Themes and Meanings
The main theme of the story, the conflict between duty and humanitarianism, is clearly enunciated in two signature passages (technically, places in which the author explicitly articulates his theme). The first is in section 3 in the interchange between Donovan and Bonaparte about duty; the second, in section 4, in the interchange between Donovan and Belcher about the same subject. In these and other passages, the story shows that unlike Donovan, Bonaparte and Belcher, as well as Noble, Hawkins, and the old woman, move beyond a circumscribed conception of nationalistic duty to a sympathy and compassion for their fellow human beings that transcend the borders and politics of separate countries. Thus, unlike Donovan, the other major characters feel that harming another human being who is both friendly and innocent is wrong, even in the name of patriotic duty. The Englishmen’s “peculiar” expression “chums,” picked up by Bonaparte and Noble and repeated seventeen times in the story, embodies the idea of the paramount importance of friendship or humanitarian sympathy. So, too, does the biblical genealogy that Hawkins scorns as “silly” in one of his arguments with Noble. Hawkins does not realize that Old Testament genealogies suggest by way of descent from a common ancestor the brotherhood of humankind, making humankind a nation that surmounts individual countries—a belief that would have saved his life, which is instead sacrificed because of the conflict between the two countries of England and Ireland.
Hawkins’s twice disparaging the “fairytale” about Adam and Eve picking the forbidden fruit highlights an implied moral theme relating to the conflict of duty and humanitarianism. Reinforced by constant explicit references to religion in the story, largely in Bonaparte’s description of the arguments between Hawkins and Noble on the subject, the Adam and Eve incident recalls the key concept of God’s prohibition against sinful acts, including murder—an issue of central importance in the killings that are contemplated by Donovan and his superiors. Even the old woman’s apparent non sequitur in referring to Jupiter Pluvius early in the story has a bearing on the theme by recalling that the planned killings would have been a moral wrong in the ancient classical religions because foreigners and strangers were under the protection of Zeus or Jupiter, who was patron god of hospitality. Because of a larger sense of duty as moral obligation, these two British soldiers, the story implies, deserve to be “guests of the nation” (the story’s title) in a true sense rather than as a euphemism for “prisoners.”
One of the story’s many fine insights into human nature and behavior derives from its portrayal of the conflict between conscience and conformity. Bonaparte and Noble go along with the plan for the execution, despite serious reservations. What overrides their moral objection is the pressure exerted by peers (Donovan and Feeney, the local intelligence officer) and by social situation. Many instances from real life, as in the Holocaust of World War II, demonstrate the applicability of this theme.
Duty and Personal Responsibility
The main theme in this story is duty. Each character has a duty to perform. Donovan is the first one to discuss his duty as the rebels are leading the prisoners into the bog. He tells them that four Irish fellows had been shot and ‘‘you are to be shot as a reprisal.’’ Continuing, he ‘‘begins the usual rigmarole about duty and how unpleasant it is.’’ As he shows here, his perception of duty is built on submission to the orders of someone higher up in the chain of command. His interpretation of duty absolves him of any personal responsibility for his actions.
As the rebels are about to carry out the executions, their prisoners talk about duty. They claim to understand that by obeying their duty the Irishmen will soon kill them. Wohlgelernter notes that the Irishmen and the...
(The entire section is 1,131 words.)