The Sniper Summary (Alan Sillitoe)

Alan Sillitoe


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The patrons at The Radford Arms pub are astonished to see an old man suddenly leap on one of the tables and begin to dance. Everyone looks at the man’s feet, expecting him to fall down. Some continue to find the performance amusing, but others start to ignore him, more interested in consuming their last drinks because it is near closing time. The man still hops around and, at the same time in a sort of singsong voice, talks about a murder he committed a half century ago. The dancer, crushed by guilt and fear, wants to confess publicly, now that his life is near its end. Few people are listening, however, and those who listen hear nothing that makes much sense. Had they been able to figure out what the old man was saying, they would have heard how he killed his wife’s lover in 1914.

The story is told in flashback. Nevill, suspecting that his spouse is unfaithful, lies in wait for her in the woods, where he believes she and her fancyman will have their rendezvous. From his hiding place, he watches Amy follow her lover into the shelter of the trees. Nevill waits while the two make love, considering that it might be best to go home, but his compulsion for retribution is strong. When her passion is spent, Nevill’s wife leaves to return home, but her lover remains behind to smoke a cigarette. Nevill stalks him and batters his neck with the butt of a shotgun, giving him the coup de grace, when he is on the ground, by smashing his temple. Nevill then hides the body.

Before Nevill leaves the wood, he kills a rabbit and sells the dead animal at a local bar; he then drinks a beer with the proceeds and listens to some other patrons talk about the war. Nevill thinks that they do not know what life is all about. The next day, he returns to the woods and buries the body, making sure that he disguises the grave with dead twigs and rotting leaves. Afterward, he goes down to the recruiting office and enlists, believing “that the army would be as good a place to hide as any.” Amy is so distraught at the prospect of her husband’s departure that for a moment Nevill regrets having joined the army, but he puts this out of his mind.

He leaves to fight in France, but the memory of the murder follows him. Ironically, his fear that he might be apprehended at any moment contributes to his proficiency as a soldier, “for he did not live from day to day like most of the platoon. . . . [H]e existed by the minute because every one contained the possibility of him being taken off and hanged.” He becomes a lance corporal and, because of his superior marksmanship, is made a sniper, a job that obliges him to remain concealed, quietly scanning the enemy lines for quarry, “letting his body into complete repose so as to make no move,” picking off those careless enough to show their heads around a parapet in an unguarded moment. He remains like this throughout the day, trying to remain undetected. After nightfall, a new sniper’s post will be built, and tomorrow he will “be...

(The entire section is 1221 words.)