Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1572
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 are being held as hostages, not as prisoners. Both men refuse to accept the possibility that they would be asked to shoot the men. They believe that the English soldiers would not shoot any Irish prisoners and that since the men at Second Battalion know the two they were holding, no one would ‘‘want to see them plugged.’’ According to Michael Neary, the two men are disillusioned especially by the orders to execute their ‘‘good natured and thoroughly harmless English prisoners.’’ Still, they refuse to take responsibility for their own and their prisoners’ destiny. They obey and then blame it on others higher up in the chain of command. Renner assigns the harshest moral judgment to Noble and Bonaparte precisely because they participate in the brutal executions, ‘‘in the mistaken impression that they have no choice.’’
In situations like these where societal duty and personal duty are in direct conflict, the question is raised: Does a society (military or otherwise) have the right to order an individual to commit acts that are in violation of personal morality? Is the individual absolved of guilt because he or she obeys a societal order? In this story can Bonaparte and Noble be forgiven for their actions because they were ordered to do so?
This was the central question at the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials. At these trials, German officers tried to absolve themselves of guilt for their actions by saying that they were only following orders. Many of these men were convicted and hanged for their crimes, since the Military Tribunal court did not accept their excuses. The Tribunal held that they were indeed responsible for their actions and that they had to pay for them.
Just as those found guilty at Nuremberg, Bonaparte and Noble each forfeit their innocence by following Donovan in accepting the orders from Feeney. Yet each knows that the acts they commit are wrong. Bonaparte says that by time they reached the bog he ‘‘was so sick’’ that he could not even talk. His internal revulsion at the impending executions reveals his belief that it was wrong to shoot them. Just as he would let them escape, he would not have participated in the executions if given the choice.
At the end, none of the characters has acted on his own initiative. None has taken command of the situation in a manner that each knows is a better choice. Donovan acts out of a blind sense of duty to the orders. Noble and Bonaparte both act out of fear of harsh punishment. After the burial, Donovan and Feeney disappear into the darkness, their roles ful- filled. Noble and Bonaparte return to the cottage, their lives now changed.
This tale ends with the dilemma of divided duty, as noted earlier from the drama Othello. But it now includes a glimpse into the souls of the rebels. In Henry V, Shakespeare also visits this aspect of a divided duty, writing: ‘‘Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own.’’ Accordingly, the individual is not absolved of guilt or the obligation to do the right thing because of a military order. The ‘‘subject’’ may escape the vengeance of his king, but the judgment of his ‘‘soul’’ will be harsh.
When Noble and Bonaparte return to the cottage, the woman asks what has happened to the Englishmen. No answer is given, but she knows anyway. She falls to her knees to pray for the souls of the slain men. Seeing this, Noble also falls to his knees to pray. Of the rebels, he was the faithful one, often referring to the next world in his arguments about religion with Hawkins. But during those moments in the bog when he might have invoked his religious beliefs, he did not. Renner interprets his prayers as an attempt ‘‘to lighten his burden of sorrow and guilt.’’ He goes on to say that Noble also uses the prayers as ‘‘consolation’’ and an ‘‘evasion of moral responsibility.’’ It is ironic that his act of petition becomes one of selfish penance.
The immorality of cold blooded murder is not absolved by the intended positive results of the Irish Rebellion. The ends do not justify the means if the ends are achieved through immoral acts. This then answers the question as to whether or not the executions were justified. The men knew the executions were wrong. Renner has pointed out that despite the orders ‘‘they do have a choice’’ of their behavior. And they fail to make that choice. What is left, writes Renner, is a ‘‘military, which (had) been created, ideally, to ensure the welfare and safety of human beings, (but now has) come to work to their harm: a human power meant for good . . . result(ing) in evil.’’ Noble and Bonaparte are left to contemplate their complicity in that evil.
The Rebels held the ideals of the Rebellion high. But in the end they are left wondering about the future. O’Connor has written what Tomory calls ‘‘the most eloquent commentary on the inhumanity of war.’’ The story also has power because, as Richard J. Thompson says, ‘‘it illustrates the loss of fellow-feeling and the basic decency that follows from the imposition of political dogmas.’’ The tale ends in despair and disillusionment because ideology has triumphed over morality.
