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Liminality in a London Hotel: Henry Green’s Party Going and the Impact of Space on Identity

Joanna Pready

The metropolitan hotel is an iconic feature of the city and dominates as a centre for international, cultural exchange in major cities across the world. However, such hotels are also worlds of their own as Henry James describes in his account of a traveller entering the Waldorf Astoria, ‘the amazing hotel-world quickly closes around him … the air swarms, to intensity with the characteristic, the characteristic condensed and accumulated as he rarely elsewhere has had the luck to find it’ (James, 1969: 102). The focus in James’ account is on the rarity of the experience and the enveloping nature of the space. The hotel-world is both exhilarating and claustrophobic. It represents the excitement of travel alongside the terror of unknown and unknowable spaces. Importantly, James’ use of ‘characteristic’ presupposes that the hotel has an essential quality, something that makes it significant. It is the generics of the luxurious hotel, rather than this specific hotel that make it so distinctive. Hotels in themselves are unique in urban landscapes due to their function as a public space inhabited by strangers looking for some kind of simulacrum for the private comforts of a domestic space. James’ story is about New York but his discussion of a grand hotel corresponds to other hotels across the world as the hyphenated term hotel-world suggests. Grand hotels are collectivised and typically criticised for their universality. Yet the possibilities for human interaction between different nations and the homogeneity of culture and language in the melting pot of the urban hotel reduce the negativity of this sterile space. Generally, the hotel as a site is built upon the tension between opposites: claustrophobia and exhilaration, the public and the private, alienation and inclusiveness, freedom and inhibition. It is therefore a liminal space; and as such, is the perfect arena in which to examine characters’ reactions to space, reactions that are often intensified due to the lack of connection to the hotel space. The vast, indescribable space becomes a facet of the whole city experience and functions as a microcosm of the wider city outside.

We are accustomed to seeing the city, whichever city we are discussing, metaphorically portrayed as monster, or as the life blood, the heart, the pulse; it grows, beats, moves. These are images that portray the otherness of the city, the importance of the fragment to our perception of it, but also in the representation of the heart, the city becomes more an image of circularity as a closed system. Again, these images draw attention to the variety of methods for representing it. The human subject feels a desire to map the city: walking it, exploring it, watching it, being under surveillance by it and ultimately trying to control it. Cities are designed to utilize the space to its fullest potential and they are conceived, re-invented and re-imagined throughout narrative history to suit the needs of the subject. The city, due to this constant process of transformation, resists the singular, the fixed, the definitive, the specific. It multiplies and transforms and is constantly shifting, resisting definition due to this sense of multiplicity. Specialized studies consider smaller, more identifiable sites: the garden, the park, the high-rise, the M25, the skyscraper, which become the epicentres for discussions about the city. There are criticisms of this method, however, as sites can become segregated and isolated in specific analyses. As Alex Murray states in his study of Sinclair and Ackroyd, this site-specific contextualisation ‘creates a potential fetishization of place’ (Murray, 2007: 5). Murray instead argues for a link between place and history: ‘history, like London, becomes an uncertain entity that resists representation in stable, coherent meaning’ (Murray, 2007: 6). The lack of stability in Murray’s interpretation draws on Julian Wolfreys’ discussion of multiplicity and resistance of the singular in relation to an expansive space such as the city.[1] The hotel is a dynamic site that, despite its specific location, embodies the image of the unstable and multiplicitous. Therefore, it is a more realistic space for this analysis to take place, without being reduced to fetishization. The hotel functions as a microcosm that is possibly more successful than any of the other spaces mentioned (the M25, the high-rise etc.) due to its nature as a public space that, as I said, is also meant to be lived in. The hotel is thus a condensed and immediate space in relation to the sprawling nature of the city around it. The representations of hotels are fluid like the multifarious city but also retain some element of fixity due to the static nature of the site and its architectural frame. It is also a space that opens the stage for a psychologically intense method of characterisation, one that transforms with the contradictions of the time in relation to the city that houses it.

Paradoxically, in narratives of the city, London is often most visible when it is invisible, when the representations lack surface detail and topographical references to specific streets or areas and rely on ambience and suggestion to embody it. As Julian Wolfreys states: ‘knowing rather than just showing the city involves a response to colour and form, and not simply to what is there’ (Wolfreys, 2007: 90). One very specific example of hotel life in London is Henry Green’s novel Party Going. This novel, which is set in inter-war London, examines human relations in a fragmented and disparate society, via an intense focus on the hotel stage. London is pushed somewhat to the periphery as the hotel space becomes a separate world in itself. As I will show, it becomes clear in novels such as this, that when characters try to enforce customary rules from their own society on the new and unfamiliar society, these characters repeatedly collide with each other, though in a formalised and somewhat restrained way. Ruptures appear in the temporary societies created in the hotel space and communities fracture under the pressure of indecision and de-familiarity. This lack of stability can, in turn, increase the demands placed on the characters and necessitates violent reactions to events that may have been less volatile outside. The hotel is thus a framing space that, by virtue of its liminality, is both protective and hostile.

