Mrs. Wynnes is revealed to be one of the heroes of the story, calmly and effectively dealing with the emergency.
- Army officers (presumably British)
- Government attachés and their wives: representatives from other countries, probably working at an embassy.
- A young girl (we aren’t told how young) who argues against women being hysterical.
- The Colonel (British), who claims women always panic in a crisis.
- An American naturalist, someone who studies plants and animals, and the other hero of the story. His knowledge allows him to recognize there’s a snake in the room, and he follows Mrs. Wynnes lead in helping keep everyone safe.
- An Indian servant boy, who gets the milk. Other servants are handling the food and drink for the guests.
“The Dinner Party” Summary
In India, a colonial official and his wife are hosting a dinner party. The dining room is large, with open rafters and open glass doors leading to the veranda.
A young girl and a colonel argue about whether women can keep calm in a crisis. The girl thinks they can, while the colonel believes they’ll always panic.
An American naturalist who’s observing the guests sees an odd expression on the hostess’s face. She discreetly summons a servant and whispers to him. He looks briefly surprised and leaves. He returns soon after and places a bowl of milk on the verandah.
The American knows this is bait for a cobra—there must be one in the room. He looks around and realizes the only place it could be is under the table.
Knowing sudden movement will cause the cobra to strike, he resists the urge to warn everyone. He speaks up, challenging the company to demonstrate their self-control by not moving while he counts to three hundred.
Near the end of the count, he sees the cobra heading for the milk. He jumps up and closes the doors behind it, with the guests screaming as they realize what happened.
The host says the Colonel was right—a man has just demonstrated perfect composure in an emergency. The American demurs and asks the hostess how she knew there was a cobra in the room. It was crawling across her foot.
(End of “The Dinner Party” summary)
“The Dinner Party” Theme Analysis
“The Dinner Party” predominantly deals with stereotypes. The Colonel makes a generalization about women that doesn’t allow for any exceptions. The Colonel states that, “A woman’s unfailing reaction in any crisis is to scream.”
Notice that his statement includes all women and every crisis. This isn’t a nuanced opinion. In fact, it’s so obviously wrong that the rest of the story is irrelevant. If Mrs. Wynnes had jumped around screaming hysterically and gotten everyone killed it still wouldn’t have proved that all women panic in every emergency.
However, it only takes one counter-example to disprove a statement, so the fact that Mrs. Wynnes reacted calmly does refute the Colonel’s claim. In this sense, the rest of the story is relevant, as it effectively illustrates the impossibility of this stereotype and, by extension, any other.
A true stereotype applies to every member of a particular group with no exceptions. To come up with a statement that applies to every member of a group, we’d have to get so obvious that there’s no point in saying it, like “All women breathe.” Outside of factual statements that apply to humans, there’s no quality or trait that applies to everyone in any group.
I hope this “The Dinner Party” summary, theme analysis, and look at setting and characters was helpful.