Guests of the Nation

by Frank O'Connor

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Style and Technique

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One of the most important components of technique in “Guests of the Nation” is Frank O’Connor’s masterful use of irony. An early instance of irony, apart from the story’s title and the repetition of the word “chum” (underlining the failure of friendship in the plot), is the reference to the Irish dances that Belcher and Hawkins have learned, whose titles (“The Walls of Limerick,” “The Siege of Ennis”) allude to divisiveness, violence, and war, which undercut the harmony of the social occasion. Further, the narrator’s word to describe the timbre of Belcher’s speech, “peaceable,” ironically contrasts with the reason the British soldiers are kept captive, as well as their fate.

Indeed, ironies run throughout the story: The two soldiers executed are among the most congenial to the country and its culture; the religious doubter Hawkins is the first to discover the truths about the afterlife (by being the first killed); Belcher is so considerate of his executioners that just before he is shot he asks their forgiveness for his sudden outpouring of talk, explains his thoughtful wish to speed things up because he knows the delay is painful to them, and finally absolves them all with consoling words. Finally Belcher’s blindfold, made by knotting his handkerchief with Bonaparte’s, ironically symbolizes the union that should have prevented Belcher’s pitiful death, while it is also connected to the story’s motif of blindness—to human community and to the twists of fate, summarized in the repeated key word “unforeseen.”

Historical Context

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Irish Rebellion
The history of Ireland is one of domination by the British and of conflict between Protestants and Catholics. During the nineteenth century efforts were made to reduce the power of the British over the island. These efforts spawned a revolutionary movement that sought full separation from Britain. The potato famine and other crop failures added to the urgency of these rebellions. The Fenian Movement (represented in part in the story by Feeney) was a secret society determined to wreak havoc on English interests in Ireland and thereby drive them out of the country.

These movements came to the fore at the end of World War I. Despite several political acts by the English Parliament that tried to establish home rule for the Irish, the Irish Rebellion began in full force. After many of the local police quit in protest against the British, new recruits were brought into the country, called the Black and Tans. These militias were known for their brutality and ruthlessness. This is the setting for the story. After several years of ‘‘The Troubles,’’ the British representative Winston Churchill threatened an all-out war to subdue the Irish. Michael Collins agreed to a division of the country and independence for the south of Ireland. The Irish Free State was established in 1922. The Irish felt that Collins had sold them out in these negotiations, and he was assassinated soon after.

The northern six counties, collectively known as Ulster, were not included inside the new national boundaries. They are now know as Northern Ireland. It is here that the ‘‘Troubles’’ have continued with political and military confrontations. In 1998, promise of peace was made possible when the British government, the Irish government, and the warring parties in Northern Ireland signed an accord that established a framework for democratic resolutions to the ongoing disputes.

It was during the Irish Rebellion and the establishment of the Irish Free State that Frank O’Connor lived. These experiences shaped his attitudes about his homeland and the institution of warfare. He was a lifelong spokesman for Ireland and things...

(This entire section contains 571 words.)

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Irish. Even after his move to the Unites States, he continued to write about Ireland. He once said, ‘‘I prefer to write about Ireland and Irish people because I know to a syllable how everything in Ireland can be said.’’ But he never changed his attitude that war is illogical and barbaric.

O’Connor and his Literary Peers
Frank O’Connor was one of a group of Irish writers born in the last of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. These include Daniel Corkery, AE (George Russell), W. B. Yeats Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. Of these, Yeats, Beckett and Joyce are the most famous. O’Connor was a friend of these men, often learning writing techniques and adopting writing approaches from them. AE was the first to suggest to him that he write a biography of Michael Collins. Yeats is best known for his poetry, Joyce and Beckett for their novels, and O’Connor for his short stories. ‘‘Readers were more than likely charmed by the deceptively simple manner of his writing, particularly those stories of childhood and adolescence for which he is best known,’’ says James Matthews in The Dictionary of Irish Literature. It is his focus on shorter fiction that hindered his acceptance until recently, because many literary critics were reluctant to include a short story writer among novelists and poets.

