Although widely read in Western literature, Frank O’Connor’s literary character is most profoundly influenced by tensions within the literature and life of Ireland, ancient and modern. He was a dedicated student of the literature of Ireland’s native language, a keen observer of the life of the folk, intimately familiar with Ireland’s topography, and an active participant in its revolutionary and literary politics. These interests shaped his art. His literary vocation, however, like so many others of his generation, begins with Yeats’s literary nationalism and continues through a dialectic between his perceptions of that poet’s idealism and James Joyce’s early naturalism. O’Connor’s predominantly realistic fiction attempts a fusion of these two influences, while also recalling the popular origin—in the oral art of the shanachie—of the short story. He found that Yeats and Joyce were too “elitist” for the “common reader”; and with O’Faoláin, he is associated with the development of the realistic Irish short story, the most representative art of the Irish Literary Revival.
“Guests of the Nation”
“Guests of the Nation,” the title story of O’Connor’s first collection, is probably his single finest work. All the stories in this volume reflect his involvement in the War of Independence; and this one distinguishes itself by its austere transcendence of the immediate circumstances, which in the rest of the stories here trammel the subjects with excessive patriotic enthusiasm. During the War of Independence, the protagonist’s (Bonaparte’s) cadre of Volunteers has been charged with the task of holding hostage two British soldiers, Belcher and Hawkins; during their captivity, the forced intimacy of captors, and hostages leads to a reluctantly admitted mutual respect which develops through their card-playing, arguments, and sharing of day-to-day chores. As the reader observes the exchanges of sympathy, idiom, and gesture between Irish and English soldiers, the two Englishmen become distinct from their roles, and from each other. The narrative develops the issues of religion, accent, and political allegiances as only superficially divisive, so that when the order arrives from headquarters to execute the hostages in military reprisal, the moral conflict is joined.
The story nicely dramatizes the contrasting reactions to this order among the various figures, captors and hostages: Donovan’s giving grim precedence to national duty over “personal considerations”; Noble’s pious reflections, which short-circuit his comprehension of the enormity of his actions; and Bonaparte’s reflective agony. The change in the attitudes of the Englishmen, once they know the truth of the directive, poignantly reveals new dimensions in these men’s characters. The argument to the last of Hawkins, the intellectual, dramatizes the limitations of rational discussion; but the stoicism of the more effective Belcher, his unflappability in the face of his own annihilation, drives the story to its height of feeling, a height to which only Bonaparte is equal. Noble’s moral earnestness and Donovan’s objectivity provide contrasts and contexts for Bonaparte’s tragic anagnorisis.
O’Connor achieves the inimitable effects of the fine conclusion by a combination of devices: the shreds of partisan argument about religion and politics, the range of attitudes embodied by the various characters, the carefully modulated speaking voice of the narrator—steady, intelligent, slightly uncouth, bitter—the spare use of images (ashes, spades, light and dark), and the figure of the old woman who observes the whole affair. This woman, at once a representative of the “hidden powers” of the universe, the irrationality behind the appearances of coherence, and also a representative of the affinity between such forces in the human psyche and the justifiable cause of Mother Ireland, gives the story both historical and universal resonances. Thus as one considers the story as a tragic examination of the...
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theme of duty (to self, friends, institutions, nation, God), and of the tension between the claims of individual conscience and communal obligation, between commitments to the personal and the abstract, developed with psychological accuracy in a modern setting, one notes its roots in the soil of Irish literature and tradition. The political situation, the various elements of local color, the allusively named characters, the figure of the old woman, the precedence of the ancient Celtic ritual of bog-burial, and the echoes of the tension in Celtic society between the obligations to provide hospitality to strangers and at the same time to protect the clan’s rights through the insurance of hostage-taking: All these elements blend the modern with the archaic. Taken in combination, they achieve the result of casting these English soldiers as “guests” of the nation as an imaginative entity.
The restrained lyricism of the last paragraph, coming as it does on the heels of a rather colloquial narrative, shows how moved is the storyteller by his recollections. The bathetic solecism of the summary comment, however—“And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again”—certifies that the narrator’s education is unfinished. This sentence mirrors the dislocation of his feelings, while it also nicely preserves the integrity of O’Connor’s characteristic fictional device, the speaking voice.
“In the Train”
The story “In the Train” (Bones of Contention, and Other Stories) dramatizes the reactions of a group of South-of-Ireland villagers toward an accused murderer in their midst, as they all return homeward by train from the Dublin criminal court. They have all conspired to prevent the woman’s conviction, planning to punish her in their own manner when they return home. By a series of interconnected scenes, observed in a sequence of compartments of the train as it traverses the dark countryside, the story develops the theme of the villagers’ common opposition to the law of the state and, by implication, their allegiance to the devices of their ancient community. From the bourgeois pretensions of the sergeant’s wife to the dialogue that reveals the tensions and boredom among the policemen, to the stoicism of the peasants, to the huddled figure of the accused herself, the focus narrows from the humor of the opening scenes to the brooding interior monologue of the isolated woman in the final scene. The various parts of the story are interconnected by the characters’ common motion west, their agreed attitude toward the legal apparatus of the Free State, by the Chaplinesque rambling drunk, and by the fated, defiant pariah. The story proceeds by indirection: Its main action (the murder and trial) is over and revealed only in retrospect; and its focus (the accused) is not fully identified until the final section. O’Connor develops these suspensions, however, in a resourceful manner, by focusing on the secondary tension in the community occasioned by the presence of the sergeant’s carping wife, and by having the shambling drunk lead the reader to the transfixed woman.
