Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
One of the most important components of technique in “Guests of the Nation” is Frank O’Connor’s masterful use of irony. An early instance of irony, apart from the story’s title and the repetition of the word “chum” (underlining the failure of friendship in the plot), is the reference to the Irish dances that Belcher and Hawkins have learned, whose titles (“The Walls of Limerick,” “The Siege of Ennis”) allude to divisiveness, violence, and war, which undercut the harmony of the social occasion. Further, the narrator’s word to describe the timbre of Belcher’s speech, “peaceable,” ironically contrasts with the reason the British soldiers are kept captive, as well as their fate.
Indeed, ironies run throughout the story: The two soldiers executed are among the most congenial to the country and its culture; the religious doubter Hawkins is the first to discover the truths about the afterlife (by being the first killed); Belcher is so considerate of his executioners that just before he is shot he asks their forgiveness for his sudden outpouring of talk, explains his thoughtful wish to speed things up because he knows the delay is painful to them, and finally absolves them all with consoling words. Finally Belcher’s blindfold, made by knotting his handkerchief with Bonaparte’s, ironically symbolizes the union that should have prevented Belcher’s pitiful death, while it is also connected to the story’s motif of blindness—to...
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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...
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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...
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Compare and 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.
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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...
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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 Aria da Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
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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...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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,...
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