(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story is set in an isolated Irish village where the community is closely knit, where the people are bound together by shared suspicions and fears, and where absolute evil is recognizable and verifiable. It relates a test of innocence that the whole community undergoes in an effort to identify a gang of horse thieves. The reader knows that the thieves are led by Anthony Meehan, but the tension of the story is created by the suspense of waiting to see if Anthony will succumb to the test.

Anthony Meehan is introduced as an absolutely evil character: violent, secretive, hateful, fearless, and relentlessly hard-hearted even to his own brother. There is a general assumption in the community at Carnmore that he has sold his soul to the devil, and the narrator frequently refers to him as “diabolical” and “Satanic.” His characterization and the setting are calculated to intensify this almost supernatural quality of evil, and his only relief from this role is when he loves his young daughter, Anne.

Denis Meehan has been his brother’s reluctant accomplice and is vulnerable to the superstition to which Anthony is immune. One night before they set off to steal a valuable horse, Denis reveals that he is afraid because he has found a bad omen in the ashes of the fireplace. When Anthony begins to imagine Denis as “a Judas,” he intimidates Denis with threats of violence against Denis’s family, and only Anne’s appeals for peace calm down her father. Anthony mocks those who are afraid and doubts Denis’s loyalty.

Some days later, the gang reassembles to prepare for the public test of innocence. Anyone who stays away is presumed to be guilty. Some of the thieves relieve their...

(The entire section is 704 words.)