Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Fear and tension pervade “The Sniper.” O’Flaherty, making full use of his tight unity of place, builds tension steadily and systematically in several ways. The reader is told that one can hear the thunder of ammunition exploding in the distance. In the immediate milieu that the author creates, bullets whiz by and every simple act, such as lighting a cigarette, must be weighed carefully for its potential danger. The sniper is essentially a schoolboy caught up in a situation over which he must gain control. If he fails, he dies.
O’Flaherty creates a feeling of tension by his skillful use of short, clipped sentences and simple, direct vocabulary. As the tension is built, each sentence reveals only one bare fact:The turret opened. A man’s head and shoulders appeared, looking towards the sniper. The sniper raised his rifle and fired. The head fell heavily on the turret wall. The woman darted toward the side street. The sniper fired again. The woman whirled around and fell with a shriek into the gutter.
The beat of these sentences is like the beating of one’s heart. To read a paragraph so tightly controlled and structured as this one is to have one’s breath taken away.
O’Flaherty, because he has to emphasize how totally on his own the young sniper is, cannot have dialogue in this story. The sniper must be on the roof alone. The omniscient observer must tell everything that happens without being intrusive. O’Flaherty...
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The English in Ireland
In the twelfth century, the English monarch, backed by a large army, declared himself overlord of Ireland. For the next several centuries, English rule was generally confined to the area around Dublin. The English monarchy, however, continued efforts to subdue the entire island, resulting in ongoing Irish rebellion. In the early 1600s, the monarchy overthrew the native Irish political system, bringing the entire country under its control. For the next hundred years, the English created colonies in Ireland. As part of this effort, they drove many Irish from their land and gave estates to English landowners. Religious problems arose as well, since most Irish were Roman Catholics while the new English settlers, who mainly lived in the north, followed the Protestant faith. Laws continually favored Protestants over Catholics.
By the late 1700s, Irish rebels were making repeated efforts to gain some kind of independence. Their efforts were to little avail, and in 1801 the Act of Union formally united Great Britain and Ireland. This law abolished the Irish Parliament; instead, Ireland voted for representatives who served in the British Parliament.
Beginning in the 1870s, a Home Rule movement was on the rise among Irish nationalists, most of whom were Catholics. Supporters demanded some form of self government. They were opposed by Irish Protestants, who were called unionists because they wanted to preserve...
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The setting of “The Sniper” is integral to the narrative, for it draws its action from the Irish civil war. The story takes place in Dublin, Ireland, in June 1922. At this time, the Irish civil war has been going on for several months. The Republicans hold the Four Courts judicial building, but the Free Staters are attacking them with heavy arms.
“The Sniper” also takes place between the hours of dusk and dawn. Beginning as “twilight faded into night,” the action of the story instantly becomes more dangerous. The sniper must conduct his battle in the dark. He has only “the dim light of the moon that shone through fleecy clouds” to see by. This lack of clarity has a realistic impact in making his task—difficult even in the light of day— even more challenging. The sniper has to aim at his enemy, about fifty yards away, and get off one fatal shot with a revolver. The lack of light also has symbolic significance: it underscores the murky, ambiguous situation that a civil war poses. The civil war pits friends, neighbors, and even family members against one another. As is borne out by the story’s ending, people cannot see very clearly during such a conflict.
Point of View
The narrative takes a limited, third-person point of view. The action is entirely funneled through the protagonist. The reader sees only through his eyes, hears sounds through his ears, and processes events through his...
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Compare and Contrast
1920s: Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Many Irish have long been unhappy with this situation. In the late 1910s, Irish forces rebel and begin fighting with British forces. They seek independence from British rule. Today: Four-fifths of the island of Ireland makes up the independent Republic of Ireland, or Eire in the Irish language. Northern Ireland makes up the rest of the island, and it is part of the United Kingdom.
