Guests of the Nation
Guests of the Nation
Frank O’Connor 1931
“Guests of the Nation” is probably Frank O’Connor’s most widely read story. It was published in the 1931 collection of the same name after appearing in the Irish Statesman. O’Connor’s experiences as a member of the Irish Republican Army during “the Troubles” (Ireland’s struggle to establish self-rule) shaped his attitudes and gave him much material for his writings. Despite his strong support of the Irish cause and his own desires to see Ireland become free from British domination, his stories often show, as Patricia Robinson writes, that “in war, hatred and revenge drive out ethical and moral intelligence.”
In “Guests of the Nation,” men from both sides of the struggle are thrust together. They argue, play cards, discuss politics and religion, and generally behave as though they are not part of the armed conflict that surrounds them. Then Feeney brings the news that the Irishmen have been ordered to execute the Englishmen. O’Connor now makes his strongest point that ideological differences are fleeting and relatively unimportant.
Ruth Sherry observes that O’Connor was “suspicious of heroics” and put little emphasis on the physical aptitudes of his characters. The characters in his stories are ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations. They struggle to make sense of their circumstances and come to conclusions based on that struggle.
The understated method he uses makes this issue even more poignant. Without lecturing to his readers he makes the point that political differences are trivial in comparison to life and death. O’Connor takes the reader into the internal struggles of several of the characters in this short tale. He offers no hard answers but allows the readers to come to an answer for themselves. Therein lies the power of this story and other stories by O’Connor.
Frank O’Connor was born in Cork, Ireland, on September 17, 1903, as Michael O’Donovan, the only son of Michael and Minnie O’Donovan. His father was a laborer whose alcoholism wreaked emotional and financial havoc on his family. As a result, O’Connor formed a strong relationship with his mother, who encouraged him to read and protected him from his father’s drunken rage. O’Connor’s deep love for his mother and his jealousy of the love and understanding she showed his father became the subject of many of his stories. Due to the poverty in which his family lived, O’Connor’s formal education ended early; he was taken out of school at the age of fourteen to assist in supporting the family. He continued his studies on his own, focusing on literature, politics, and Gaelic language and culture. The influence of Daniel Corkery, an Irish author, nationalist, and former teacher of O’Connor’s, was crucial in shaping his political sympathies. In 1918, under Corkery’s guidance, O’Connor joined the Irish Republican Army, fighting the British occupation of Ireland. Although a treaty ending the war was signed in 1921, O’Connor and the Republicans continued fighting to include the province of Ulster in the new Irish Free State. O’Connor was subsequently arrested and imprisoned for nearly a year by the Free State government for his part in the struggles. It was during this time that he formed the ideas that found life in many of his short stories.
During the 1930s, O’Connor became involved in the Irish Literary Renaissance that was striving to produce a distinctly Irish literature. The writers of this nationalistic movement endeavored to revive in their fellow citizens an awareness of Ireland’s rich history and colorful mythology. During this time, O’Connor began contributing stories to the Irish Statesman, a magazine that served as the focal point of literature in Ireland. Many of these early stories were collected in Guests of the Nation, which focuses on O’Connor’s experiences in the Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War. The Statesman was edited by George Russell, also known by the pseudonym AE, who was one of O’Connor’s strongest advocates and best friends. Russell introduced O’Connor to many leading figures of the Irish literary society and Abbey Theatre Company in Dublin, including William Butler Yeats, Sean O’Casey, and Lady Gregory. O’Connor served, along with Yeats, as director of the Abbey Theater from 1935 to 1939, when he left because of a dispute over censorship. During the 1940s, a number of O’Connor’s books were officially banned by the Irish government. He left Ireland in 1951 to lecture and teach at several American universities, including Harvard and Stanford. He frequently returned to his homeland until his death in Dublin in 1966.
The story opens with two Englishmen, Hawkins and Belcher, being held prisoner by a small group of rebels, somewhere in Ireland, during the Irish Rebellion. They all play cards and argue about politics, religion, and capitalists. The group is housed in the cottage of an old lady, who in addition to tending the house engages the men in arguments. She is a religious woman and quick to scold the men if they displease her.
Bonaparte, the narrator, and his compatriot, Noble, become friends with the English soldiers. Jeremiah Donovan, the third Irishman, remains aloof from the others. He is the officer in charge of the small Irish group. One evening Donovan tells Bonaparte and Noble that the Englishmen are not being held as prisoners, but as hostages. He informs them that if the English kill any of their Irish prisoners, the Irish will order the execution of Hawkins and Belcher in retaliation. This news disturbs Bonaparte and he has difficulty facing his prisoners the next day.
A few days later, Feeney, an intelligence officer for the rebels, arrives with the news that four Irishmen were shot by the English and that Hawkins and Belcher are to be executed that evening. It is left to Donovan to tell Bonaparte and Noble.
In order to get the Englishmen out of the cottage, Donovan makes up a story about a transfer; on the way down a path into the bog, he tells them the truth. Hawkins does not believe him. But as the truth settles in, Hawkins tries to convince the Irishmen not to kill them, arguing that, if their positions were reversed, he would never shoot “a pal.” He asks to be allowed to become a traitor and to fight for the Irish side.
Bonaparte has misgivings about executing the two men. He hopes that they attempt to escape, because he knows that he would let them go. He now regards them as men, rather than the anonymous enemy. Despite Hawkins’s pleadings, the party makes their way to the end of the path where Feeney and Noble are waiting.
Donovan shoots Hawkins in the back of the head. As Belcher fumbles to tie a blindfold around his own eyes before he is shot, he notices that Hawkins is not dead and asks Bonaparte to “give him another.” Belcher displays an inordinate amount of dignity and composure, considering the circumstances. Donovan then shoots Belcher in the back of the head. The group digs a shallow grave and buries them. Feeney leaves and the men go to the cottage, where the old woman asks what they have done with the Englishmen. No answer is given, but she knows nevertheless and falls to her knees to pray. Noble does the same. Bonaparte leaves the cottage and looks up at the dark sky feeling very small and lost. He says that he never felt the same about things ever again.
Belcher is a big Englishman who is held prisoner by Irish rebels. He is a polite, quiet fellow, who helps the old woman do her chores. Faced with his execution, Belcher reveals more about himself in a few minutes than he had in all the weeks spent with his captors. Unlike Hawkins, he manages to maintain his dignity and composure.
Bonaparte is the narrator of the tale. His relationship with his prisoners, Hawkins and Belcher, grows from captor-captive into actual friendship. When given the news that Hawkins and Belcher are to be executed, Bonaparte is dismayed at the role he is expected to play. The executions disturb him deeply; at the end of the story he comments that
“anything that happened to me afterward, I never felt the same about again.”
