Guests of the Nation

by Frank O'Connor

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Duty and Personal Responsibility

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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...

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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.

Narrative Structure in Guests of the Nation

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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.

The Theme of Hidden Powers: Fate vs. Human Responsibility in Guests of the Nation

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In Frank O’Connor’s ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ the reader witnesses the cold-blooded execution of two English soldiers—a killing by the men who have been assigned to guard them and with whom they have become friends, done in reprisal for the soldiers’ shooting four members of the Irish revolutionary movement. The story employs a first-person participant point of view to dramatize an irony much like Thomas Hardy’s in ‘‘The Man He Killed’’:

Yes; quaint and curious war is! You shoot a fellow down You’d treat if met where any bar is, Or help to half-a-crown.

Readers of the story, however, have not found the war sanctioned shootings it dramatizes ‘‘quaint and curious.’’ Commentators have been virtually unanimous in approving what they take to be O’Connor’s condemnation of ‘‘the evil of murderous ‘duty’ which lies at the center of the story.’’ O’Connor strongly invites this response by humanizing the two English soldiers, engaging the reader’s sympathy for them in order to maximize the shock of their execution in the end. But he also heightens the story’s disturbing effect through an extended figurative questioning of where responsibility for such evils lies—within the individuals involved or in forces beyond their control. At the heart of the story’s design lies a preoccupation with certain mysterious ‘‘hidden powers,’’ the forces of chance or fate or other inexplicable supernatural machination that grips human lives in capricious, mostly unwelcome, ways. Analysis of the theme of ‘‘hidden powers’’ in ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ clari- fies its moral design, the role of its characters, the meaning of the ending—even the significance of the narrator’s name, which has provoked surprisingly little critical curiosity.

The concept of hidden powers is introduced at the outset of the story together with the fellowfeeling that develops between the English prisoners of war and their Irish guards. The opening paragraph establishes both that the men are becoming ‘‘chums’’ and that they spend a good deal of time playing cards, an activity that not only breaks down the military barriers between them but also introduces the notion of chance, a hidden force that plays a ubiquitous role in human events. Although one may exercise some control over how one’s cards are played, chance governs what cards are dealt, both in card games and in life.

The card-playing in ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ introduces the story’s underlying preoccupation with the question of who or what is in charge of what happens on earth. Again reminiscent of Hardy, ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ runs the gamut of possible answers to the question of who or what is in charge of what happens on earth. Again reminiscent of Hardy, ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ runs the gamut of possible answers to the question in much the same way as does Hardy’s ‘‘Hap,’’ in which the speaker, in the apparent absence of a benevolent Providence, prefers that ‘‘some vengeful god’’ were running things rather than nobody or nothing at all. The Christian view that the universe is controlled by a benevolent Providence is represented in the story by Noble, who, in heated debates with Hawkins, argues for a supernatural being who promises an afterlife complete with angels who wear wings. The old woman who keeps the house in which the prisoners are being held introduces the notion of a vengeful deity who pays people off for violations of the divine order. She babbles nonsense as yet unexplained about how an ‘‘Italian Count that stole the heathen divinity out of the temple in Japan’’ brought on World War I because ‘‘nothing but sorrow and want can follow the people that disturb the hidden powers.’’ The card-playing in the story rounds out the possibilities: perhaps our lives, like games of chance, are governed by nothing but ‘‘Crass Casualty,’’ as Hardy terms it in ‘‘Hap’’—the random functioning of the universal machinery.

But there is another order of hidden powers in the design of ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’: human rather than cosmic. For not all the evil that happens to human beings is dealt out by forces beyond their control. Some of it they do to each other. These hidden human powers, visible only in their effect on human beings, appear in the story mainly in the obligations we impose on ourselves through our institutions of social organization and the human concerns that have created them and should make them work for the good of human beings. One of the institutional hidden powers in ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ is that of capitalism, against which Hawkins, who calls himself a Communist, rails bitterly as a evil force working against an amelioration of the human condition. But the primary example in ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ of the institutional power that human beings have imposed on themselves is the military organization which holds the intangible power of duty over the soldiers in the story. The other major human hidden power in the story is that of love in a broad sense—the power in the feelings that bind human beings together. Ironically, the institutional powers, such as the military, which have been created, ideally, to ensure the welfare and safety of human beings, may come to work for their harm: a human power meant for good may result in evil.

Some observers of the human lot have recognized two categories of evils and sorrows: those attributable to cosmic powers, whatever they may be, and those attributable to human powers. There are thus irremediable evils, those we can do nothing about, and remediable evils, those within our power to alleviate. Logically, then, we should cease wringing our hands about irremediable evils and concentrate on those we can do something about. Here again, the story is reminiscent of Hardy, who urges in ‘‘Apology’’—the preface to his Late Lyrics and Earlier—that, to the extent permitted by ‘‘the mighty necessitating forces—unconscious or otherwise,’’ ‘‘pain to all upon [the globe], tongued or dumb, shall be kept down to a minimum by loving-kindness, operating through scientific knowledge, and actuated by the modicum of free will conjecturally possessed by organic life . . . .’’ A similar outlook is attributed to Clarissa Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: as we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship . . . , as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow-prisoners . . .; decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can. Those ruffians, the Gods, shan’t have it all their own way,—her notion being that the Gods, who never lost a chance of hurting, thwarting and spoiling human lives were seriously put out if, all the same, you behaved like a lady.