The apparent naïveté of the narrator’s voice—colloquial, amused, relishing the folksy scenes—is belied by the complex structure of the piece. Moreover, the narrative is rich with echoes of Anton Chekhov, touches of melodrama and vaudeville, devices from folktales and folkways, as it portrays the residue of the ancient legal unit of Celtic society, the derb-fine, persisting under the “foreign” order of the Irish Free State. In these contexts, the ambiguities of the sergeant’s position and that of the local poteen manufacturer are richly developed, while we discern that the woman’s guilt is never firmly established. The story ends with a choric circle around the tragic complaint of the woman, whose community has preserved her only to impose their own severe penalty: ostracism from the only community she knows. O’Connor shares and enlarges her despair. The initial amusement of his story yields to chagrin at the loss both of the ideals of the Irish revolution in the Free State, and of humaneness in the dying rural communities of Ireland.
“The Long Road to Ummera”
“The Long Road to Ummera” concerns an old woman’s conflict with her son over her desire for burial in the ancestral ground in the remote West Cork village of Ummera. Abby, Batty Heig’s daughter, has followed her son Pat to the city of Cork, but feeling the approach of death, desires to be returned to Ummera, not by the modern highway, but by the ancient “long road.” A tragicomic test of wills between mother and son ensues, pitting against each other the desires for established ritual against modern efficiency, uncouth rural mannerisms and polite town manners, homage to ancestors, and modern progressivism. Because of her son’s insensitivity, the old woman is forced to engage in comic subterfuge to achieve her last wish, and by grotesque turns of events involving a cobbler, a jarvey, and a priest, she has her way in all its details: Her body is transported along the prescribed road and announced ritually to the desolate countryside.
This is a moving portrait of an old woman, dignified by a lively sense of the presence of the dead and by lyrical evocations of the scenery of West Cork. In contrast to these qualities is the philistinism of her businessman son. The story itself has ritual quality, woven as it is with repeated phrases, scenes, arguments, events, recurrent images of death, various addictions, and the rehearsals of rituals themselves. The story represents O’Connor’s criticism of bourgeois Ireland and the triumph of profit and respectability, major themes of his sweet-and-sour stories from the 1930’s and 1940’s contained in this, perhaps his best collection, Crab Apple Jelly. Although the speaking voice remains the norm, the tone here is more knowing than in the earlier stories. O’Connor, like Abby, is keeping promises to ancient values, including the language, family loyalty, community, and rootedness. If the old woman’s loyalty to her circuitous way is bypassed by Ireland’s new one, however, the narrator’s sad lyricism suggests that he can tread neither.
Of O’Connor’s childhood stories, “First Confession,” “My Oedipus Complex,” and “The Drunkard,” developed over the 1940’s, are his most famous, although not his most distinguished, works. The much-anthologized “First Confession” humorously exploits the mildly exotic Catholic rite, as the little boy finds that the image of religion fostered by his female educators is not borne out in the encounter with the priest-confessor. Hearing that the boy’s chief sin is his desire to murder his ill-mannered grandmother, the priest humors the impenitent child by having him articulate the fantasy and sends him back to the sunny street. The idiom of an Irish child carries the narration here, although with the injection of some adult irony directed at the boy’s naïve literalism. The story might be faulted for its slapstick and cuteness, as if O’Connor indulges too liberally in the mood of his creation. Many of O’Connor’s stories portray insensitive and repressive priests, but not this one. Rather, it is the women who are the agents of terrifying, dogmatic religiosity, in contrast with the priest’s personification of a paternal, forgiving, and humorous God.
“My Oedipus Complex” and “The Drunkard”
“My Oedipus Complex” and “The Drunkard” are charming examples of O’Connor’s mastery of the narrator-as-child. In them, the themes of marital tension, domestic evasiveness, and the dependence of Irish males on their mothers are treated with light irony. By means of an unexpected turn of events, the severe social controls on incest and alcoholism are toyed with as the jealous conspiracies of women; thus moral awareness commences with male bonding. In each of these three childhood stories, the antagonist at first appears as male—priest, bed-rival, drunken father—until the possessiveness of women emerges as the substantial moral antagonist. In these much-revised stories, O’Connor has refined the instrument of the speaking voice to a point that is perhaps too ingratiating, too calculatedly smooth, so that the spontaneity of the “rough narrative voice” is lost, and with it, some of his cold and passionate isolation. The attraction of these stories, however, is readily apparent in their author’s recorded versions, which he narrates with considerable relish.