Jeremiah Donovan is the officer in charge of the group of Irish rebels. Unlike Bonaparte and Noble, he does not regard the English prisoners as friendly acquaintances. He delivers the news of the impending executions to Bonaparte and seems surprised at his reaction, stating, “What else did you think we were keeping them for?” Donovan fires the gun at the execution.
Feeney is an intelligence officer who brings the news that the Englishmen are to be executed. He assists in the executions and leaves as soon as the men are buried. His name derives from the Feinian Society, an underground organization that fought against the British for Irish independence.
Hawkins is the second English prisoner. He is smaller and more talkative than Belcher, often engaging Noble in religious and political debates. When told that he is to be executed, Hawkins reacts
- On May 20, 1958, a performance was given of Guests of the Nation, a drama, drawn directly from O’Connor’s story. It was adapted and directed by Neil McKenzie. This single performance, done at the Theatre de Lys in New York City, was part of a twin bill that also offered Ana da Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
with utter disbelief. He considers his captors to be his “pals,” and argues that, if the situation were reversed, he would never shoot them.
Noble is one of the Irish rebels. He likes to argue politics and theology with Hawkins. When told of the plan to bring Hawkins and Belcher along quietly by telling them that they are “being shifted again,” Noble refuses to take part in the lie, instead going ahead to dig the graves. After the executions, he prays with the old lady, falling to his knees by the fireplace.
The Old Woman
The old woman owns the cottage where the action takes place, tending the house and feeding the men. Though Bonaparte notes that she has a sharp tongue and tends to be cranky, she grows fond of Belcher due to his efforts to help her with the household chores. She falls to her knees in the doorway and prays after the executions.
Duty and Personal Responsibility
The main theme in this story is duty. Each character has a duty to perform. Donovan is the first one to discuss his duty as the rebels are leading the prisoners into the bog. He tells them that four Irish fellows had been shot and “you are to be shot as a reprisal.” Continuing, he “begins the usual rigmarole about duty and how unpleasant it is.” As he shows here, his perception of duty is built on submission to the orders of someone higher up in the chain of command. His interpretation of duty absolves him of any personal responsibility for his actions.
As the rebels are about to carry out the executions, their prisoners talk about duty. They claim to understand that by obeying their duty the Irishmen will soon kill them. Wohlgelernter notes that the Irishmen and the Englishmen now use the idea of duty as a shield against “the monstrous acts of evil”: the cold-blooded executions that are about to occur.
For the men in this tale, their obsession with duty overwhelms their sense of personal choice. Each man could have made a choice to disobey the orders. The rebels could have let the prisoners live; the prisoners could have made an attempt to escape. But none of them does so. Personal choice has been discounted. Duty to follow orders becomes the only motivation for the rebels. The prisoners also accept the fact that the rebels will follow those orders, and with that acceptance, they give tacit agreement to the duty to those orders.
At the close of the story Bonaparte and Noble have a difficult time accepting the fact that they had just participated in the executions. Their resolve to follow the orders without question now dissolves into a more expansive question of their existence and what it means to them. These two men have come up against the consequences of their dutiful actions and they do not like what they have found.
Choice and Consequence
Hand-in-hand with duty and responsibility are the consequences associated with the choices made by the characters in the story. Each of the military men in the tale have made a choice in the first instance: to join a cause and to follow it to its conclusion. The Englishmen join in order to maintain British control over Ireland. The Irish join the insurrection to overthrow British rule and to establish an Irish Free State.
They all make their choices freely and openly. But in this story, they all have serious consequences to contemplate. The Englishmen will have to contemplate, even for a short time, their own deaths as an outcome of their initial choice. The Irish will have the rest of their lives to contemplate the consequences of their initial choice to join the rebels and the choice to execute the Englishmen. For all, the consequences are much more burdensome than any might have assumed at the beginning—the Englishmen are killed, and the Irishmen have to carry that fact with them forever.
Conflict: Individual vs. Society (Military)
O’Connor’s narrator provides a number of instances wherein an individual’s wishes come into conflict with his military directives. Though Bonaparte and Noble comply with the orders they have been given, both, to varying degrees, exhibit some form of rebellion. After Feeney brings the news that Hawkins and Belcher are to be executed, Noble refuses to be a party to lying to them in order to lead them to their deaths. In a similar fashion, Bonaparte hopes for an escape attempt, knowing full-well that he would not fire on Hawkins and Belcher if they were to run. Hawkins, too, is prepared to rebel against his own military, offering to join the Irish rebels in return for his life.
Dialects and Writing Practices
One of the little known aspects about any writer’s approach to his or her craft is the amount of attention and time that is devoted to revising and rewriting. A glance at a working copy of a poem by John Keats will show a furious crisscrossing, adding and erasing, a scratching out and rearranging of lines and text that eventually became a finished poem. For most writers, this occurs in private and once published, the final work remains stable and unchanged. Not so for Frank O’Connor. As William Maxwell said, “He rewrote and rewrote. After he was published, he rewrote and was republished. Everything he wrote was an unfinished work, not so much because of any dissatisfaction, but because of the pleasure he got out of a story. He liked his stories.” As a result, there are many different versions of the same story in print. Also, as Ellmann notes, just as there are different versions of the same stories in print, some of these stories carry different titles.
There are several editions of “Guests of the Nation.” In an early version, the Englishmen talk in a heavy Cockney dialect. The two Englishmen are “Awkins and Belcher.” Hawkins says, “Well, Bonaparte, Mary Brigid Ho’Connell was arskin
abaout you and said ow you’d a pair of socks belonging to er young brother.” In a later passage when they talk about angels, Hawkins says, in the Cockney dialect, “Where do they get them then? Who makes them? Ave they a fact’ry for wings? Ave they a sort of store where you ands in your chit and tikes your bleedin’ wings? Answer me that.” However, in later versions O’Connor softened this passage by using a more standard form of English as well as dropping the final three-word sentence.
Topics for Further Study
- E. M. Forster once said: “I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Think about the deep meaning in this statement. How do you think Donovan or Bonaparte would react to it? How would you react to it, given similar circumstances to those in the tale? Would you react differently, if your “prisoners” were lifelong friends?
- Choice. Duty. Morality. Do these words mean the same thing in the context of this tale? If so, explain how they are the same. If they are different, carefully describe those differences.
- For a story teller, selecting the proper narrator is very critical. Imagine the difference in this story if O’Connor had used an omniscient narrator (one who knows the thoughts of all the characters in a narrative). Would the impact of the ending be as effective? Create a parallel tale using an omniscient narrator. Remain faithful to the sequence of occurrences in this one.
- O’Connor said that God had intended that he be a painter. “But I was very poor and pencil and paper were the cheapest. . . . Literature is the poor man’s art.” What does he mean when he says that literature is a poor man’s art? Think of other arts and explore the differences between them that makes sense of his remark.
