In Frank O'Connor's "Guests of a Nation," discuss how the idea or concept of the story, specific quote or part in this short story demonstrates the collective trauma of war.Collective trauma is a...

In Frank O'Connor's "Guests of a Nation," discuss how the idea or concept of the story, specific quote or part in this short story demonstrates the collective trauma of war.

Collective trauma is a psychological term for when a group of people experience a shock together.


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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Frank O'Connor's "Guest of the Nation," there are two elements of the story that make me identify them as part of the collective trauma of war.

Donovan represents a part of the collective trauma—the man who does not see anything but the war. He does not become attached to Hastings or Belcher, spending no time with them, and never seeing them as men, but as enemies. The narrator cannot explain the compassion a man might feel for another, regardless of his politics, to Donovan. He explains:

I couldn’t tell him, because I knew he wouldn't understand. If it was only an old dog that you had to take to the vet's, you'd try and not get too fond of him, but Jeremiah Donovan was not a man who would ever be in danger of that.

You can also tell that Donovan is much too caught up in the savagery of war, in the glory and pleasure of killing, as seen when the men prepare to execute the "prisoners"—even when Hastings speaks of deserting his side to join them, eliminating the need to kill him, Donovan will not be moved. He is too excited at the prospect of being able to kill—and of course, there is no threat to him:

"For the last time, have you any messages to send?" said Donovan in a cold, excited sort of voice.

The use of the word "excited" conveys Donovan's desire to kill. Had the author chosen a word like "anxiety" or "nervousness," the reader would not be left with the idea that Donovan is a cold-blooded killer. For Donovan, war is a concept—not the destruction of human life. Like a board game, he finds no reason not to kill the two hostages because their own men had been killed. Donovan's behavior is uncivilized: killing to reciprocate for killing. Donovan's executions, especially the ease with which he kills the men, shows him to be no better than his enemy.

The collective trauma, which starts with Donovan's actions, culminates most clearly for me with regard to the narrator's response to the men's deaths. There is foreshadowing of the narrator's feelings about the entire process just after Donovan kills Hastings:

I knelt and fired. By this time I didn't seem to know what I was doing.

Trauma in itself, speaks of change. When someone is traumatized, he or she is not the same, but damaged in some way. It can be a physical trauma, such as a car accident, or an emotional or mental trauma experienced by heartbreak or a loved one's death. The trauma begins with the narrator when he fires the second shot into Hastings and feels like he has lost his grip on understanding the horror unfolding before him. At the story's end, Noble and the old woman are also traumatized, but the author (with first person point of view) allows us to understand how far-reaching the damage of these deaths has been, for the narrator tells us that nothing would ever be the same for him:

I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that hap­pened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.

This story shows the ugliness of war, especially that of the Irish Rebellion, when even families were divided, and brothers and fathers fired upon, and sometimes killed, each other. The collective trauma begins as the "guards" are made aware of the probable fate of the hostages, and ends with the narrator's note that life has changed for him, for good.

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Guests of the Nation

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