James Heffernan, Author, "Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature"

Air Dates: June 21-24, 2014

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This week's guest on REPORT FROM SANTA FE is James Heffernan, Professor of  English Emeritus at Dartmouth College, and author of "Hospitality and Treachery in Western Literature."


In works of Western literature ranging from Homer’s Odyssey, to Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the giving and taking of hospitality is sometimes pleasurable, but more often perilous. Heffernan traces this risky dynamic through the history of our greatest writings, including: Christ’s Last Supper, Macbeth’s murder of his royal guest, and George R.R. Martin's "Red Wedding" from "The Game of Thrones."


Heffernan describes hospitality as the feeding and housing of guests who don’t pay, who come to your house by invitation for drink, or for dinner and pleasant conversation. There are few things more pleasurable than having a drink or having a meal with good friends. But when you begin to dig a little deeper, you discover that these hospitalities entail trust -- it can be dangerous. To invite someone into your home, is to invite them to complicate your life right up to the act of taking it. Heffernan's book is dedicated to two Dartmouth professors, his good friends, who were murdered by two young men posing as survey-takers, whom they had invited into their home.


Hospitality is something that we all experience in our daily lives, often without the awareness of how vulnerable it makes us to treachery. This treachery doesn't have to take violent forms.

There are many non-violent forms of treachery and more subtle kinds of betrayal that intrude into the relationship between a host and a guest.



Heffernan examines the dynamic between givers and takers of hospitality, and what guests and hosts do for — as well as to — each other. In doing so, he shows how often treachery rends the fabric of trust that hospitality weaves. Exploring the “law of hospitality” in different cultures, we discover that in Arab culture, hospitality trumps all other laws, including revenge and retaliation against an enemy.