- Imagery and symbolism are important aspects of fiction. Select an image in the story and develop it into a symbol. Describe how that improves our understanding of the tale.
- Themes of courage and cowardice, guilt and innocence, and fate and chance are present in the story. Select one of these pairs of ideas and show how they control the action in the tale.
- Titles of short stories often have clever meanings. What does the title of this story mean? Who are the “Guests” and of what “Nation?” Explain your response completely using material from the text.
In the present version, O’Connor uses words that are indicative of the dialects of the characters. The Englishmen call their newfound friends, “Chums.” The fact that the Irish also use the term is unusual, as the narrator mentions. Donovan’s Irish dialect is also noted when he said, “Ah, you divil, Why didn’t you play the tray?” The dialectical use of the word “unforeseen,” meaning “inconsiderate” or “unthinking,” as Michael Libermann explains, also draws attention to the local Irish dialect.
Point of View and Narration
The story is told in the first person by Bonaparte, a member of the small rebel faction. As such, we see only his view of the events. The reader is never able to know what others are thinking unless they speak and Bonaparte tells us. For example, in the very last scene, he comments on his reactions to the executions; he also tells us what Noble has said about the same executions.
In some stories it is important to notice what the narrator is doing and saying, because he or she may not be telling the truth. In many stories by Edgar Allan Poe, the narrator often tries to convince the reader that he (the narrator) is NOT crazy, despite evidence to the contrary. In the case of Bonaparte, there is no hint that he is not truthful. There is nothing that creates doubt of his trustworthiness. Therefore Bonaparte can be considered a reliable and believable narrator.
The story is written in four episodes, each fulfilling a special task. The first section is the exposition. In this section the characters are introduced individually and then they are shown interacting with others in the story.
The second section, the complication, introduces the possibility that the Englishmen might be executed. Bonaparte says that he noticed that Donovan has “no great love for the two Englishmen.” In the evening Donovan and Bonaparte discuss the fact that if the English shoot one of the Irish prisoners, then they would have to retaliate. Later, as Bonaparte and Noble try to go to sleep, they worry about probabilities that they would be ordered to shoot their prisoners.
Section three, the rising action, gets more intense. Donovan tells Bonaparte and Noble that the Englishmen are going to be executed. “There were four of our lads shot this morning, one of them a boy of sixteen.” Bonaparte’s worst fears are now realized.
The last section, the main crisis and the final falling action, covers the execution and is the longest of the four. In it the themes of duty and responsibility are raised by both the Englishmen and the Irishmen. The section completes the story with the remaining characters trying to sort out for themselves what has just occurred in the woods.
Images are those items in a story that appeal to our senses. Some important images in the story include the fire, the lamps, light and dark. These are combined to create several symbols that give the tale special meanings and importance. The fire, for example, might be a purifying image. In the elemental sense, fire is an agent used to remove impurities from a compound leaving a purified remainder. Theologians talk of the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit which may remove impurities from an individual’s soul. In this way fire becomes a symbol of a purifier.
Symbols are images that have both figurative and literal meanings. Images of light and dark occur regularly in the story, presenting a contrast between the forces of darkness (evil) and light (good). They also show the conflict in the minds of the rebels, who struggle with the feeling that the executions they perform are not justified. At the end of the story, the remaining characters are left standing or praying in the dark, symbolic of a triumph of evil over good.
As the men head into the woods, the light from the lamp shines dimly at the end of the path. As they walk, their lives flicker; Bonaparte’s hope that the Englishmen would run away flickers; the hope that they will not be executed flickers. After Hawkins is shot, he writhes in the throes of death and his life flickers away. The single image of the flickering lantern is symbolic of these concepts.
The history of Ireland is one of domination by the British and of conflict between Protestants and Catholics. During the nineteenth century efforts were made to reduce the power of the British over the island. These efforts spawned a revolutionary movement that sought full separation from Britain. The potato famine and other crop failures added to the urgency of these rebellions. The Fenian Movement (represented in part in the story by Feeney) was a secret society determined to wreak havoc on English interests in Ireland and thereby drive them out of the country.
These movements came to the fore at the end of World War I. Despite several political acts by the English Parliament that tried to establish home rule for the Irish, the Irish Rebellion began in full force. After many of the local police quit in protest against the British, new recruits were brought into the country, called the Black and Tans. These militias were known for their brutality and ruthlessness. This is the setting for the story. After several years of “The Troubles,” the British representative, Winston Churchill, threatened an all-out war to subdue the Irish. Michael Collins agreed to a division of the country and independence for the south of Ireland. The Irish Free State was established in 1922. The Irish felt that Collins had sold them out in these negotiations, and he was assassinated soon after.
The northern six counties, collectively known as Ulster, were not included inside the new national boundaries. They are now know as Northern Ireland. It is here that the “Troubles” have continued with political and military confrontations. In 1998, promise of peace was made possible when the British government, the Irish government, and the warring parties in Northern Ireland signed an accord that established a framework for democratic resolutions to the ongoing disputes.
Compare & Contrast
- 1916: Following the Easter uprising, in which Irish rebels seize control of the General Post Office in Dublin in an effort to establish a provisional government for the Irish Republic, fourteen of the rebels’ leaders are shot at Kilmainhan Jail.
1998: In accordance with the “Good Friday” Agreement, both Irish and British governments begin the accelerated release of paramilitary prisoners.
- 1919: Sinn Fein, an Irish political party, assembles in Dublin and declares Ireland independent. Irish insurgents, later called the Irish Republican Army, take up the task of expelling the British from the island. This period is often referred to as the “Troubles.”
1998: The “Good Friday” Agreement is reached, bringing at least a temporary cessation to three decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
It was during the Irish Rebellion and the establishment of the Irish Free State that Frank O’Connor lived. These experiences shaped his attitudes about his homeland and the institution of warfare. He was a lifelong spokesman for Ireland and things Irish. Even after his move to the Unites States, he continued to write about Ireland. He once said, “I prefer to write about Ireland and Irish people because I know to a syllable how everything in Ireland can be said.” But he never changed his attitude that war is illogical and barbaric.
O’Connor and his Literary Peers
Frank O’Connor was one of a group of Irish writers born in the last of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. These include Daniel Corkery, AE (George Russell), W. B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce. Of these, Yeats, Beckett and Joyce are the most famous. O’Connor was a friend of these men, often learning writing techniques and adopting writing approaches from them. AE was the first to suggest to him that he write a biography of Michael Collins. Yeats is best known for his poetry, Joyce and Beckett for their novels, and O’Connor for his short stories. “Readers were more than likely charmed by the deceptively simple manner of his writing, particularly those stories of childhood and adolescence for which he is best known,” says James Matthews in The Dictionary of Irish Literature. It is his focus on shorter fiction that hindered his acceptance until recently, because many literary critics were reluctant to include a short story writer among novelists and poets.