Party Going opens with a small group of hastily assembled characters converging in, or making their way to, the railway station, on their way to a holiday in Europe. The sense of holidaymaking suspends the hotel somewhere in a semi-realistic state: between home and holiday, and between station and city. When intense fog envelops the city they are halted on their journey and take refuge in the station hotel. This creates a sense of anticipation which is never fulfilled and which leaves the characters vulnerable –- unsure of how to act and behave in the static environment. The hotel as a refuge, however, soon takes a sinister turn as those unable to enter it become trapped in the station where they are swept up in a frenzy of panic and claustrophobia. Green continuously plays with point of view giving different descriptions of entrances and exits in order to juxtapose various characters’ reactions to the same space, highlighting the distinctions between interior and exterior space. Initially, a fragile sense of community is formed through those characters that are able to occupy the hotel, to take refuge in it. It is an odd sense of refuge, however, for they do, of course, all remain in the city where they live; yet at the same time removed from their everyday life and trapped by external circumstances (that is by the obscuring fog and crowds shut in on the station concourse). And it is precisely this ‘known’ London being rendered ‘unknown’ and their powerlessness in the face of this transformation, which brings about a growing sense of panic as they begin to lose control of the situation.

The tension initially starts due to their discomfort in the defamiliarised space. As Tim Parks has stated in the introduction to the Vintage edition of the novel: ‘We should be familiar with the scene. A major railway station in central London … yet no sooner have we read a paragraph of Green’s prose than we know that this is not the case.’ (Green, 2000: intro. v). The form of the novel and the intensely stylised prose corresponds to the alienating nature of the subject matter. The opening paragraph is just two lines long: ‘Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade and slowly fell, dead, at her feet’ (Green, 2000: 1). The odd punctuation, sentence structure and the monosyllabic rhythm add a lilting, staccato effect to the narrative, which is continued throughout. We are also required to question who the subject of this sentence is. Whose feet does the bird drop at and why does such an odd event characterise the opening of this novel? The whole image creates a sense of unreality which is disorienting in a novel which focuses primarily on illusory events that impinge on everyday lives. Tim Parks argues that Green is the ‘abettor of our disorientation … as if the ghostly material had seeped into the writer’s mind and syntax, obliging him, and us, to advance with hands outstretched in constant fear of some unexpected obstacle’ (Green, 2000: intro. v). The description of the fog and the other strange events is given form by this curious writing style. The reader has to work to understand the events of the novel and the feelings of the individual characters; in this sense we are following a process similar to that of the characters themselves, becoming physically involved in the hotel narrative and the anomalous environment.

The narrative starts with one person immersed in the interior space and then tracks the others to the same resting point. Green is careful to detail a collection of journeys that follow different routes and to include characters both walking and arriving in cars. We see cars turning and their headlights sweeping round while pedestrians cross each others’ paths just as the pigeon crosses the path of the unnamed woman. Everyone is hurried; there is no wandering slowly, no calmness to the movements. The station draws them in through its tunnels, disconnecting the different spaces from each other as we move from the street to the darkness of the tunnel and out into the openness of the interior that is crowded full of people. There are strict lines between each space and each character has to traverse them.

All directional and positional statements are non-detailed and non-specific. ‘Downstairs, open space, the street, the car.’ There is nothing distinctively London about them. The reader knows it is London because they are reminded of this occasionally but the absence of any specific detail removes the obviousness of the London landscape; the indefinite description allows multiple interpretations. After five pages of strange dialogue and events involving the carrying of the dead pigeon, its disposal and subsequent retrieval, only then do we get this locational description:

The main office district of London centred round this station and now innumerable people, male and female, after thinking about getting home, were yawning, stretching, having another look at their clocks, putting files away and closing books (Green, 2000: 5).

After this one specific mention of London (despite the juxtaposition of it with the unspecific and unnamed ‘main office district’), the descriptive style continues in the same manner, as it focuses on the ‘innumerable’ people, who are a collective group of males and females with no perceptible individual identities. As they leave work they come out in twos or threes and the halted, tired movements of their yawning and stretching dramatically changes as they join the fast-paced movements of those outside. They flood out of the doors and spread in a parasitic mass on the streets. Their collectivity is decided by their mutual desire to get home after work. The traffic is gridlocked and motionless while the mass moves down the street to the station all united in their desire to get home. The main characters in the narrative are moving in the same direction but for an entirely different purpose: a sightseeing trip on the continent, entirely removed from the intent of the commuters.