Literary Style

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Dialects and Writing Practices
One of the little known aspects about any writer’s approach to his or her craft is the amount of attention and time that is devoted to revising and rewriting. A glance at a working copy of a poem by John Keats will show a furious crisscrossing, adding and erasing, a scratching out and rearranging of lines and text that eventually became a finished poem. For most writers, this occurs in private and once published, the final work remains stable and unchanged. Not so for Frank O’Connor. As William Maxwell said, ‘‘He rewrote and rewrote. After he was published, he rewrote and was republished. Everything he wrote was an unfinished work, not so much because of any dissatisfaction, but because of the pleasure he got out of a story. He liked his stories.’’ As a result, there are many different versions of the same story in print. Also, as Ellmann notes, just as there are different versions of the same stories in print, some of these stories carry different titles.

There are several editions of ‘‘Guests of the Nation.’’ In an early version, the Englishmen talk in a heavy Cockney dialect. The two Englishmen are ‘‘Awkins and Belcher.’’ Hawkins says, ‘‘Well, Bonaparte, Mary Brigid Ho’Connell was arskin abaout you and said ow you’d a pair of socks belonging to er young brother.’’ In a later passage when they talk about angels, Hawkins says, in the Cockney dialect, ‘‘Where do they get them then? Who makes them? Ave they a fact’ry for wings? Ave they a sort of store where you ands in your chit and tikes your bleedin’ wings? Answer me that.’’ However, in later versions O’Connor softened this passage by using a more standard form of English as well as dropping the final three-word sentence.

In the present version, O’Connor uses words that are indicative of the dialects of the characters. The Englishmen call their newfound friends, ‘‘Chums.’’ The fact that the Irish also use the term is unusual, as the narrator mentions. Donovan’s Irish dialect is also noted when he said, ‘‘Ah, you divil, Why didn’t you play the tray?’’ The dialectical use of the word ‘‘unforeseen,’’ meaning ‘‘inconsiderate’’ or ‘‘unthinking,’’ as Michael Libermann explains, also draws attention to the local Irish dialect.

Point of View and Narration
The story is told in the first person by Bonaparte, a member of the small rebel faction. As such, we see only his view of the events. The reader is never able to know what others are thinking unless they speak and Bonaparte tells us. For example, in the very last scene, he comments on his reactions to the executions; he also tells us what Noble has said about the same executions.

In some stories it is important to notice what the narrator is doing and saying, because he or she may not be telling the truth. In many stories by Edgar Allan Poe the narrator often tries to convince the reader that he (the narrator) is NOT crazy, despite evidence to the contrary. In the case of Bonaparte, there is no hint that he is not truthful. There is nothing that creates doubt of his trustworthiness. Therefore Bonaparte can be considered a reliable and believable narrator.

Episodic Structure
The story is written in four episodes, each fulfilling a special task. The first section is the exposition. In this section the characters are introG duced individually and then they are shown interacting with others in the story.

The second section, the complication, introduces the possibility that the Englishmen might be executed. Bonaparte says that he noticed that Donovan has ‘‘no great love for the two Englishmen.’’ In the evening Donovan and Bonaparte discuss the fact that if the English shoot one of the Irish prisoners, then they would have to retaliate. Later, as Bonaparte and Noble try to go to sleep, they worry about probabilities that they would be ordered to shoot their prisoners.

Section three, the rising action, gets more intense. Donovan tells Bonaparte and Noble that the Englishmen are going to be executed. ‘‘There were four of our lads shot this morning, one of them a boy of sixteen.’’ Bonaparte’s worst fears are now realized.

The last section, the main crisis and the final falling action, covers the execution and is the longest of the four. In it the themes of duty and responsibility are raised by both the Englishmen and the Irishmen. The section completes the story with the remaining characters trying to sort out for themselves what has just occurred in the woods.

Images are those items in a story that appeal to our senses. Some important images in the story include the fire, the lamps, light and dark. These are combined to create several symbols that give the tale special meanings and importance. The fire, for example, might be a purifying image. In the elemental sense, fire is an agent used to remove impurities from a compound leaving a purified remainder. Theologians talk of the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit which may remove impurities from an individual’s soul. In this way fire becomes a symbol of a purifier.

