Short Story Analysis: Dinner At Noon
The short story “Dinner at Noon” by Ethel Wilson speaks about the roles of people and genders in society possibly in the early 1900s. In the story, a family is welcomed by Matthew Arnold an intellectual man. The protagonist in the story, Topaz, among all of her siblings determines to be noticed by the guest even after being warned by her father, the antagonist, about eating quietly and not making a sound. But unlucky for the father, Topaz continues to speak to the man. She talks about poetry and requests to tell Arnold one of them. As she goes on she becomes interrupted by her father who was terribly angry. Topaz as she noticed the anger in her father slid under the table where she remained with Arnold’s request. As she sits under the table surrounded by the different footwear, Topaz interprets their life, the different manners they pose and the challenges they may have faced. Some Topaz touched and others she did not dare. In the end, she had wowed her family. The short story focuses on how the family are required to follow rules given to them by the father and impersonate another in fear of appearing odd or out of ordinary and compares this to Topaz’s interpretation and presentation of these rules.
The story represents a society where the male is dominant and the other members of the family are required to be ordinary and although these requirements were given, Topaz goes against them and decides not to suppress her position. The story emphasizes the father figure is the leader and rules giver when the seat of the father is represented as being far away and at the end of the table and the brief inclusion of the children being warned prior to the guests arrival. When the words far away are used to convey the father’s seat, this could symbolize that the father is not only literally further away from the rest but that he is also mentally detached from his family which shows this sort of literal dominance and control rather than being the head or the leader. The inclusion of ‘warned children’ also emphasizes this sort of set society that the family must follow based off of the father’s orders which represents the theme; fear of appearing or being out of ordinary. The children must stay quiet and eat without stating their opinions or even speaking. This adds to Topaz’s difference from the other kids. Even when she is given these warnings previous to the dinner she is still determined to stand out. Another important representation of the father being in control and that because he is the ‘ruler’ he is actually allowed to speak is shown with the immediate significance to the position of the father and how he is said to be a “kind, handsome, and provident man.” This is important because you don’t see any other overview of the other members of the family besides what they are wearing until Topaz herself interprets it based on what she knows. The importance of this story also is that even though the father is the main figure, the narrator speaks of Topaz’s thoughts rather than the thoughts of this leader. When looking at the family in an entire spectrum, they are appeared to be this perfect wealthy family where they all follow the rules, are quiet when the parent is speaking, and just listens rather than trying to make a show but when looking more in depth, you get to see the daughter, Topaz’s actual interpretations of how the family really is.
Another important part of the story where the theme is prominent is when the family refers to the father as ‘Dear Father’ which somewhat seems like a prayer. It metaphorically represents the father as being a figure of God and how he must be followed for his position. In Topaz’s poem, she ends with ‘Or serve his God aright?” in which she speaks of serving her father or ‘God’ correctly. Topaz ending with the question mark emphasizes her say on the society and roles where she wonders if she should serve her father in the way he expects. This adds to Topaz’s difference from her family. Even though she still does refer to her father as ‘Dear Father’ she still wonders if this is the ‘right’ way to do it in a family. Additionally when Topaz is under the table and interprets the different shoes of the people sitting around the table, she mentions that her dad has never done up his own shoes and instead one of their servants does it for him. This add to his sense of being served rather than doing the tasks himself again in relation to following gender roles in that society. The reason this also relates to the theme of hiding their personal opinions on these is because when Topaz speaks of her father as this high position she never degrades his position or opinions rather just states her opinion on the situation. This relates to her not wanting to seem completely out of ordinary, like she is disagreeing with her family or like she is going against this god like figure.
When the father becomes visibly angry at Topaz, the family even though they disagreed with his actions were afraid to speak up or say something about the situation. The mother who try’s to play this perfect mother figure who follows the house rules and enforces them just tells Topaz to sit down while the rest of the family just stares at Topaz in surprise. The rest of the children unlike their sister Topaz who isn’t allowed to show her intelligence but still does, appear well behaved and aware of what’s at stake which could mean that they’re hiding their true self possibly because of the guest, Arnold. In the end, the mother dies. When the author speaks of the mother’s death, they mention their exit in the kids lives but doesn’t go into depth about how the family would deal with this which would be completely different if the father were to just die. This once again adds to this suppress of character because we don’t ever hear of the other peoples emotions or reactions. Along with Topaz trying to stand out and make an impression on the guest, her father also simultaneously tries to impress their guest; speaking of the different things occurring and showing his knowledge on things going on in the society. Instead unlike Topaz’s attempt and lack of hiding her true self, her father is allowed to stand out being the head of the family.
There are many ways in which Topaz is different from the average group of kids in the society who just follow this average family rules; following the father figure, appear like a perfect family, don’t stand out, and even suppressing your identity to appear like a perfect family in front of a guest. Topaz from the beginning seems different when she is determined to stand out in front of their guest. She speaks even when she is told not to and even when is told once to sit quietly and eat ends up gaining respect from their guest. Topaz states her opinion on the rules and roles in her poem freely. Although she may seem innocent, Topaz is also very smart in her ways to make an impact. Much like not following these rules, she also doesn’t appear to be a normal child. Things like crawling under the table or touching feet wouldn’t be something a normal society kid would do. Which is why standing out even when told to suppress your thoughts is greatly shown in the short story.