Frank O’Connor, pseudonym of Michael O’Donovan, was a prolific writer whose output includes poetry, biography, essays, drama, novels, and short stories. It is his short stories that have made the biggest impact on literature, but as Michael L. Storey notes, his recognition as a top rated author has been slow to come because many critics were reluctant to put “short story writers into the same league with novelists, poets, and dramatists.” Now this has changed.
However popular he is becoming now, things were not so positive at the beginning. For his early publications in The Irish Statesman, he used his middle name and his mother’s maiden creating the name Frank O’Connor. He did this to separate himself from the reputation of his hard-drinking abusive father and for political reasons, to avoid connection with the Irish revolutionary, Jeremiah O’Donovan. His first volume of stories, Guests of the Nation, was published in 1931 and was well received. During the 1930s he published a novel, some poetry, and the biography of Michael Collins, an important leader in the Irish Rebellion and negotiator of the peace agreements at the end of the Rebellion. Despite these successes, the strongly Roman Catholic Irish Government’s Censorship Board took issue with some of the topics in his stories, according to Ruth Sherry. As a result, it became difficult for him to get his work published. By 1940, he was under a ban among even Irish publishers and broadcasters. To circumvent this, he used another pseudonym, Ben Mayo (an identity that was kept secret until after his death), for a series of newspaper articles in the Sunday Independent. These articles covered such disparate topics as farm life, poverty in city slums, a more practical education, and the need for theaters, libraries, and arts societies in provincial towns.
The continued censorship and the resultant shrinking markets, especially in Britain and the United States, created a need for him and others who were also being censored to find an outlet for their work. In 1940, a new magazine, The Bell, was founded. It was edited by his friend Sean O’Faolain and provided a forum for the next several years for him and other “strayed revelers,” who hoped to clear the air of what they thought was the stodgy and elitist writing forms of earlier Irish authors. In addition to contributing poems, essays, reviews, and short stories, O’Connor was the poetry editor for the magazine.
By 1950, because of economic pressures following World War II and his inability to support himself in Ireland, O’Connor accepted several teaching offers and moved to the United States. During the next decade, he wrote more than during any other comparable period in his life, mostly about his homeland. His stories about the common Irish people muddling through their daily lives are, as James Matthews says, “his most enduring contribution to modern literature and Irish life.” Because of this contribution and his easy writing style, James Plunkett said that O’Connor had achieved “the air of someone who had found where he belonged.” By the time of his death, in Dublin in 1966, O’Connor had accomplished a greatness in a “lonely and personal art” and had created simple stories of impeccable design and craft.
Michael Storey says, “O’Connor’s art is great, not because it is so well crafted, because it is rooted in life itself.” O’Connor told stories with “a rich and rushing flow of language” that grew out of his life in Cork and were based on the simple ways of the common Irish people. Richard Ellmann says that the “stories of Frank O’Connor refresh and delight long after they are first read.”
Storey, in his review of Michael Steinman’s edition of A Frank O’Connor Reader, remarks: “The recognition of O’Connor as a top flight literary artist has been slow in coming for several reasons, including the reluctance of critics to accept short story writers in the same league with novelists. . . . The former notion seems to be gradually giving way, and Steinman’s book should do much to dispel the latter notion.” Frank O’Connor has taken his place in the ranks of great Irish writers. He has also become a leading exponent of short fiction without regard to national identity. His stories have gained a universal appeal that, as Wohlgelernter said, “transcends the bounds of time and space.” O’Connor’s tales speak of universal truths and, as he said, “Story telling . . . just states the human condition.”
Mowery has a Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Composition and Literature from Southern Illinois University. In the following essay, he discusses the theme of duty and personal responsibility in “Guests of the Nation.”
In “Guests of the Nation,” O’Connor looks at the consequences when people in stressful situations choose duty over personal morality. J. R. Crider calls that “the tragic dilemma in which [the] characters are caught, between military duty and. . . ancient. . . moral law.” The Irish rebels are caught in this dilemma—they are forced to choose whether or not to carry out the execution of their English prisoners.
Donovan “deliberately closes himself off from the human ties” which might weaken his resolve to follow orders from his superiors. Therefore he maintains his distance from the prisoners, writes Stanley Renner. But he is the first to raise the notion of duty. As the prisoners are being led down the path into the bog, he “begins the usual rigmarole about duty and how unpleasant it is.” Bonaparte describes Donovan’s feelings: “I never noticed that people who talk a lot about duty find it much of a trouble to them.” Nevertheless, his duty to avenge the killing of some Irish prisoners takes precedence over his duty to respect fellow human beings. He is driven by his obligations to the military instructions that
What Do I Read Next?
- Brian Friel’s play, Translations (1980), is set in nineteenth century Ireland as British troops arrive to survey the Ballybeg landscape and to anglicize Gaelic placenames. Friel explores a number of issues related to Britian’s occupation of Ireland.
- William Trevor’s work, including The News from Ireland, and Other Stories (1986), explores the importance of personal and national history as he focuses on lonely individuals burdened by the past.
- “Attack” (1931) by Frank O’Connor. Set during the Irish Rebellion, some rebels go to a house near a police station with the intention of attacking the station. While there, they discover a mystery in the attic.
- “Dulce et decorum est” (1920) a poem by Wilfred Owen. This poem is from The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. It was written while Owen was in the trenches in Europe during World War I and looks at the glory of war from the viewpoint of one who is experiencing it. Owen calls that glory, “The old lie.”
- “Patriotism” (1966) by Yukio Mishima. This story examines the Oriental approach to national patriotism in personal and very gruesome ways.
- Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) by Siegfried Sassoon. These are the personal recollections and diaries of Sassoon from his days as a soldier in World War I.
have been given to him by Feeney. He chooses to follow these orders and blame “the deliberate inhumanity” of the killings on his duty to the Irish cause.
Donovan and the rest of the rebels are unable or unwilling to take any personal control of their actions out of fear of the consequences. Renner says that since Donovan and Feeney place “devotion to the cause above humanity,” they are unable to take any initiative over their personal behaviors. Then after Hawkins claims that he (Hawkins) would not shoot any of his chums, Donovan says to Hawkins, “You would, because you’d know you’d be shot for not doing it.” Because of the threat, they all are unwilling to disobey an order. They cannot do otherwise because of the fear of retribution.
Military personnel are controlled by threats of punishment for not following orders, no matter what the orders are. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona, finding herself on the horns of a dilemma, says: “I do perceive here a divided duty.” For her the division was between father and husband. For the rebels the division lies between the responsibility to the military and to personal morality. But fear for one’s own safety makes the individual obey the order.
