Guests of the Nation

by Frank O'Connor

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In Frank O'Connor's short story "Guests of the Nation," who is the real outsider and who is the real enemy?  

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The real “outsider” in “Guests of the Nation” is almost certainly Jeremiah Donovan, the Irish officer who appears in the first paragraph of the story and who then reappears (usually near the beginnings of new sections throughout the tale). Although Donovan is an Irishman and should therefore presumably have a close relationship with his fellow Irish soldiers, in fact he seems remote and distant from everyone else almost from the beginning, and he becomes increasingly more distant – even belligerent – as the story develops. He seems most attractive in the opening paragraph; thereafter, he becomes less and less attractive, both to readers and to some of the other characters, including the narrator (Bonaparte) and Hawkins, one of the two English captives. Significantly, Belcher, the English soldier who is perhaps the most appealing character in the entire story, remains thoughtful in his relations with Donovan until the very end of the tale, just as he has remained thoughtful and considerate in his dealings with all the other characters. If there were anyone in the story with whom the awkward, self-conscious Donovan might have struck up a friendship, it might have been Belcher. Instead, Donovan remains an outsider to the very end and becomes more and more isolated as the tale proceeds.

Donovan is associated with an increasing level of literal and figurative darkness throughout the story.  Each time he enters the tale, the tone and atmosphere of the work become increasingly grim. Donovan seems to resent the close friendships that have sprung up between the two Irish captors and their two English captives. He senses that he is not respected by his Irish comrades, and the fact that they bond with men who should nominally be their enemies makes his status as an outsider all the more apparent, to him and to us. By the end of the tale, Donovan simply disappears. He is no longer relevant to the epiphanies shared by Bonaparte and Noble. At this point, he becomes an “outsider” in the additional sense that he is now outside the story itself and thus outside the consciousness of its readers.  Interestingly, “Frank O’Connor” was simply the pen name of the writer Michael O’Donovan. O’Connor thus gives his own “real name” to one of the least attractive characters he ever created. It is as if O’Connor wanted to imply that no one can ultimately or entirely separate himself or herself from the kinds of flaws Donovan so clearly reveals.

If there is a real “enemy” at all in this story, that “enemy” may be the kind of unthinking hatred between nations that leads people to mistreat and even kill persons of other nationalities – persons who in other circumstances could easily have been friends. Part of the point of O’Connor’s story seems to be that we are too quick to treat each other as enemies and too unwilling or unable to change our assessments when new facts arise. Yet O’Connor seems less interested in making thematic points than in exploring a genuinely tragic situation. In that situation, friends must kill friends because the latter have been designated as enemies, not because they are foes in any genuine sense of the word. Ironically, in a story about war that is set in wartime, real enemies seem difficult to identify.

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