“A Story by Maupassant”
O’Connor’s tendency to reread his own work with disapproval led to constant revisions, so that there are two, three, or more variants of many of his most popular works. A case in point is “A Story by Maupassant,” which first appeared in The Penguin New Writing (No. 24, 1945) and in a significantly revised version in A Set of Variations. This story of the corruption of an Irish intellectual, observed by his more concrete-minded friend, climaxes when Terry Coughlan admits to the narrator that his appreciation of Maupassant’s grasp of “what life can do to you” came during a sleepless night in the bed of a Parisian prostitute. A comparison of the two versions shows several changes: He expands the proportion of more precise and graphic details and reduces dialectal, self-conscious, and repetitive elements; he achieves a more complex ironic effect by a stronger investment in double perspective; he condemns more forthrightly the hypocrisy of the Catholic school, as he renders more deft the function of religious metaphor; he enlarges the sympathy for Terry Coughlan by an enlargement of oblique cultural references and a softening of the narrator’s moralizing. O’Connor’s own view of Maupassant—that the mainspring of his art lay in the mixture of creative and destructive tendencies interacting as perversity—is brought to bear on the bitter conclusion of the story: Maupassant, at least, has not abandoned these self-destructive characters. In his revisions, O’Connor strengthens Maupassant’s perspective, focusing in the end on the prostitute’s baby, a symbol of the naïveté of new life. O’Connor bitterly notes that nature, like Maupassant’s fiction, without an ideal that is informing, seeks the lowest level. Here is a story that, by the intervention of O’Connor’s matured hand, gains considerably in power and perspective, subtlety and professionalism.
The general subject of O’Connor’s fiction is a critique of the “introverted religion” and “introverted politics” of bourgeois Ireland—sectarian obscurantism, the abuses of clerical power, class snobbery, family rivalries, disingenuous piety, Anglophobia, and thwarted idealism—although these criticisms are usually modified by warm portraits of energetic children, humane clerics, and unpretentious peasants. His central object in these stories is “to stimulate the moral imagination” by separating his characters from their assumed social roles and having them stand, for a moment, alone. In many of his most distinguished works, and indeed throughout his whole career as a writer of short fiction, one may discern such a movement from the depiction of the comfortably communal to that of the isolated, enlightened individual. He proposes a nexus between such a contrast of perspectives and the short-story form.
The Lonely Voice
In his study entitled The Lonely Voice (1963), O’Connor holds as central that “in the short story at its most characteristic [there is] something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness.” This collection of essays on selected practitioners of the modern short story (Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov, Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, A. E. Coppard, Isaac Babel, and Mary Lavin) draws on seminar notes from O’Connor’s classes at various universities in the 1950’s. The discussions are genial, opinionated, and not academic, and afford brilliant comments on individual artists and works, although they suffer from diffuseness and overextension at certain points in the argument. The study rests on the theory that the distinction of the short story from the novel is less a formal than an ideological one: It is the expression of “an attitude of mind that is attracted by submerged population groups tramps, artists, lonely idealists, dreamers, and spoiled priests remote from the community—romantic, individualistic, and intransigent.”
From this position, O’Connor argues that “the conception of the short story as a miniature art is inherently false,” holding that, on the contrary, “the storyteller differs from the novelist in this: he must be much more of a writer, much more of an artist more of a dramatist.” From the same vantage point he evaluates his selected authors as they severally identify with some “submerged population group,” finding that as each author compromised or found less compelling the vision of his subjects as outsiders or social or political minorities, he either failed as a short-story writer or found another form more expressive of his vision.
While O’Connor’s claims for these theories are maintained in the face of easily adduced contrary evidence, they have limited, and in some ways startling, application to certain authors and works. As a critic, O’Connor possessed brilliant intuitions, although he did not have the power to systematize. In The Lonely Voice his remarks on Joyce’s and Hemingway’s rhetorical styles, his contrasting Chekhov and Mansfield, his accounting for Kipling’s artistic failure, and, in The Mirror in the Roadway (1956), his discussion of Joyce’s “dissociated metaphor” have useful application to the contribution of each of these authors to the literature of the short story.
From various accounts by former students and colleagues, as well as from these critical works, it is quite clear that O’Connor was a brilliantly successful teacher of fiction-writing. His seminars were guided with authority and seriousness, and he placed great emphasis on the perfection of technique. He trained his students to begin with a “prosaic kernel” which the “treatment” takes to its crisis. The finished work takes its power from the cumulation of the drama, poetry, and emotion developed throughout the narrative, finally resolving itself in universalizing mystery. The short story is not concerned with the passage of time or with particularities of character; ideally it is based on an incident and a briefly stated theme, which technique elaborates to the final formula; it should not proceed on technique alone (Hemingway’s fault) or follow a preconceived symbolic pattern (Joyce’s fault), but ideally it is a fusion of the opposites of naturalism and symbolism.