Symbols are images that have both figurative and literal meanings. Images of light and dark occur regularly in the story, presenting a contrast between the forces of darkness (evil) and light (good). They also show the conflict in the minds of the rebels, who struggle with the feeling that the executions they perform are not justified. At the end of the story, the remaining characters are left standing or praying in the dark, symbolic of a triumph of evil over good.

As the men head into the woods, the light from the lamp shines dimly at the end of the path. As they walk, their lives flicker; Bonaparte’s hope that the Englishmen would run away flickers; the hope that they will not be executed flickers. After Hawkins is shot, he writhes in the throes of death and his life flickers away. The single image of the flickering lantern is symbolic of these concepts.

Compare and Contrast

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1916: Following the Easter uprising, in which Irish rebels seize control of the General Post Office in Dublin in an effort to establish a provisional government for the Irish Republic, fourteen of the rebels’ leaders are shot at Kilmainhan Jail.

1998: In accordance with the ‘‘Good Friday’’ Agreement, both Irish and British governments begin the accelerated release of paramilitary prisoners.

1919: Sinn Fein, an Irish political party, assembles in Dublin and declares Ireland independent. Irish insurgents, later called the Irish Republican Army, take up the task of expelling the British from the island. This period is often referred to as the ‘‘Troubles.’’

1998: The ‘‘Good Friday’’ Agreement is reached, bringing at least a temporary cessation to three decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

Media Adaptations

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On May 20, 1958, a performance was given of Guests of the Nation, a drama, drawn directly from O’Connor’s story. It was adapted and directed by Neil McKenzie. This single performance, done at the Theatre de Lys in New York City, was part of a twin bill that also offered Aria da Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Crider, J. R. ‘‘Jupiter Pluvius in ‘Guests of the Nation’,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 407-411.

Donoghue, Denis. A Review of Collected Stories by Frank O’Connor, in New York Times, September 20, 1981, Sec. 7, p. 3.

Ellmann, Richard. Introduction to Collected Stories by Frank O’Connor, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Gelb, Arthur. A Review of Guests of the Nation, a play, in New York Times, May 21, 1958, p. 40.

Libermann, Michael. ‘‘Unforeseen Duty in Frank O’Connor’s ‘Guests of the Nation’,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 4, Fall, 1987, pp. 438-41.

Matthews, James H. ‘‘Frank O’Connor,’’ in Dictionary of Irish Literature, edited by Robert Hogan, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.

Neary, Michael. ‘‘The Inside-Out World in Frank O’Connor’s Stories,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 327-336.

New York Times, March 11, 1966, p. 33.

Robinson, Patricia. ‘‘O’Connor’s ‘Guests of the Nation’,’’ in The Explicator, Vol. 45, No. 1, Fall, 1986, p. 86.

Sherry, Ruth. ‘‘Fathers and Sons: O’Connor among the Irish Writers: Corkery, AE, Yeats,’’ in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 275-302.

Steinman, Michael, ed. A Frank O’Connor Reader, Rochester, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Storey, Michael L. A review of Frank O’Connor at Work, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 273-74.

Storey, Michael L. A review of A Frank O’Connor Reader, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 148-150.

Wohlgelernter, Maurice. Frank O’Connor: An Introduction, New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Further Reading
O’Connor, Frank. An Only Child, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961. An autobiography in episodic form using Michael O’Donovan, O’Connor’s real name.

O’Connor, Frank. My Father’s Son, Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, and Co., 1985. A second volume of autobiography, compiled after O’Connor’s death by his widow, assisted by Dr. Maurice Sheehy of Dublin University College.

Steinman, Michael, ed. A Frank O’Connor Reader, Rochester, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994. This book contains annotated stories by Frank O’Connor, including ‘‘The Rebel,’’ which had never before been published, and the recently translated, ‘‘Darcy in Tir na nog.’’

Wohlgelernter, Maurice. Frank O’Connor: An Introduction, New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. This book takes a broad-based look at the life and work of O’Connor. It presents O’Connor’s thought ‘‘to the historical and intellectual events of his time. . . . this study may be considered a biography of his mind.’’


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