Bonaparte experiences this division in his desires when he says that he hopes the prisoners would run away because he knows that he would not try to stop them. But he does not govern his own behavior. Rather, he lets someone else guide his actions. Since the prisoners do not attempt to escape, he is forced to follow the orders and participate in the executions. Michael Libermann concludes that men can be called upon to fulfill obligations that otherwise they would reject, because they have “joined a cause,” and then the horror of these acts is compounded when the men are forced to do things that are “unthinkable” in other circumstances.
The folly of blindly following a duty has also been described in another O’Connor story, “Attack.” In this tale, some rebels plan an attack on a garrison of police “whose sense of duty had outrun their common sense.” Here, the police have lost “all sense of proportion.” They become so impressed with their own positions of authority that they become a nuisance to the people they are supposed to be protecting. Their notion of duty has been subverted by an obligation to the British authority, to “the cause,” rather than an obligation to their own sense of good behavior or morality. In both stories, as Maurice Wohlgelernter points out, the combatants use “Duty . . . as a shield for monstrous acts of evil” because individuals fail to take personal responsibility for their acts.
One evening Donovan tells Bonaparte and Noble that the Englishmen are being held as hostages, not as prisoners. Both men refuse to accept the possibility that they would be asked to shoot the men. They believe that the English soldiers would not shoot any Irish prisoners and that since the men at Second Battalion know the two they were holding, no one would “want to see them plugged.” According to Michael Neary, the two men are disillusioned especially by the orders to execute their “good natured and thoroughly harmless English prisoners.” Still, they refuse to take responsibility for their own and their prisoners’ destiny. They obey and then blame it on others higher up in the chain of command. Renner assigns the harshest moral judgment to Noble and Bonaparte precisely because they participate in the brutal executions, “in the mistaken impression that they have no choice.”
In situations like these where societal duty and personal duty are in direct conflict, the question is raised: Does a society (military or otherwise) have the right to order an individual to commit acts that are in violation of personal morality? Is the individual absolved of guilt because he or she obeys a societal order? In this story can Bonaparte and Noble be forgiven for their actions because they were ordered to do so?
This was the central question at the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials. At these trials, German officers tried to absolve themselves of guilt for their actions by saying that they were only following orders. Many of these men were convicted and hanged for their crimes, since the Military Tribunal court did not accept their excuses. The Tribunal held that they were indeed responsible for their actions and that they had to pay for them.
Just as those found guilty at Nuremberg, Bonaparte and Noble each forfeit their innocence by following Donovan in accepting the orders from Feeney. Yet each knows that the acts they commit are wrong. Bonaparte says that by time they reached the bog he “was so sick” that he could not even talk. His internal revulsion at the impending executions reveals his belief that it was wrong to shoot
“The immorality of cold blooded murder is not absolved by the intended positive results of the Irish Rebellion. The ends do not justify the means if the ends are achieved through immoral acts.”
them. Just as he would let them escape, he would not have participated in the executions if given the choice.
At the end, none of the characters has acted on his own initiative. None has taken command of the situation in a manner that each knows is a better choice. Donovan acts out of a blind sense of duty to the orders. Noble and Bonaparte both act out of fear of harsh punishment. After the burial, Donovan and Feeney disappear into the darkness, their roles fulfilled. Noble and Bonaparte return to the cottage, their lives now changed.
This tale ends with the dilemma of divided duty, as noted earlier from the drama Othello. But it now includes a glimpse into the souls of the rebels. In Henry V, Shakespeare also visits this aspect of a divided duty, writing: “Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own.” Accordingly, the individual is not absolved of guilt or the obligation to do the right thing because of a military order. The “subject” may escape the vengeance of his king, but the judgment of his “soul” will be harsh.
When Noble and Bonaparte return to the cottage, the woman asks what has happened to the Englishmen. No answer is given, but she knows anyway. She falls to her knees to pray for the souls of the slain men. Seeing this, Noble also falls to his knees to pray. Of the rebels, he was the faithful one, often referring to the next world in his arguments about religion with Hawkins. But during those moments in the bog when he might have invoked his religious beliefs, he did not. Renner interprets his prayers as an attempt “to lighten his burden of sorrow and guilt.” He goes on to say that Noble also uses the prayers as “consolation” and an “evasion of moral responsibility.” It is ironic that his act of petition becomes one of selfish penance.
The immorality of cold blooded murder is not absolved by the intended positive results of the Irish Rebellion. The ends do not justify the means if the ends are achieved through immoral acts. This then answers the question as to whether or not the executions were justified. The men knew the executions were wrong. Renner has pointed out that despite the orders “they do have a choice” of their behavior. And they fail to make that choice. What is left, writes Renner, is a “military, which (had) been created, ideally, to ensure the welfare and safety of human beings, (but now has) come to work to their harm: a human power meant for good. . . result(ing) in evil.” Noble and Bonaparte are left to contemplate their complicity in that evil.
The Rebels held the ideals of the Rebellion high. But in the end they are left wondering about the future. O’Connor has written what Tomory calls “the most eloquent commentary on the inhumanity of war.” The story also has power because, as Richard J. Thompson says, “it illustrates the loss of fellow-feeling and the basic decency that follows from the imposition of political dogmas.” The tale ends in despair and disillusionment because ideology has triumphed over morality.
Source: Carl Mowery, “An Overview of ‘Guests of the Nation’,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Richard F. Peterson
In the following essay, Peterson discusses the narrative structure and interpersonal relationships in “Guests of the Nation.”
Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation,” with its wonderfully ironic title, is one of the most memorable short stories ever written about Ireland’s struggle for political independence from England. Set during “the Troubles,” or the revolutionary period between the Easter Rising in 1916 and the signing of the Home Rule treaty at the end of 1921, O’Connor’s narrative of rebels and hostages reveals the conflicts, not just between the Irish and their unwelcomed “guests,” but among the revolutionaries themselves.
Like so many of O’Connor’s stories, “Guests of the Nation” (the title story of a 1931 collection) is told from the first-person point of view to give the narrative the quality of oral storytelling. Unlike the typical O’Connor storyteller, who narrates an event that has happened or been told to someone else, the narrator in “Guests of the Nation” is someone who has taken part in an action so emotionally and morally disturbing that it has altered his life. Speaking with the voice of his own Cork region, while imitating the accents and expressions of the English hostages, O’Connor’s narrator, called Bonaparte by his fellow rebels, recounts his reluctant role in the execution of two English soldiers in retaliation for the deaths of four Irish rebels. The success of O’Connor’s narrative, however, lies not so much in the description of the event itself, common enough during the Troubles, but in O’Connor’s intimate study of the humanity of the rebels and their prisoners and the personal ordeal experienced by O’Connor’s narrator.
