John McGahern

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What is a critical analysis of the short story "The Stoat" by John McGahern?

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There are a few interconnected stories happening in “The Stoat” that might influence your analysis. The story takes place near Strandhill, a coastal village in Co. Sligo, Ireland, where a widowed teacher vacations with his son. One story regards the teacher, who, looking for companionship, puts out an ad in...

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There are a few interconnected stories happening in “The Stoat” that might influence your analysis. The story takes place near Strandhill, a coastal village in Co. Sligo, Ireland, where a widowed teacher vacations with his son. One story regards the teacher, who, looking for companionship, puts out an ad in the paper seeking a potential wife. Then there's the story about the relationship between the teacher, his son (the narrator, who's starting college as a medical student), and the teacher's brother who lives nearby. Finally, there's the story of a stoat who kills a rabbit at a golf course in the first scene. The narrator brings the dead rabbit back to the cottage, intending to prepare a meal, and as the narrative progresses, we wonder if the stoat and rabbit story serves to help us digest “The Stoat.”

The teacher receives many responses to his ad and meets quite a few women before Miss McCabe, a schoolteacher “somewhere in her forties, rather frail, and excitable.” McCabe stays at a hotel nearby while the two court. Meanwhile, the narrator meets with his uncle, “who ha[s] encouraged him against his father in his choice of medicine, the father wishing to see him in a bank.” It becomes clear that the uncle and his brother contrast in many ways and that the narrator and the uncle would spend more time together if the father remarried.

The teacher and McCabe hit it off, and, much to the teacher's relief, the narrator approves of his father's potential wife, though “he would have encouraged his father to marry her whether he did or not, as he was anxious for the whole play to be over.” The reader gets the sense that the relationship between teacher and narrator is somewhat fragmented. As the story progresses, the son spends much of his time golfing, and the teacher and McCabe's relationship develops. The son's approval of McCabe is called into question when he describes seeing the couple walking arm in arm: “The sight disturbe[s] him, as if their defense was too brittle against the only end of life.” The reader starts to see a conflict in the story centered around the relationship between teacher and narrator rather than around the teacher's search for companionship.

The stoat story returns when the narrator encourages his father to invite McCabe over for a rabbit dinner. McCabe loves the meal, and we discover that she's impressed with the narrator after the teacher walks McCabe home. He tells his son that McCabe has offered to help him pay for post-graduate work in the future. The son appears annoyed by the proposition: "'My uncle said I can have as much as I need on loan for those purposes,' the son said cuttingly, and the reference to the uncle annoyed the father as much as Miss McCabe's offer had the son.” This reinforces the sense that the true conflict is between father and son. The son resolves to avoid the couple as much as he can, but McCabe has a heart attack in the salt baths the next afternoon. This shakes the teacher, and he decides to break off the relationship and flee from the cottage. The son stays, and the story closes with the uncle's theoretical response to his brother's love affair, and a re-imagining of the initial story of the stoat and the rabbit, this time focused around the moments before the rabbit's death.

Here are a few questions to ask if you're still having trouble forming your analysis: What does the stoat and rabbit story represent? Does it frame the larger narrative in some way? How does the relationship between the main characters and the uncle influence our understanding of the story? What function does the uncle's imagined response in the conclusion serve? How does the narrator really feel about the other characters, and has that changed over the course of the narrative?

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