Guests of the Nation

by Frank O'Connor

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What are the structural parts of "Guests of the Nation"?

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Story has five main parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. First part is background information (Irish soldiers guarding two British soldiers captured during the Irish battle for independence) and the second part is their friendly relationship with each other. The third part is Jeremiah, who is in charge of them all, orders their executions. The fourth part is Hawkins and Belcher try to convince Jeremiah to let them live. The fifth part brings the final conclusion about how sad it was that they had to be executed.

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Frank O’Connor’s 1931 short story “Guests of the Nation follows the basic structure of a linear narrative, which has five building blocks:

  • Exposition: background information (the characters, past action, setting, descriptions, etc.) that provides context to the reader
  • Rising action: events in the plot (e.g., events and characters dialogue, physical actions, thoughts) that evoke interest and generate tension and suspense
  • Climax: the point to where the action and tension build ups to a head conflict between two sides (character versus character, idea versus idea, reason versus emotion, etc.)
  • Falling action: events that happen right after the climax where the author is trying to solve or “tie up loose ends”
  • Resolution/Denouement: the story’s final conclusion or ending; basically, “where things land” in terms of characters and events.

O’Connor divided “Guests of the Nation” into four sections. Section I provides the exposition. The setting is an Irish country farm. Two British soldiers Belcher and Hawkins are prisoners guarded by two Irish soldiers, Noble and the narrator named Bonaparte. The four men are playing cards and share a friendly camaraderie. Additional background information includes facts like Hawkins and Belcher’s capture during the Irish battle for independence in 1922, Hawkins' knowledge of Irish dances, and Belcher's friendship with the old woman who owns the house where they stay. Another character introduced is Jeremiah, the officer in charge who is not as friendly with Belcher and Hawkins.

Section II provides the rising action. Hawkins and Noble argue about capitalism and religion. Bonaparte walks away with Jeremiah who tells him that the British soldiers, Belcher and Hawkins, will need to be executed because the British army (“the enemy”) has captured and is threatening to shoot Irish soldiers. Having developed a friendship with Belcher and Hawkins, Bonaparte is miserable at this news, stating, “I cannot explain it even now, how sad I felt.” After Bonaparte and Noble lock up Belcher and Hawkins for the night, Bonaparte tells Noble the execution order from Jeremiah.

Section II ends with a conflict introduced in this rising action: whether or not to execute the British soliders. Bonaparte “lay there half the night, and thought and thought, and pic-turing myself and young Noble trying to prevent the Brigade from shooting 'Awkins and Belcher sent a cold sweat out through me.” The next morning, Bonaparte and Noble stay silent and have hard time facing Belcher and Hawkins.

Section III continues the rising action with Jeremiah ordering the execution of the British soldiers in retaliation for four Irish soldiers being shot. Bonaparte and Noble round up Belcher and Hawkins.

Section IV provides the climax, where Bonaparte confirms to a disbelieving Hawkins that yes, even though they are “chums,” he has to shoot him. Bonaparte shoots Hawkins while Hawkins tries to talk Jeremiah into letting him live. Because Hawkins did not die with the first shot, Bonaparte shoots him again at Belcher’s request, this time fatally. Jeremiah shoots Belcher. Both of these executions are carried out in the name of duty.

Section IV finishes with the falling action with Bonaparte and Noble burying Hawkins and Belcher. After Bonaparte and Noble return to the farm house, the old woman falls to her knees in grief to pray for the fallen British soldiers. Noble joins her.

The story’s resolution is the final paragraph where the narrator Bonaparte expresses his sadness and remorse for shooting their British friends: “I was somehow very small and very lonely” and that “anything that ever happened me after I never felt the same about again.”

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Frank O'Connor's most famous work is arguably, "Guests of the Nation." The short story is based on O'Connor's own experiences in the military, and because of this the story is uncomplicated and often effortlessly painful. The question of how the story is structured is frequently asked due to how straight-forward the narrative is and how effective the story is because of this choice in narrative structure.

If we think about a classical narrative structure in story-telling, there is a very clear linear progression: exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and finally, resolution. O'Connor's story is broken into four parts; identifying the progression of the narrative is fairly straight-forward.

Part one is the exposition. When the story opens up, we are introduced to the characters, their relationships, and how they interact with the British prisoners.

Part two introduces us to the conflict in the story, which is that the British prisoners are set to be executed. Bonaparte and Noble are incredibly distressed by this prospect and are unable to cope with the idea of executing these two men they've built a relationship with.

Part three gives us the rising action of the narrative. It is determined that the two British soldiers are to be executed immediately in retaliation for the deaths of four Irish soldiers.

Part four comprises the last three elements, namely: climax, falling action, and resolution. Bonaparte is forced to execute the two British soldiers after one of the British soldiers tries to reason for their lives. The falling point of the narrative is when Bonaparte is digging the graves of the soldiers in the woods and he is contemplating the action he has taken.

Finally, the resolution to the story occurs when Bonaparte goes into the night and contemplates the essential notion that humanity and moral consciousness always become secondary during war.

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This is a popular question to ask because O'Connor has constructed "Guests of the Nation" in episodes that correspond to literary function. The first episode is, of course, the exposition in which O'Connor introduces characters and then establishes their interactions with each other, showing not only how the Irish rebels act with each other but also how the rebels act with the English prisoners.

The second episode develops the complication. The officer in charge keeps his distance from the others and shows no friendliness toward the English prisoners. The other two rebels, Bonaparte and Noble, are informed that the English soldiers are no longer prisoners; they are now hostages and will be executed in retaliation if the British forces execute any of their Irish rebel prisoners. This news is distressing to Bonaparte and Nobel; they can no longer relate with ease to the prisoners and can't sleep at night.

The third episode is rising action. Bonaparte and Noble get the report they have been dreading; the British have executed four Irish rebels, one of whom was a sixteen-year-old boy. Donovan gives orders that the British hostages, Hawkins and Belcher, will be executed by Bonaparte and Noble in the woods.

Episode four comprises both the climax and the falling action. Donovan and Bonaparte take the hostages through the woods to a bog. Donovan tells them that there is to be no transfer but they are to be executed. The theme of duty and responsibility arises while Hawkins tries to talk Donovan out of fulfilling his orders. Hawkins is shot. Belcher sees Hawkins is still alive and asks Bonaparte to shoot him a second time. Then Belcher joins Hawkins fate.

The falling point is when they must dig graves for the men who are now dead. The falling action follows when the rebels return to the cottage. The old woman of the cottage who has been with them all through the story falls to her knees in prayer when she realizes what has been done; Noble joins her in prayer on his knees.

Since this is Bonaparte's narrative and a story about his experience, the resolution occurs when Bonaparte goes into the dark night, looks at the dark sky and feels small, lost and alone. He ends his narrative by saying he could not think about things, like duty and personal responsibility, the same way as he did before.

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