“Guests of the Nation,” one of several early O’Connor stories about the Irish gunman, reflects his own experiences while fighting on the losing Republican side during the Irish Civil War. During the final days of the war, O’Connor, while suffering acutely from the constant danger of life on the run, was puzzled by the cold resourcefulness of some of his companions, who actually appeared to enjoy the danger and the violence. Afterwards, Daniel Corkery, O’Connor’s old teacher and fellow short story writer, suggested that O’Connor had witnessed the critical moment in revolution when control shifts from the dreamers, those caught up in the Republican ideal, to the professionals, those caught up in the political expediency and emotion of the violence and the killing.
In “Guests of the Nation” O’Connor develops this conflict between revolutionary attitudes in the strained relationship between the narrator and Jeremiah Donovan, the experienced rebel, who has the responsibility for carrying out the battalion order to shoot the prisoners. Their differences are played out as the narrator and his youthful compatriot, Noble, become familiar with the Englishmen while they stand guard over them. When the narrator eventually finds out that the prisoners are actually hostages, he bitterly complains to Donovan, only to be told that the English have also held their Irish prisoners over a long period of time. This moral and emotional blindness or indifference to the closeness that has developed between Noble, the narrator, and their prisoners is what most clearly defines Jeremiah Donovan and what most troubles O’Connor’s narrator when he is finally told to carry out the executions. While he recognizes the necessity of an act of reprisal—one of the executed rebels was sixteen years old—the narrator is deeply disturbed by the order to shoot two men whom he has come to regard more as companions than as the enemy.
The most compelling scene in “Guests of the Nation” occurs when the English prisoners are taken to the end of the bog where a hole has already been dug for their bodies. O’Connor’s early narrative strategy of developing the personalities of the two Englishmen now takes on dramatic force as Hawkins, the more garrulous of the prisoners, pleads for his life, even by offering to join the rebels, before he is shot in the back of the neck by Donovan. After Hawkins is executed, finished off with a shot fired by Bonaparte, the narrative shifts its attention to the usually taciturn Belcher, whose words, just before his death, take on a dignity and humanity in sharp contrast to the bumbling and grotesque behavior of his executioners.
Once the executions are over, Bonaparte and Noble return to the house used to hide the Englishmen, thereby shifting the narrative back to the emotional and moral impact of the deaths on those closest to the prisoners. While Noble and the old woman of the house fall to their knees in prayer, O’Connor’s narrator goes outside to watch the stars and listen to the now dying shrieks of the birds. At story’s end, the narrator turns briefly to his own emotional state immediately after the killings and to the effect of the deaths on his life ever since. He remembers vividly that the executions and the praying figures seemed at a great physical distance from him and that he felt as lonely as a lost child. He also confesses that he has never felt the same about anything since that night. Apparently compelled to tell his story, O’Connor’s rebel appears to recognize at the close of his narrative that this single, terrible act of revolutionary violence destroyed his youth and left him prematurely disillusioned and emotionally isolated from the human condition no matter what the cause.
Source: Richard F. Peterson, “Guests of the Nation,” in Reference Guide to Short Fiction, St. James Press, 1994, pp. 727-28.
In the following essay, Renner explores the conflict between duty and humanity in “Guests of the Nation,” arguing that the underlying question in the story is “whether one is driven along by an irresistible destiny or can take a hand in the chances of life. . . .”
In Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation” the reader witnesses the cold-blooded execution of two English soldiers—a killing by the men who have been assigned to guard them and with whom they
“Apparently compelled to tell his story, O’Connor’s rebel appears to recognize at the close of his narrative that this single, terrible act of revolutionary violence destroyed his youth and left him prematurely disillusioned and emotionally isolated from the human condition no matter what the cause.”
have become friends, done in reprisal for the soldiers’ shooting four members of the Irish revolutionary movement. The story employs a first-person participant point of view to dramatize an irony much like Thomas Hardy’s in “The Man He Killed”:
Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.
Readers of the story, however, have not found the war sanctioned shootings it dramatizes “quaint and curious.” Commentators have been virtually unanimous in approving what they take to be O’Connor’s condemnation of “the evil of murderous ‘duty’ which lies at the center of the story.” O’Connor strongly invites this response by humanizing the two English soldiers, engaging the reader’s sympathy for them in order to maximize the shock of their execution in the end. But he also heightens the story’s disturbing effect through an extended figurative questioning of where responsibility for such evils lies—within the individuals involved or in forces beyond their control. At the heart of the story’s design lies a preoccupation with certain mysterious “hidden powers,” the forces of chance or fate or other inexplicable supernatural machination that grips human lives in capricious, mostly unwelcome, ways. Analysis of the theme of “hidden powers” in “Guests of the Nation” clarifies its moral design, the role of its characters, the
“But the primary example in ‘Guests of the Nation’ of the institutional power that human beings have imposed on themselves is the military organization which holds the intangible power of duty over the soldiers in the story.”
meaning of the ending—even the significance of the narrator’s name, which has provoked surprisingly little critical curiosity.
The concept of hidden powers is introduced at the outset of the story together with the fellow-feeling that develops between the English prisoners of war and their Irish guards. The opening paragraph establishes both that the men are becoming “chums” and that they spend a good deal of time playing cards, an activity that not only breaks down the military barriers between them but also introduces the notion of chance, a hidden force that plays a ubiquitous role in human events. Although one may exercise some control over how one’s cards are played, chance governs what cards are dealt, both in card games and in life.
The card-playing in “Guests of the Nation” introduces the story’s underlying preoccupation with the question of who or what is in charge of what happens on earth. Again reminiscent of Hardy, “Guests of the Nation” runs the gamut of possible answers to the question of who or what is in charge of what happens on earth. Again reminiscent of Hardy, “Guests of the Nation” runs the gamut of possible answers to the question in much the same way as does Hardy’s “Hap,” in which the speaker, in the apparent absence of a benevolent Providence, prefers that “some vengeful god” were running things rather than nobody or nothing at all. The Christian view that the universe is controlled by a benevolent Providence is represented in the story by Noble, who, in heated debates with Hawkins, argues for a supernatural being who promises an afterlife complete with angels who wear wings. The old woman who keeps the house in which the prisoners are being held introduces the notion of a vengeful deity who pays people off for violations of the divine order. She babbles nonsense as yet unexplained about how an “Italian Count that stole the heathen divinity out of the temple in Japan” brought on World War I because “nothing but sorrow and want can follow the people that disturb the hidden powers.” The card-playing in the story rounds out the possibilities: perhaps our lives, like games of chance, are governed by nothing but “Crass Casualty,” as Hardy terms it in “Hap”—the random functioning of the universal machinery.
