How important is the setting in "Guests of the Nation"?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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The setting of "Guests fo the Nation" is critical to the short story, in fact, with a very dissimilar setting, it would be a very dissimilar story: setting and story are inseparable. In Frank O'Connor's short story, which is told by Bonapartevfrom a first person point of view, a small band of Irish rebels have captured British soldiers during the Irish Rebellion. Bonaparte is one of the Irish rebels, so the story comes from the experience of an Irish rebel whom O'Connor presents as a reliable, trustworthy narrator. The major difficulty in the story occurs because the British forces are holding Irish prisoners, and if it comes to pass that the British execute any of them, the Irish rebels will choose to retaliate by executing the English prisoners. This would be an unsurprising fulfillment of the mentality of war except for the setting in which O'Connor places the English prisoners who play poker with the Irish rebels and discuss and argue with them about three most relevant topics: politics and religion--and capitalists.

In doing so, they spend time together, think together, play cards together, joke together. In such circumstances--in such a setting--they come to know and respect each other as joint members of humanity. When word comes that the British have indeed shot Irish soldiers, including a sixteen-year-old boy, the decree is handed down that the rebels must retaliate by executing the British soldiers. Bonaparte describes and embodies the deep conflict between duty and responsibility, duty and personal feeling that this scenario awakens. After hope of some alternate course flickers and dies in the forest along with the British prisoners, Bonaparte is left to try to come to terms with these thematic questions. The conflict couldn't have arisen in a setting that didn't lend itself to friendly conversation and  interaction between the rebels and the English. Another setting couldn't as readily have brought out the personal complexity inherent in the issues of duty, responsibility and feelings.

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