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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The tale is narrated by Jackie, a seven-year-old boy who must make his first confession before receiving his first Communion. A precocious boy, Jackie is distressed because his paternal grandmother has moved from the country to live with his family. He is disgusted by the woman’s love of porter beer, her inclination to eat potatoes with her hands, and her favoring his sister, Nora, with an allowance denied him. The boy feels that his sister and grandmother side against him and make his life unbearable.

He has been prepared for the sacraments of penance and communion by another elderly woman, Ryan, who impresses on the children the gravity of the rituals by emphasizing the perils of damnation. As Jackie tersely remarks, “Hell had the first place in her heart.” She tempts the children with a half-crown if one of them will hold a finger in a flame for five minutes, and she relates a terrifying story of a man who has made a bad confession. The man comes to a priest late at night demanding that he be allowed to confess immediately; as the priest dresses, day dawns, the man disappears, and the only evidence of his presence is a pair of palm prints burned into the priest’s bedstead.

Jackie fears that he has broken all the commandments and is forced to go to confession with Nora. Inside the confessional, he plants himself on the armrest and tumbles out of the booth when trying to talk with the priest. An outraged Nora begins beating him, but the priest scolds her and makes a special case of Jackie’s confession. When the boy admits that he has contemplated murdering his grandmother and sister, the priest acknowledges that he is indeed a bad case. Jackie’s pride swells because the priest appears to take him so seriously and because he appears to have an ally in his growing discontentment with women. They discuss the gruesomeness of hanging for grievous crimes, and, at the end of his confession, the boy who earlier was reluctant to confess is genuinely sorry to part with the priest, whom he regards as the most entertaining character he has ever met “in the religious line.”

On their walk home, Nora is shocked at the length of her brother’s confession and disgusted that he has not been given a more severe penance. When he tells her that the priest has even given him some candy, she is outraged that there is no advantage to trying to be good.