The Dinner Party
by Mona Gardner


The country is India.  A large dinner party is being given in an up-country station by a colonial official and his wife.  The guests are army officers and government attaches and their wives, and an American naturalist.

At one side of the long table a spirited discussion springs  up between a young girl and a colonel.  The girl insists women have long outgrown the jumping-on-a-chair-at-the-sight-of-a-mouse  era, that they are not as fluttery as their grandmothers.  The colonel says they are, explaining women haven't the actual nerve control of men.  The other men at the table agree with him.

"A woman's unfailing reaction in any crisis, " the colonel says, "is to scream.  And while a man may feel  like it, yet he  has that  ounce  more  of  control  than a woman has.  And that last ounce is what counts. "

The American scientist does  not  join  in  the  argument but sits and watches the faces of the other guests.  As he looks,  he  sees a strange expression come over the face of the hostess.  She  is staring  straight ahead,  the muscles of her face contracting  slightly.  With a small gesture she summons the native boy standing behind her chair.  She whispers to him.  The boy's eyes widen: he   turns quickly and leaves  the  room.  No one else sees this, nor the boy when he puts a bowl of milk on the verandah outside the glass doors. 

The American comes to with a start.  In India, milk in a bowl means only one thing.  It is bait  for a  snake.  He  realizes there is a cobra  in  the room.

He  looks   up   at  the  rafters-the   likeliest   place - and sees they  are  bare.  Three corners of the  room, which he can see by shifting only slightly, are empty.  In the fourth corner a group of servants stand, waiting until the next course can be served.  The American realizes there is only one place left - under the table.

His first impulse is to jump back and warn the others.  But he knows the commotion will frighten the cobra and it will strike.  He speaks quickly, the quality of his voice so arresting that it sobers everyone. 

"I want to know just what control everyone at this table has.  I will count three hundred - that's five minutes - and not one of you is to move a single muscle.  The persons who move will forfeit 50 rupees.  Now!  Ready!"

The 20 people sit like stone images while he counts.  He is saying ". . . two hundred and eighty . . ." when, out of the corner of his eye, he sees the cobra emerge and make for the bowl of milk.  Four or five screams ring out as he jumps to slam shut the verandah doors. 

"You certainly were right, Colonel!" the host says.  "A man has just shown us an example of real control."

"Just a minute," the American says, turning to his hostess, "there's one thing I'd like to know.  Mrs. Wynnes, how did you know that cobra was in the room?"

A faint smile lights up the woman's face as she replies.  "Because it was lying across my foot."


"The Dinner Party" by Mona Gardner, 1942, 1970,  Saturday Review

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Think Questions

*Respond to this statement: "Men are better in a crisis than women." 

*How would you have solved the "problem" of the cobra?

*In what ways did the hostess and the American deal with the conflict presented by the cobra?

*Where does the story take place?

*Explain the argument that springs up between the colonel and the young woman.

*What action does the American take?

*What does the hostess reveal at the end?

*Why does the American have everyone play at sitting still without telling them why?

*What is the host assuming when he makes his remark about the colonel's being right?

*In what way is the final sentence of the story a response to the colonel's argument?

*How have attitudes toward women changed since the time of this story?