These are precisely the issues against which the conflict between duty and humanity in ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ is posed, and it is the keenest irony of the story that its protagonists, Bonaparte and Noble, commit a remediable brutality against fellow human beings as if compelled by a power beyond their control. To be sure, chance has put them in their predicament. And it is easy to judge them when one is safely detached from their situation, in which they owe unquestioning obedience to a military organization not known for sweet reasonableness. If they do not carry out the order to execute their prisoners, they can be court-martialed and shot. Still, what they are ordered to do does not fall within the province of the irremediable: they do have a choice, a ‘‘modicum,’’ at least, ‘‘of free will.’’ Bonaparte recognizes the patent inhumanity of the order, although he seems less concerned about the brutality to the Englishmen than about the injury to his own feelings; and it is not promising when he draws an analogy between how he would feel in shooting human beings he has come to like and how he would feel in taking an old dog he is fond of to the vet’s to be put to sleep. But rather than taking action himself, he merely drifts along as if helpless to defy the fates, ‘‘hoping that something would happen,’’ that the Englishmen would ‘‘run for it’’ or that ‘‘Noble would take over the responsibility from me,’’ but doing nothing himself .

The question that underlies the story, then, is whether one is driven along by an irresistible destiny or can take a hand in the chances of life, remedy its remediable ills, and perhaps meliorate the pains and sorrows that cannot be prevented. This question informs not only the ending of ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ but also the design of its characters, and it is noteworthy that O’Connor’s Englishmen are more humane than his Irishmen. Presumably the four Irish prisoners were executed by the English for something they had done, whereas Belcher and Hawkins are to be shot in random cold-blooded reprisal. Bonaparte and Noble, although they find the order shocking, nevertheless help carry it out, yielding with token resistance to what appears to be their fate—Bonaparte by actually giving Hawkins the coup de grace, and Noble by helping bury the Englishmen. Donovan and Feeney, who place devotion to the cause above humanity, personify a brutality unmediated by fellow-feeling. Donovan deliberately closes himself off from the human ties that should work against remediable evil, while Feeney has been linked to the Fenian brotherhood, the heart of the Irish nationalistic spirit, which brutality overrules the brotherhood of fellow-feeling that develops between the guards and prisoners in the story.

The Englishmen are shown in a more positive light. Ironically, they fit in better with the local community than do the Irishmen, perhaps because their humanity is less numbed by divisive hatreds. Hawkins, the ‘‘quixotic Socialist-Atheist,’’ consistently takes the side of humanity against institutions of society he blames for evils that are or ought to be remediable—against ‘‘the capitalists’’ and their selfserving hypocrisy of ‘‘morality and Rolls-Royce complete’’ and ‘‘all the so-and-so officers’’ that enforce the prevailing social order. But finally, it is the quiet Belcher who is most attuned to ameliorating the twists and toils of fate and necessity for his fellow human beings—this despite (or because of) the fact that he is himself a thoroughgoing fatalist, ‘‘with his usual look of waiting in quietness for something unforeseen to happen.’’ Belcher alone helps the old woman with her chores. He is a huge man, and to mitigate the inequalities of life, the strong should help the weak. Moved by the same spirit, he sees to it that things come out even in the card games with which the guards and prisoners pass the time. An object lesson for the capitalists railed at by Hawkins, he could have come out on top: ‘‘he was a good card player,’’ Bonaparte admits, and ‘‘could have fleeced myself and Noble. . . .’’ Instead, he bankrolls Hawkins with the money he was won, knowing full well that Hawkins will lose it back to the Irishmen and there will be no winners and losers. True to the end, Belcher continues to put others’ interests ahead of his own. As he is about to be shot, he asks that Hawkins, whom the initial bullet did not finish, be put out of his agony with a second shot. And he is almost unbelievably solicitous of his executioners’ feelings in the affair, trying, apparently, to ease their shock and guilt in having to shoot him. Belcher’s meliorating humanity, coupled with Hawkins’s indignation against the remediable evils built into the established structures of society, seems to form the moral center of ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ against which the actions of the Irishmen are judged. Thus the reader’s shock at the execution of Hawkins and Belcher, guilty of nothing except being in the wrong uniform in the wrong place at the wrong time, is intensified by a sense that the power of fate which helped to contrive the situation need not have been allowed to dictate its brutal outcome.

The theme of hidden powers in ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ may also help to answer a question left by the story—why is the narrator named Bonaparte?— that most commentators have ignored. For among the hidden powers that control human life is destiny, and destiny was a lifelong preoccupation of the original Bonaparte, Napoleon I—widely remembered, as he regarded himself, as the Man of Destiny. Just as the story told by O’Connor’s Bonaparte poses the question of the relationship between human responsibility and the workings of destiny, so Napoleon pondered his role as the instrument of oceanic forces working themselves out on the map of Europe. So important is the question of destiny in Napoleon’s life that most of the numerous books about him address the subject. Especially pertinent to the present discussion is Emil Ludwig’s Napoleon, published shortly before ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ was written. A close similarity in the way both Ludwig’s Napoleon and O’Connor’s Bonaparte tend to shift the responsibility for their actions to destiny but suffer the consequences of such a view of life suggests the possibility that O’Connor might have drawn his character with Ludwig’s Napoleon in mind.

