Guests of the Nation

by Frank O'Connor

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How does the old woman's interest in religion compare to Noble and Hawkins' in "Guests of the Nation"?

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I think that the three characters feature some distinct interests regarding religion.  Hawkins' view of religion is a disparaging one. His interest in religion is to question and criticize it for what he sees as an abdication of personal action and responsibilty.  Hawkins argues with Noble, whose brother is a priest, about the authenticity of religion in the modern setting.  In one particularly heated exchange, Hawkins' view of religion is intensely cynical:

"The capitalists pay the priests to tell you about the next world so that you won't notice what the bastards are up to in this," said Hawkins.

"Before ever a capitalist was thought of people believed in the next world."

Hawkins stood up as though he was preaching.

"Oh, they did, did they? " he said with a sneer. "They believed all the things you believe---isn't that what you mean? And you believe God created Adam, and Adam created Shem, and Shem created Jehoshophat. You believe all that silly old fairytale about Eve and Eden and the apple. Well listen to me, chum! If you're entitled to a silly belief like that, I'm entitled to my own silly belief - which is that the first thing your God created was a bleeding capitalist, with morality and Rolls-Royce complete."

Hawkins' view of religion is that it is a form of control, something that like capitalism, takes away from the actions of the individual. Right before he is about to be killed, Hawkins' pleas for empathy are rooted in charity towards fellow men, the ones he calls, "chums." While he has railed against organized religion for much of the text, Hawkins articulates a condition in which there is a universal brotherhood that he claims has underscored the relationship between he and Noble.  When Donovan claims to be doing his "duty," Hawkins speaks of a spiritual understanding that transcends temporal duty.  Hawkins' interest in religion is more universal and action based towards the very end of his life.

In contrast to this, Noble's view of religion is more institutional and more traditional.  With a brother who is a priest, Noble embraces a more duty bound view of religion, adhering to rituals and what has been told as constituting religious identity.  Interestingly enough, what Hawkins rails as a duty that adheres to capitalism is the very religious sense of duty that Hawkins embraces as part of his spiritual identity.  This interest in religion is consistent with duty and sense of responsibility that adheres to conformity.  

The old woman's interest in religion is very strong.  She believes in a spiritual understanding of religion that is both cosmic and relevant to daily life:

"Mr. Hawkins, you can say what you like about the war, and think you'll deceive me because I'm only a simple poor countrywoman, but I know what started the war. It was the Italian Count that stole the heathen divinity out of the temple of Japan. Believe me, Mr. Hawkins, nothing but sorrow and want can follow people who disturb the hidden powers."

The old woman's interest in religion is based in these "hidden powers."  This interest is seen in the ending of the story where, upon realizing what happened to Belcher and Hawkins, she falls to her knees and prays.  Noble follows her in this, as he is almost prescribing to his duty.  Her interest in religion seems to be one that helps to explain being in the world, providing purpose and meaning.

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