But there is another order of hidden powers in the design of “Guests of the Nation”: human rather than cosmic. For not all the evil that happens to human beings is dealt out by forces beyond their control. Some of it they do to each other. These hidden human powers, visible only in their effect on human beings, appear in the story mainly in the obligations we impose on ourselves through our institutions of social organization and the human concerns that have created them and should make them work for the good of human beings. One of the institutional hidden powers in “Guests of the Nation” is that of capitalism, against which Hawkins, who calls himself a Communist, rails bitterly as a evil force working against an amelioration of the human condition. But the primary example in “Guests of the Nation” of the institutional power that human beings have imposed on themselves is the military organization which holds the intangible power of duty over the soldiers in the story. The other major human hidden power in the story is that of love in a broad sense—the power in the feelings that bind human beings together. Ironically, the institutional powers, such as the military, which have been created, ideally, to ensure the welfare and safety of human beings, may come to work for their harm: a human power meant for good may result in evil.
Some observers of the human lot have recognized two categories of evils and sorrows: those attributable to cosmic powers, whatever they may be, and those attributable to human powers. There are thus irremediable evils, those we can do nothing about, and remediable evils, those within our power to alleviate. Logically, then, we should cease wringing our hands about irremediable evils and concentrate on those we can do something about. Here again, the story is reminiscent of Hardy, who urges in “Apology”—the preface to his Late Lyrics and Earlier—that, to the extent permitted by “the mighty necessitating forces—unconscious or otherwise,” “pain to all upon [the globe], tongued or dumb, shall be kept down to a minimum by loving-kindness, operating through scientific knowledge, and actuated by the modicum of free will conjecturally possessed by organic life. . . .” A similar outlook is attributed to Clarissa Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: as we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship . . ., as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners . . .; decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can. Those ruffians, the Gods, shan’t have it all their own way,—her notion being that the Gods, who never lost a chance of hurting, thwarting and spoiling human lives were seriously put out if, all the same, you behaved like a lady.
These are precisely the issues against which the conflict between duty and humanity in “Guests of the Nation” is posed, and it is the keenest irony of the story that its protagonists, Bonaparte and Noble, commit a remediable brutality against fellow human beings as if compelled by a power beyond their control. To be sure, chance has put them in their predicament. And it is easy to judge them when one is safely detached from their situation, in which they owe unquestioning obedience to a military organization not known for sweet reasonableness. If they do not carry out the order to execute their prisoners, they can be court-martialed and shot. Still, what they are ordered to do does not fall within the province of the irremediable: they do have a choice, a “modicum,” at least, “of free will.” Bonaparte recognizes the patent inhumanity of the order, although he seems less concerned about the brutality to the Englishmen than about the injury to his own feelings; and it is not promising when he draws an analogy between how he would feel in shooting human beings he has come to like and how he would feel in taking an old dog he is fond of to the vet’s to be put to sleep. But rather than taking action himself, he merely drifts along as if helpless to defy the fates, “hoping that something would happen,” that the Englishmen would “run for it” or that “Noble would take over the responsibility from me,” but doing nothing himself.
The question that underlies the story, then, is whether one is driven along by an irresistible destiny or can take a hand in the chances of life, remedy its remediable ills, and perhaps meliorate the pains and sorrows that cannot be prevented. This question informs not only the ending of “Guests of the Nation” but also the design of its characters, and it is noteworthy that O’Connor’s Englishmen are more humane than his Irishmen. Presumably the four Irish prisoners were executed by the English for something they had done, whereas Belcher and Hawkins are to be shot in random cold-blooded reprisal. Bonaparte and Noble, although they find the order shocking, nevertheless help carry it out, yielding with token resistance to what appears to be their fate—Bonaparte by actually giving Hawkins the coup de grace, and Noble by helping bury the Englishmen. Donovan and Feeney, who place devotion to the cause above humanity, personify a brutality unmediated by fellow-feeling. Donovan deliberately closes himself off from the human ties that should work against remediable evil, while Feeney has been linked to the Fenian brotherhood, the heart of the Irish nationalistic spirit, which brutality overrules the brotherhood of fellow-feeling that develops between the guards and prisoners in the story.
The Englishmen are shown in a more positive light. Ironically, they fit in better with the local community than do the Irishmen, perhaps because their humanity is less numbed by divisive hatreds. Hawkins, the “quixotic Socialist-Atheist,” consistently takes the side of humanity against institutions of society he blames for evils that are or ought to be remediable—against “the capitalists” and their self-serving hypocrisy of “morality and Rolls-Royce complete” and “all the so-and-so officers” that enforce the prevailing social order. But finally, it is the quiet Belcher who is most attuned to ameliorating the twists and toils of fate and necessity for his fellow human beings—this despite (or because of) the fact that he is himself a thoroughgoing fatalist, “with his usual look of waiting in quietness for something unforeseen to happen.” Belcher alone helps the old woman with her chores. He is a huge man, and to mitigate the inequalities of life, the strong should help the weak. Moved by the same spirit, he sees to it that things come out even in the card games with which the guards and prisoners pass the time. An object lesson for the capitalists railed at by Hawkins, he could have come out on top: “he was a good card player,” Bonaparte admits, and “could have fleeced myself and Noble. . . .” Instead, he bankrolls Hawkins with the money he was won, knowing full well that Hawkins will lose it back to the Irishmen and there will be no winners and losers. True to the end, Belcher continues to put others’ interests ahead of his own. As he is about to be shot, he asks that Hawkins, whom the initial bullet did not finish, be put out of his agony with a second shot. And he is almost unbelievably solicitous of his executioners’ feelings in the affair, trying, apparently, to ease their shock and guilt in having to shoot him. Belcher’s meliorating humanity, coupled with Hawkins’s indignation against the remediable evils built into the established structures of society, seems to form the moral center of “Guests of the Nation” against which the actions of the Irishmen are judged. Thus the reader’s shock at the execution of Hawkins and Belcher, guilty of nothing except being in the wrong uniform in the wrong place at the wrong time, is intensified by a sense that the power of fate which helped to contrive the situation need not have been allowed to dictate its brutal outcome.
The theme of hidden powers in “Guests of the Nation” may also help to answer a question left by the story—why is the narrator named Bonaparte?—that most commentators have ignored. For among the hidden powers that control human life is destiny, and destiny was a lifelong preoccupation of the original Bonaparte, Napoleon I—widely remembered, as he regarded himself, as the Man of Destiny. Just as the story told by O’Connor’s Bonaparte poses the question of the relationship between human responsibility and the workings of destiny, so Napoleon pondered his role as the instrument of oceanic forces working themselves out on the map of Europe. So important is the question of destiny in Napoleon’s life that most of the numerous books about him address the subject. Especially pertinent to the present discussion is Emil Ludwig’s Napoleon, published shortly before “Guests of the Nation” was written. A close similarity in the way both Ludwig’s Napoleon and O’Connor’s Bonaparte tend to shift the responsibility for their actions to destiny but suffer the consequences of such a view of life suggests the possibility that O’Connor might have drawn his character with Ludwig’s Napoleon in mind.
