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 human community and to the twists of fate, summarized in the repeated key word “unforeseen.”