Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The main theme of the story, the conflict between duty and humanitarianism, is clearly enunciated in two signature passages (technically, places in which the author explicitly articulates his theme). The first is in section 3 in the interchange between Donovan and Bonaparte about duty; the second, in section 4, in the interchange between Donovan and Belcher about the same subject. In these and other passages, the story shows that unlike Donovan, Bonaparte and Belcher, as well as Noble, Hawkins, and the old woman, move beyond a circumscribed conception of nationalistic duty to a sympathy and compassion for their fellow human beings that transcend the borders and politics of separate countries. Thus, unlike Donovan, the other major characters feel that harming another human being who is both friendly and innocent is wrong, even in the name of patriotic duty. The Englishmen’s “peculiar” expression “chums,” picked up by Bonaparte and Noble and repeated seventeen times in the story, embodies the idea of the paramount importance of friendship or humanitarian sympathy. So, too, does the biblical genealogy that Hawkins scorns as “silly” in one of his arguments with Noble. Hawkins does not realize that Old Testament genealogies suggest by way of descent from a common ancestor the brotherhood of humankind, making humankind a nation that surmounts individual countries—a belief that would have saved his life, which is instead sacrificed because of the conflict...
(The entire section is 500 words.)
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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...
(The entire section is 631 words.)