In what ways does McGahern make the relationship between father and son so memorable in "The Stoat"?

In John McGahern's short story “The Stoat,” the father and the son are engaged in a relationship that seems fine on the surface but is quite dysfunctional underneath. The son is mostly apathetic toward his father except when he feels somewhat disgusted. The father tries to reach out to his son and to include him in his life but cannot make the connection.

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Let's take a look at the relationship between the father and the son in John McGahern's short story “The Stoat.”

We'll begin with the son's attitude toward his father. The son is civil and polite, but he is also rather distant and apathetic. He carries on a decent conversation with his father. He seems attentive to his father's needs, bringing him lunch and generously offering to cook supper for his father and his father's girlfriend. He goes along with all of his father's ideas about remarrying, assuring his father at all times that he thinks his father is doing the right thing and that he has no objections. Yet we get a feeling that the son is merely going along because it is easier to do so. Notice one of his comments. When his father remarks that he worries his son will be offended by his possible remarriage, the young man replies,

That's ridiculous. I think you should do exactly what you want to do. It's your life.

The father is hurt by these words or, perhaps, more by the tone in which they are said. Does his son sound more apathetic than encouraging? The son expresses no detailed opinions, offers no discussion, asks no questions, carries on no real conversation. Does he really care at all for his father and his father's interests?

We begin to wonder when we hear the son's discussion with his uncle about his father's marriage-seeking. The uncle notes, “At least, if he does get married, it'll get him off your back.” The uncle finds the young man's father “dull,” and the young man looks up to his uncle, who has served as his mentor in his medical studies, so perhaps the son also finds his father dull, uninteresting, and not worthy of much response.

In fact, the pattern continues when the son meets Miss McCabe. He merely responds to his father's questioning with the comment that he thinks she is “a fine person” and that he has no objections. Again, he offers no further details or discussion. We get a better idea of what the son truly thinks of Miss McCabe when she offers him money for his schooling after the three share a meal. “That won't be necessary,” the son responds “cuttingly,” annoyed by the offer and feeling “soiled” by the whole encounter, as if it were all “buffoonery” and “against any sense of dignity.” Indeed, the son is quite disgusted by his father and Miss McCabe.

The son returns to his apathy when his father decides to walk out of his relationship with Miss McCabe, heading for home instead of remaining at the vacation cottage. This time, the son does offer a shocked, “You can't do that” but then quickly accepts the situation and moves on with his life. The son will not join his father but will go to enjoy his uncle's home and conversation instead.

Now let's turn to the father. Although we do not hear his inner thoughts, we can see him trying to reach out to his son, to include him in his life and in his decisions, only to be pushed away or brushed aside again and again. He seems to want his son's true opinions, and he keeps trying to encourage him to become more involved. There is a sense of wistfulness in the father, too. “Soon you'll be a fully qualified doctor,” he tells his son, “while I'll have to eke out my days between this empty house and the school.”

This relationship seems to be a classic case of a father and a son who do not really understand each other. The son remains apathetic for the most part, telling his father what he thinks his father wants to hear and then going on about his own life. The father wants to reach out to the son and does try, but he cannot connect with him. The whole situation is really quite sad, and at the end of the story, the father and son once again go their separate ways.

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