Source: Carl Mowery, ‘‘An Overview of ‘Guests of the Nation’,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999. Mowery has a Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Composition and Literature from Southern Illinois University.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 917
Frank O’Connor’s ‘‘Guests of the Nation,’’ with its wonderfully ironic title, is one of the most memorable short stories ever written about Ireland’s struggle for political independence from England. Set during ‘‘the Troubles,’’ or the revolutionary period between the Easter Rising in 1916 and the signing of the Home Rule treaty at the end of 1921, O’Connor’s narrative of rebels and hostages reveals the con- flicts, not just between the Irish and their unwelcomed ‘‘guests,’’ but among the revolutionaries themselves.
Like so many of O’Connor’s stories, ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ (the title story of a 1931 collection) is told from the first-person point of view to give the narrative the quality of oral storytelling. Unlike the typical O’Connor storyteller, who narrates an event that has happened or been told to someone else, the narrator in ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ is someone who has taken part in an action so emotionally and morally disturbing that it has altered his life. Speaking with the voice of his own Cork region, while imitating the accents and expressions of the English hostages, O’Connor’s narrator, called Bonaparte by his fellow rebels, recounts his reluctant role in the execution of two English soldiers in retaliation for the deaths of four Irish rebels. The success of O’Connor’s narrative, however, lies not so much in the description of the event itself, common enough during the Troubles, but in O’Connor’s intimate study of the humanity of the rebels and their prisoners and the personal ordeal experienced by O’Connor’s narrator.
‘‘Guests of the Nation,’’ one of several early O’Connor stories about the Irish gunman, reflects his own experiences while fighting on the losing Republican side during the Irish Civil War. During the final days of the war, O’Connor, while suffering acutely from the constant danger of life on the run, was puzzled by the cold resourcefulness of some of his companions, who actually appeared to enjoy the danger and the violence. Afterwards, Daniel Corkery, O’Connor’s old teacher and fellow short story writer, suggested that O’Connor had witnessed the critical moment in revolution when control shifts from the dreamers, those caught up in the Republican ideal, to the professionals, those caught up in the political expediency and emotion of the violence and the killing.
In ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ O’Connor develops this conflict between revolutionary attitudes in the strained relationship between the narrator and Jeremiah Donovan, the experienced rebel, who has the responsibility for carrying out the battalion order to shoot the prisoners. Their differences are played out as the narrator and his youthful compatriot, Noble, become familiar with the Englishmen while they stand guard over them. When the narrator eventually finds out that the prisoners are actually hostages, he bitterly complains to Donovan, only to be told that the English have also held their Irish prisoners over a long period of time. This moral and emotional blindness or indifference to the closeness that has developed between Noble, the narrator, and their prisoners is what most clearly defines Jeremiah Donovan and what most troubles O’Connor’s narrator when he is finally told to carry out the executions. While he recognizes the necessity of an act of reprisal—one of the executed rebels was sixteen years old—the narrator is deeply disturbed by the order to shoot two men whom he has come to regard more as companions than as the enemy.
The most compelling scene in ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ occurs when the English prisoners are taken to the end of the bog where a hole has already been dug for their bodies. O’Connor’s early narrative strategy of developing the personalities of the two Englishmen now takes on dramatic force as Hawkins, the more garrulous of the prisoners, pleads for his life, even by offering to join the rebels, before he is shot in the back of the neck by Donovan. After Hawkins is executed, finished off with a shot fired by Bonaparte, the narrative shifts its attention to the usually taciturn Belcher, whose words, just before his death, take on a dignity and humanity in sharp contrast to the bumbling and grotesque behavior of his executioners.
Once the executions are over, Bonaparte and Noble return to the house used to hide the Englishmen, thereby shifting the narrative back to the emotional and moral impact of the deaths on those closest to the prisoners. While Noble and the old woman of the house fall to their knees in prayer, O’Connor’s narrator goes outside to watch the stars and listen to the now dying shrieks of the birds. At story’s end, the narrator turns briefly to his own emotional state immediately after the killings and to the effect of the deaths on his life ever since. He remembers vividly that the executions and the praying figures seemed at a great physical distance from him and that he felt as lonely as a lost child. He also confesses that he has never felt the same about anything since that night. Apparently compelled to tell his story, O’Connor’s rebel appears to recognize at the close of his narrative that this single, terrible act of revolutionary violence destroyed his youth and left him prematurely disillusioned and emotionally isolated from the human condition no matter what the cause.
Source: Richard F. Peterson, ‘‘Guests of the Nation,’’ in Reference Guide to Short Fiction, St. James Press, 1994, pp. 727–28.