As the fog comes down the traffic slows and the roads become congested; it is only those on foot who are able to move, but the growing crowds and the disorientation of the strange fog and darkening sky slow them. Miss Julia Wray feels this disorientation:

Where hundreds of thousands she could not see were now going home, their day done, she was only starting out and there was this difference that where she had been nervous of her journey and of starting, so that she had said she would rather go on foot to that station to walk it off, she was frightened now (Green, 2000: 6).

It is a mixture of the strange weather conditions, her unusual decision to walk (rather than take a taxi), the direction she is taking, away from home rather than towards it, and the growing crowds and ethereal atmosphere that creates this disorientating effect. There is anxiety and nervousness in the description and it is not the exhilaration of holidaying or the prospect of a new adventure but a real sense of fear that follows this character to the station and the start of her real journey.

Green makes a point of highlighting the labels attached to particular areas drawing attention to the functionality of separate spaces. In the first few pages the public spaces of ‘DEPARTURES’ and ‘LADIES’ are highlighted and in both cases it is open spaces (the mouth of a tunnel and a staircase) that Green is containing by labelling them in such a definitive way. This labelling continues when Max enters through the ‘HOTEL ENTRANCE’ a label which brutally divides the hotel space from the station, separating the action inside from that which takes place outside. These labels aid our conceptualization of the space and also that of the characters that have come in from the bewilderment of the fog. Interestingly, Green’s rigidity in defining space only helps to highlight the fluidity of his characters’ identities. The crowd outside grows and this is again stressed by juxtaposing the description of the steel shutters closing off the hotel from the station with the description of those who are still looking for a place to rest. This labelling is distinct in relation to the more vague descriptions of place in the main characters’ journeys to the hotel. The interior of the hotel is given a slightly different focus and characterised by a more constrictive style which highlights the strengthening boundary between the two types of spaces, between those who are inside and those who are outside.

As the anxiety heightens the barriers become more pronounced and the endless flow of people into the station transform into a sinister mass. Green describes them as having ‘pale lozenged faces’ (Green, 2000: 91) reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The unnamed faces in this crowd are linked to the ‘innumerable’ crowd of commuters on the streets by the use of collectivising adjectives. The group inside the hotel are protected by the physical barriers of the building and we are able to follow their actions with more scrutiny as they are held imprisoned within the space; we gain greater access into their individual psyches, as they remain separate from the mass of faces. As the fear mounts outside, the protection of those within the hotel is strengthened by the raising of steel shutters which blocks their view of the crowd. The barrier becomes impenetrable. However, along with this feeling of protection there is also an increasing sense of claustrophobia as the characters sheltered by the hotel are trapped within its walls.

The novel as a whole shows characters frozen in time and place, in the liminal space of the station hotel. The time spent in the station and its hotel is not a planned aspect of their journey and can therefore be seen as slightly removed from time and place. Moreover, as the space is impermanent, transient and impersonal the characters cannot take root in their new surroundings. Siegfried Kracauer finds that:

Removed from the hustle and bustle, one gains some distance from the distinctions of “actual’ life, but without being subjected to a new determination that would circumscribe from above the sphere of validity for these determinations (Kracauer, 1995: 179).

The lack of validity in this space, which initially seems everyday and familiar, is what continually creates a sense of confusion; the lack of ties to the space causes them to float through the air of the narrative with no real sense of connection. As Jameson has argued:

I am proposing the notion that we are here in the presence of something like a mutation in built space itself … there has been a mutation in the object unaccompanied as yet by any equivalent mutation in the subject. We do not yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this hyperspace, as I will call it, in part because our perceptual habits were formed in that older kind of space … the newer architecture therefore … stands as something like an imperative to grow new organs, to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible dimensions (Jameson, 1991: 38-9).

The mutation allows individuals to behave out of context with their environment because they no longer understand it and because they are incongruous to it. This point has also been noted by Marc Katz:

Popular narratives of the Twenties played off the Grand Hotel as a site for identity exchange … hotel management contributed to the widespread perception of the lobby as a site of mobility and desire by actually marketing narrative possibility: the hotel was frequently promoted as a place where ‘things happen’ (Katz, 1999: 139).

The term ‘identity exchange’ is important here, for the hotel space allows characters to try on new identities. We might predict that this would enable greater freedom. However, only a few characters actually take up this opportunity, the majority fear the loss of their identity.

