(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 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...

(The entire section is 3008 words.)