Guests of the Nation by Frank O'Connor

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Duty and Personal Responsibility

(Short Stories for Students)

In ‘‘Guests of the Nation,’’ O’Connor looks at the consequences when people in stressful situations choose duty over personal morality. J. R. Crider calls that ‘‘the tragic dilemma in which [the] characters are caught, between military duty and . . . ancient . . . moral law.’’ The Irish rebels are caught in this dilemma—they are forced to choose whether or not to carry out the execution of their English prisoners.

Donovan ‘‘deliberately closes himself off from the human ties’’ which might weaken his resolve to follow orders from his superiors. Therefore he maintains his distance from the prisoners, writes Stanley Renner. But he is the first to raise the notion of duty. As the prisoners are being led down the path into the bog, he ‘‘begins the usual rigmarole about duty and how unpleasant it is.’’ Bonaparte describes Donovan’s feelings: ‘‘I never noticed that people who talk a lot about duty find it much of a trouble to them.’’ Nevertheless, his duty to avenge the killing of some Irish prisoners takes precedence over his duty to respect fellow human beings. He is driven by his obligations to the military instructions that have been given to him by Feeney. He chooses to follow these orders and blame ‘‘the deliberate inhumanity’’ of the killings on his duty to the Irish cause.

Donovan and the rest of the rebels are unable or unwilling to take any personal control of their actions out of fear of the consequences. Renner says that since Donovan and Feeney place ‘‘devotion to the cause above humanity,’’ they are unable to take any initiative over their personal behaviors. Then after Hawkins claims that he (Hawkins) would not shoot any of his chums, Donovan says to Hawkins, ‘‘You would, because you’d know you’d be shot for not doing it.’’ Because of the threat, they all are unwilling to disobey an order. They cannot do otherwise because of the fear of retribution.

Military personnel are controlled by threats of punishment for not following orders, no matter what the orders are. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona, finding herself on the horns of a dilemma, says: ‘‘I do perceive here a divided duty.’’ For her the division was between father and husband. For the rebels the division lies between the responsibility to the military and to personal morality. But fear for one’s own safety makes the individual obey the order.

Bonaparte experiences this division in his desires when he says that he hopes the prisoners would run away because he knows that he would not try to stop them. But he does not govern his own behavior. Rather, he lets someone else guide his actions. Since the prisoners do not attempt to escape, he is forced to follow the orders and participate in the executions. Michael Libermann concludes that men can be called upon to fulfill obligations that otherwise they would reject, because they have ‘‘joined a cause,’’ and then the horror of these acts is compounded when the men are forced to do things that are ‘‘unthinkable’’ in other circumstances.

The folly of blindly following a duty has also been described in another O’Connor story, ‘‘Attack.’’ In this tale, some rebels plan an attack on a garrison of police ‘‘whose sense of duty had outrun their common sense.’’ Here, the police have lost ‘‘all sense of proportion.’’ They become so impressed with their own positions of authority that they become a nuisance to the people they are supposed to be protecting. Their notion of duty has been subverted by an obligation to the British authority, to ‘‘the cause,’’ rather than an obligation to their own sense of good behavior or morality. In both stories, as Maurice Wohlgelernter points out, the combatants use ‘‘Duty . . . as a shield for monstrous acts of evil’’ because individuals fail to take personal responsibility for their acts.

One evening Donovan tells Bonaparte and Noble that the Englishmen...

(The entire section is 5,603 words.)