To demonstrate this, there is one particularly important scene in which Green provides a virtuoso orchestration of the relationship between characters and the hotel space in order to explore notions of identity, perception and social convention. Amabel, a very wealthy and self-assured character, announces to the rest of the group that she would like to take a bath; she playfully tells Alex, ‘I got so dirty coming along … Of course it will have to have a room with it and then you can come and talk to me through the door’ (Green, 2000: 84). The event seems strange to the other members of the group as it is the middle of the day. They are all anxious about the weather and the cancelled trip, so to relax in a bath seems unusual. Amabel, however, is totally at ease in the situation and uses the time at the hotel to manipulate the group and alter its dynamics. When Amabel decides to leave the room with Alex she does so on the proviso that she has something she ‘must say to’ him, (Green, 2000: 93) creating an air of mystery which continues through their absence. After her first reference to the bath it takes another ten pages of narrative before she actually enters the bathroom. This allows the other guests to contemplate her action and wonder if ‘Amabel was going to let him see her in her bath’ (Green, 2000: 93). The other characters never actually find out if Amabel allowed Alex to see her naked as their fear of the overtly sexual behaviour stops them from asking.

When we actually reach the scene in the bathroom the atmosphere becomes noticeably more heightened. Alex remains at the door to the bathroom and they continue a flirtatious conversation marked off by the barrier of the door. Amabel giggles and splashes her legs sending ‘fountains of water up among the wreaths of sweet steam’ (Green, 2000: 94). Alex (positioned just outside the doorway) asks questions in a nervous tone and admits: ‘I was wondering what you looked like’ (Green, 2000: 94). The eroticism of the scene is explicit, and Amabel retains control by laughing at Alex and calling him ‘sweet’. The power relations between the two are dramatised by Amabel’s completely secure belief that Alex will not enter the room or take advantage of her, despite the unlocked door and references to her own nakedness. Alex is removed from Amabel by the closed door and he in turn is separated from the rest of the group who are waiting in another room, gossiping over the situation. Green manages to portray three rooms simultaneously, showing the connections between characters as they are connected by the proximity and interconnection of the rooms. The actual bath scene in fact only lasts half a page, but it is the expectation of it (linked to the anticipation of the rest of the holiday) and the knowledge that Amabel retains control through her manipulation of the other characters, that is of importance. Green teases out an everyday event into dramatic proportions, creating a tense atmosphere out of the knowledge that someone is ordering a bath.

The issue of movement in Green’s novel is represented by the tone and structure of the entire narrative. The anxiety and tension mounts with the increasing feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia and then is dispersed as the fog fades and the crowds scatter. It is a narrative set in a transitory time and a transitory space. The uneasiness continues throughout Party Going until, in the final pages, the fog clears and the characters are told that they can leave the hotel. This creates a dramatic sense of release, as if the space has opened to allow the characters to breathe and feel safe again: Julia ‘felt she was living again and with that feeling she wondered if she had not been rather ridiculous perhaps’ (Green, 2000: 150). The news of their impending release comes just a few pages before the end and we are left to watch it spread throughout the characters, as they plan whether to continue with their holiday or return home. However, the novel ends before any of them actually leave, allowing the reader to dwell on the ambiguity of the relationship between the hotel space and the characters that remain inside forever.

London is implied in the narrative by the wider, contextual references made to the position of the hotel as a microcosmic world. The hotel could be anywhere in the world, and yet, London is apparent in the very Englishness of the social customs that come under pressure within the hotel space as well as in the monotonous references to commuter lifestyles that is a palimpsest of T. S. Eliot’s nine-to-five vision of hell. The hotel as London –- as embodying what I earlier termed the element of the unknown within the apparently known or familiar –- draws attention to the contradictory nature of the city itself as a space that is at once free and claustrophobic, exciting and threatening. The characters in Green’s novel are held in the grip of the hotel; the lure of Europe fails to appease them and they remain, at the novel’s close, suspended forever within the London interior. Ultimately, Green’s representation of hotel life is characteristic of London life in the inter-war period and the fragmentary disembodied voice of London retains precedence through its very invisibility. As Julian Wolfreys maintains:

The city, immeasurable and ungatherable except as the name, persists in its sites and surfaces of fluctuation and evanescence (Wolfreys, 2007: 55).


[1] Please see Wolfreys’ three texts: Writing London: The trace of the urban text from Blake to Dickens (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998); Writing London: Materiality, Memory, Spectrality (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); Writing London: Inventions of the City (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

Works Cited

Green, Henry. Party Going. London: Vintage, 2000.

James, Henry. The American Scene. London: Indiana University Press, 1969.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism – Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Katz, Marc. ‘The Hotel Kracauer.’ Differences – A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11:2 (1999): 134-152.

Kracauer, Siegfried. The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Trans. Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Murray, Alex. Recalling London – Literature and History in the Work of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair. London: Continuum, 2007.

Wolfreys, Julian. Writing London: The trace of the urban text from Blake to Dickens London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998

Wolfreys, Julian. Writing London: Materiality, Memory, Spectrality. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Wolfreys, Julian. Writing London: Inventions of the City. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

To Cite This Article:

Joanna Pready, ‘Liminality in a London Hotel: Henry Green’s Party Going and the Impact of Space on Identity’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 1 (March 2009). Online at Accessed on [date of access]