1920s: Republicans and Free Staters engage in a deadly and destructive civil war. Republicans refuse to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which makes southern Ireland a dominion within the United Kingdom, known as the Irish Free State. The Republicans want all of the island of Ireland to have independence. Free Staters, however, support this treaty. The civil war carries on from 1921 until 1923, when a cease-fire is declared, with the Free Staters victorious.
Today: After decades of fighting between Protestants in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republican Army—the paramilitary arm of Sinn Féin, the two sides agree to a cease-fire in 1998. Troubles, however, still brew in Ireland over the division of the island. In 2004, Protestant and Catholic political parties struggle over ways to share power, and allegations of kidnapping and violence on the part of the IRA still take place.
1920s: Irish political leaders are all men, such as Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, and Arthur...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the Irish civil war. After you have conducted your research, write a paper analyzing ‘‘The Sniper’’ from a historical point of view.
Imagine that you are directing a movie version of ‘‘The Sniper.’’ How would you direct the final scene? What kind of emotions would you ask your actor to convey?
Write an essay describing how you think the sniper feels at learning he has killed his brother and what he does next. Does this event keep him from further participation in the Irish civil war?
Investigate another civil war or conflict that has divided families, friends, and communities. Use what you have learned to write your own short story exploring the way that such conflict affects members of society.
The events surrounding the Irish civil war brought to the forefront many important political leaders. Research one of these leaders, either a Republican or a Free Stater, and find out about his influence on Irish history.
Find out more about the role that religion has played in Ireland’s history from the late 1800s through the present day.
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What Do I Read Next?
O’Flaherty’s novel The Informer, first published in 1925, is set in the aftermath of the Irish civil war. It tells about an outlaw who is the object of a Dublin manhunt. The Informer is one of O’Flaherty’s most well-known pieces of fiction.
Like ‘‘The Sniper,’’ O’Flaherty’s short story ‘‘Civil War,’’ included in the 1925 collection of the same name, explores the experience of the war through two Republican soldiers—one an idealist and one a realist—who are trapped on a rooftop, waiting for death.
Liam O’Flaherty’s Ireland (2001), by Peter Costello, features biographical information about O’Flaherty, excerpts from his fiction, and photographs from his time period.
The Letters of Liam O’Flaherty (1996), edited by A. A. Kelly, can provide additional information on this writer.
O’Henry’s ‘‘The Gift of the Magi’’ (1905), Guy de Maupassant’s ‘‘The Necklace’’ (1884), and Saki’s ‘‘The Open Window’’ (1914) all provide variations—both humorous and tragic—on the same type of surprise ending employed by O’Flaherty.
James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), a collection of short stories about the lives of people in Dublin, includes the masterpiece ‘‘The Dead.’’
Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock, perhaps his most popular, was originally staged in 1924 and set during the Irish civil...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Calahan, James M., “Politics,” in Liam O’Flaherty, A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 30–40.
Doyle, Paul A., “Liam O’Flaherty,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 162, British Short Fiction Writers, 1915–1945, edited by John H. Rogers, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 282–92.
Kelly, A. A., “Urban and War Themes,” in Liam O’Flaherty: The Storytellers, Harper & Row Publishers, 1976, pp. 23–36.
O’Brien, James H., “The Short Stories,” in Liam O’Flaherty, Associated University Presses, 1973, pp. 92–117.
Troy, William, “The Position of Liam O’Flaherty,” in Bookman, Vol. LXIX, March 29, 1929, pp. 7–11.
Bates, H. E., “The Irish School” in The Modern Short Story: A Critical Survey, The Writer, 1972, pp. 148–62. Bates, himself a writer of numerous novels and short stories, places O’Flaherty’s work within the context of other important twentieth-century Irish writers.
Brewer, Paul, ed., Ireland: History, Culture, People, Courage Books, 2002. This volume provides an illustrated introduction to Ireland, focusing on its history through the early 2000s, its people, and its culture.
Doyle, Paul A., Liam O’Flaherty, Twayne Publishers, 1971. Doyle’s work provides a good overview of O’Flaherty’s entire body of...
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