Ludwig’s book, whether or not O’Connor read it, throws light on several elements of the story’s moral design, including the role of the ironically named Noble and the import of the final scene showing Bonaparte lost in a vacant cosmic immensity. In the spectrum of attitudes presented in the story, Noble is the Christian, who can resolve the problem of evil through faith in a hidden providence and absolve his own sinful complicity in evil by seeking God’s forgiveness. “How happy should we be here,” Napoleon allows, “if I could confide my troubles to God, and could expect from him happiness and salvation!” Thus Noble, in the end, falls on his knees and begins praying to lighten his burden of sorrow and guilt, but neither Napoleon nor Bonaparte can accept this way of resolving the question of the scheme of things and his own place in it. The story also criticizes Noble’s resort to the consolation of religion for his evasion of moral responsibility in this world through his fixation on the next.
O’Connor’s Bonaparte, like Napoleon, tends to view himself as in the grip of an irresistible destiny. “In general,” observes Ludwig, Napoleon “is resigned to fate.” In “hundreds of sayings,” he expressed the belief that “No one can escape his fate” and that “all things are linked together, and are subject to the unsearchable guidance of an unseen hand.” But both Napoleon and Bonaparte remain troubled by the terrible human consequences of the military actions their destinies commit them to—the former, in giving orders that cost human lives; the latter, in carrying out such orders. Napoleon, at the tomb of Rousseau, father of the Revolution, wondered “whether it would have been better for the peace of the world if neither Rousseau nor I had lived.” O’Connor’s Bonaparte suffers similarily from a troubling, if defective, sense that what fate seems to demand of him is wrong. Yet he does it anyway, as if governed by Napoleon’s principle that “It is wise and politic to do what fate commands, and to march on the road along which are led by the irresistible course of events.” But neither Napoleon nor Bonaparte escapes the logical consequences—the spiritual desolation—of giving the world over to destiny. “What [Napoleon] never loses,” Ludwig concludes, “is the sense of diamonic loneliness, which increases as his soaring flight leads him to chillier altitudes.” Similarly, Bonaparte in the end feels “very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow”—a feeling he will never lose, for, as he says, “anything that happened me [sic] afterwards, I never felt the same about again.” As a result of his world view, Ludwig’s Napoleon faces “the desert, which to him is the image of the infinite . . . the sublime vacancy which expands before him when the myriad-faceted picture of ordinary life sink from sight.” Similarly, O’Connor’s Bonaparte stands in the end facing a vacant universe, nothing but the empty bogs and the distant stars, while the graves of Belcher and Hawkins, “even Noble and the old woman, mumbling behind me, and birds and the bloody stars were all far away,” “a million miles away.”
Thus the moral judgment of “Guests of the Nation” comes down mainly on Bonaparte and Noble—not that the deliberate inhumanity of Donovan and Feeney is excused by O’Connor but that Bonaparte and Noble, who still entertain human feelings, allow themselves to contribute to the remediable brutality in the world in the mistaken impression that they have no choice. O’Connor wrings a further twist from his powerful ending by showing that the world views that allow Bonaparte and Noble to shift the responsibility for what they have done to the hidden powers that govern the cosmos are opposites forms of the same cop-out. In Noble’s geocentric Christian world view, the human scene is predominant: “he saw everything ten times the size, as though there were nothing in the world but that little patch of bog with the two Englishmen stiffening into it . . . .” But he has failed to fulfill his Christian duty: to love, extend hospitality, and sacrifice oneself for others and especially for strangers and enemies. With Bonaparte, it is just the reverse. In his mechanistic sense of the universe, human doings seem insignificant, “as if the patch of bog where the Englishmen were was a million miles away,” in the vast empty universe of “Hap.” And thus he has failed in the duty of human beings to band together, eliminate remediable evils, and mitigate the irremediable evils dealt out in a vacant, indifferent universe.
In the end, “Guests of the Nation” echoes the disillusionment that W. B. Yeats felt toward the Irish cause, which O’Connor implicitly in his story and Yeats explicitly in “Easter 1916” warn “Can make a stone of the heart.” But the tone and gist of the story are surely best captured a decade later in E. M. Forster’s memorable comment on where human duty lies: “I hate the idea of causes,” he wrote in 1939, “and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”
Source: Stanley Renner, “The Theme of Hidden Powers: Fate vs. Human Responsibility in ‘Guests of the Nation’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 371-77.
Crider, J. R. “Jupiter Pluvius in ‘Guests of the Nation’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 407-411.
Donoghue, Denis. A Review of Collected Stories by Frank O’Connor, in New York Times, September 20, 1981, Sec. 7, p. 3.
Ellmann, Richard. Introduction to Collected Stories by Frank O’Connor, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.
Gelb, Arthur. A Review of Guests of the Nation, a play, in New York Times, May 21, 1958, p. 40.
Libermann, Michael. “Unforeseen Duty in Frank O’Connor’s ‘Guests of the Nation’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 4, Fall, 1987, pp. 438-41.
Matthews, James H. “Frank O’Connor,” in Dictionary of Irish Literature, edited by Robert Hogan, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.
Neary, Michael. “The Inside-Out World in Frank O’Connor’s Stories,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 327-336.
New York Times, March 11, 1966, p. 33.
Robinson, Patricia. “O’Connor’s ‘Guests of the Nation’,” in The Explicator, Vol. 45, No. 1, Fall, 1986, p. 86.
Sherry, Ruth. “Fathers and Sons: O’Connor among the Irish Writers: Corkery, AE, Yeats,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 275-302.
Steinman, Michael, ed. A Frank O’Connor Reader, Rochester, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994.
Storey, Michael L. A review of Frank O’Connor at Work, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 273-74.
Storey, Michael L. A review of A Frank O’Connor Reader, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 148-150.
Wohlgelernter, Maurice. Frank O’Connor: An Introduction, New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.
O’Connor, Frank. An Only Child, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.
An autobiography in episodic form using Michael O’Donovan, O’Connor’s real name.
O’Connor, Frank. My Father’s Son, Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, and Co., 1985.
A second volume of autobiography, compiled after O’Connor’s death by his widow, assisted by Dr. Maurice Sheehy of Dublin University College.
Steinman, Michael, ed. A Frank O’Connor Reader, Rochester, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994.
This book contains annotated stories by Frank O’Connor, including “The Rebel,” which had never before been published, and the recently translated, “Darcy in Tir na nog.”
Wohlgelernter, Maurice. Frank O’Connor: An Introduction, New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.
This book takes a broad-based look at the life and work of O’Connor. It presents O’Connor’s thought “to the historical and intellectual events of his time. . . . this study may be considered a biography of his mind.”