Ludwig’s book, whether or not O’Connor read it, throws light on several elements of the story’s moral design, including the role of the ironically named Noble and the import of the final scene showing Bonaparte lost in a vacant cosmic immensity. In the spectrum of attitudes presented in the story, Noble is the Christian, who can resolve the problem of evil through faith in a hidden providence and absolve his own sinful complicity in evil by seeking God’s forgiveness. ‘‘How happy should we be here,’’ Napoleon allows, ‘‘if I could confide my troubles to God, and could expect from him happiness and salvation!’’ Thus Noble, in the end, falls on his knees and begins praying to lighten his burden of sorrow and guilt, but neither Napoleon nor Bonaparte can accept this way of resolving the question of the scheme of things and his own place in it. The story also criticizes Noble’s resort to the consolation of religion for his evasion of moral responsibility in this world through his fixation on the next.

O’Connor’s Bonaparte, like Napoleon, tends to view himself as in the grip of an irresistible destiny. ‘‘In general,’’ observes Ludwig, Napoleon ‘‘is resigned to fate.’’ In ‘‘hundreds of sayings,’’ he expressed the belief that ‘‘No one can escape his fate’’ and that ‘‘all things are linked together, and are subject to the unsearchable guidance of an unseen hand.’’ But both Napoleon and Bonaparte remain troubled by the terrible human consequences of the military actions their destinies commit them to—the former, in giving orders that cost human lives; the latter, in carrying out such orders. Napoleon, at the tomb of Rousseau, father of the Revolution, wondered ‘‘whether it would have been better for the peace of the world if neither Rousseau nor I had lived.’’ O’Connor’s Bonaparte suffers similarily from a troubling, if defective, sense that what fate seems to demand of him is wrong. Yet he does it anyway, as if governed by Napoleon’s principle that ‘‘It is wise and politic to do what fate commands, and to march on the road along which are led by the irresistible course of events.’’ But neither Napoleon nor Bonaparte escapes the logical consequences— the spiritual desolation—of giving the world over to destiny. ‘‘What [Napoleon] never loses,’’ Ludwig concludes, ‘‘is the sense of diamonic loneliness, which increases as his soaring flight leads him to chillier altitudes.’’ Similarly, Bonaparte in the end feels ‘‘very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow’’—a feeling he will never lose, for, as he says, ‘‘anything that happened me [sic] afterwards, I never felt the same about again.’’ As a result of his world view, Ludwig’s Napoleon faces ‘‘the desert, which to him is the image of the infinite . . . the sublime vacancy which expands before him when the myriad-faceted picture of ordinary life sink from sight.’’ Similarly, O’Connor’s Bonaparte stands in the end facing a vacant universe, nothing but the empty bogs and the distant stars, while the graves of Belcher and Hawkins, ‘‘even Noble and the old woman, mumbling behind me, and birds and the bloody stars were all far away,’’ ‘‘a million miles away.’’

Thus the moral judgment of ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ comes down mainly on Bonaparte and Noble—not that the deliberate inhumanity of Donovan and Feeney is excused by O’Connor but that Bonaparte and Noble, who still entertain human feelings, allow themselves to contribute to the remediable brutality in the world in the mistaken impression that they have no choice. O’Connor wrings a further twist from his powerful ending by showing that the world views that allow Bonaparte and Noble to shift the responsibility for what they have done to the hidden powers that govern the cosmos are opposites forms of the same cop-out. In Noble’s geocentric Christian world view, the human scene is predominant: ‘‘he saw everything ten times the size, as though there were nothing in the world but that little patch of bog with the two Englishmen stiffening into it . . . .’’ But he has failed to fulfill his Christian duty: to love, extend hospitality, and sacrifice oneself for others and especially for strangers and enemies. With Bonaparte, it is just the reverse. In his mechanistic sense of the universe, human doings seem insignificant, ‘‘as if the patch of bog where the Englishmen were was a million miles away,’’ in the vast empty universe of ‘‘Hap.’’ And thus he has failed in the duty of human beings to band together, eliminate remediable evils, and mitigate the irremediable evils dealt out in a vacant, indifferent universe.

In the end, ‘‘Guests of the Nation’’ echoes the disillusionment that W. B. Yeats felt toward the Irish cause, which O’Connor implicitly in his story and Yeats explicitly in ‘‘Easter 1916’’ warn ‘‘Can make a stone of the heart.’’ But the tone and gist of the story are surely best captured a decade later in E. M. Forster’s memorable comment on where human duty lies: ‘‘I hate the idea of causes,’’ he wrote in 1939, ‘‘and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’’

Source: Stanley Renner, ‘‘The Theme of Hidden Powers: Fate vs. Human Responsibility in ‘Guests of the Nation’,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 371–77.


Critical Overview