Guests of the Nation

by Frank O'Connor

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Themes and Meanings

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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.


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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...

(This entire section contains 631 words.)

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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 Englishmen now use the idea of duty as a shield against ‘‘the monstrous acts of evil’’: the cold-blooded executions that are about to occur.

For the men in this tale, their obsession with duty overwhelms their sense of personal choice. Each man could have made a choice to disobey the orders. The rebels could have let the prisoners live; the prisoners could have made an attempt to escape. But none of them does so. Personal choice has been discounted. Duty to follow orders becomes the only motivation for the rebels. The prisoners also accept the fact that the rebels will follow those orders, and with that acceptance, they give tacit agreement to the duty to those orders.

At the close of the story Bonaparte and Noble have a difficult time accepting the fact that they had just participated in the executions. Their resolve to follow the orders without question now dissolves into a more expansive question of their existence and what it means to them. These two men have come up against the consequences of their dutiful actions and they do not like what they have found.

Choice and Consequence
Hand-in-hand with duty and responsibility are the consequences associated with the choices made by the characters in the story. Each of the military men in the tale have made a choice in the first instance: to join a cause and to follow it to its conclusion. The Englishmen join in order to maintain British control over Ireland. The Irish join the insurrection to overthrow British rule and to establish an Irish Free State.

They all make their choices freely and openly. But in this story, they all have serious consequences to contemplate. The Englishmen will have to contemplate, even for a short time, their own deaths as an outcome of their initial choice. The Irish will have the rest of their lives to contemplate the consequences of their initial choice to join the rebels and the choice to execute the Englishmen. For all, the consequences are much more burdensome than any might have assumed at the beginning—the Englishmen are killed, and the Irishmen have to carry that fact with them forever.

Conflict: Individual vs. Society (Military)
O’Connor’s narrator provides a number of instances wherein an individual’s wishes come into conflict with his military directives. Though Bonaparte and Noble comply with the orders they have been given, both, to varying degrees, exhibit some form of rebellion. After Feeney brings the news that Hawkins and Belcher are to be executed, Noble refuses to be a party to lying to them in order to lead them to their deaths. In a similar fashion, Bonaparte hopes for an escape attempt, knowing full-well that he would not fire on Hawkins and Belcher if they were to run. Hawkins, too, is prepared to rebel against his own military, offering to join the Irish rebels in return for his life.