“THE STRANGER AND THE BEGGAR ARE FROM ZEUS”: The Greco-Roman Guest/Host Code in Becky Shaw

In Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, Suzanna sets her best friend Max up on a blind date with one of her husband’s coworkers. That night, she invites them both over for a drink to break the ice. As they arrive, she has some distant reminder of a term she may have learned in an undergrad classics seminar – the Greek concept of xenia. Though Suzanna can’t remember that arcane word, she knows that the Greek gods “judge you by how well you treat the strangers who come to your door.” Suzanna is talking about her mother, riffing on the way that the Greeks and their guests relate to the concept of Southern hospitality. But in the days that follow, the stranger she has just met – the eponymous Becky – will lead to some judgment for Suzanna, perhaps not by the Gods but at least by her husband and her closest friend. Through the shifting dynamics, Gionfriddo puts modern rules of relationships into dialogue with ancient codes of obligation, asking what any of us owe each other.

The relationship between guests and hosts, xenia in Greek and hospitium in Latin, was highly valued by both Greek and Roman cultures. “Hospitium,” writes Oscar E. Nybakken, “signified the simple but sacred duty of every man to welcome and protect any stranger who might come to his house.” In both languages, the words for “guest” and “host” are the same, implying that the obligation between parties was equal. In these ancient cultures, it was the duty of the host to immediately greet, seat, and feed the guest. Rooted in the trustworthiness of one’s word, the host could question the guest as to his identity and motivations only after he had finished dining. In return, the guest was obliged to reciprocate the gifts and service provided to him whenever appealed to.

So great was the bond between host and guest that in Euripides’ Alcestis, Admetus, the King of Pherae in Thessaly, hid his grief over the untimely death of his young wife to provide lodging to Heracles (the Roman Hercules). When Heracles learned of the household’s tragedy and his own inadvertent insensitivity to their grief, he descended to underworld to retrieve the deceased queen in an effort to repay his host. Guests, like the descending Heracles, were considered sacred and protected by the gods; hosts could be held accountable to heaven’s wrath if they neglected their guests. Eventually the guest host code grew to encompass broader community and national political codes, but consistently remained at the heart of the private sphere as well.

Both friendship and dating today are governed by all sorts of rules. Modern codes tell us that if he doesn’t call in a few days, “he’s just not that into you.” Self-help books like The Secret ask us what we have done to deserve the way we are treated by others. Evolving rules of courtship tell us that the ideal relationship may involve compromise on both sides. While we no longer believe in exchanging a dowry to “make up” the perceived difference, we may still seek out partners of a higher social, material or, as Suzanna perceives herself as having done, emotional standing.

And, even in the face of these contemporary codes, the ancient ones echo both for us and for the characters in Gionfriddo’s story. Suzanna’s husband Andrew knows it may be Max’s prerogative to not call Becky, but that doesn’t excuse Andrew, the host that invited her in, from responsibility for her resultant emotional distress. Even Max’s long-term relationship with the Slaters presents a complicated and contemporary picture of the guest’s obligation to his host as he once arrived as a kind of orphan on the Slater’s doorstep. By weaving the ancient tradition of hospitality into Becky Shaw, Gina Gionfriddo finds yet another way to probe the question of personal responsibility to loved ones and strangers.

— Anne G. Morgan

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