Last Updated on April 5, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496
“The Sniper” was O’Flaherty’s first published short story and, as it would turn out, was different from the main body of his short fiction. O’Flaherty became most known for his stories about nature, animals, and Irish peasants, not for the stories he wrote about urban Ireland. Of his numerous stories, only four stories deal with the Irish Civil War, while another handful are set in Irish cities. However, according to James M. Calahan, author of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study of the Short Fiction, O’Flaherty’s political stories cannot be separated from the others, for “politics permeate all of his works.” In a story like “The Sniper,” politics are simply more obvious.
Generally, O’Flaherty’s urban stories present a bleak view of humankind. A. A. Kelly, writing in Liam O’Flaherty: The Storyteller, noted that such stories “contain much despair and any humour is at man’s expense.” The protagonist in “The Sniper” might well fall into the role of an urbanized character “imbued with various forms of self-interest based on . . . fear.”
The few critics who have directly explored “The Sniper” tend to disagree over a crucial aspect: O’Flaherty’s position on the Irish Civil War. In his 1929 essay “The Position of Liam O’Flaherty,” which was published in Bookman, William Troy commended “The Sniper,” along with the short story “Civil War,” both of which deal with the “real and imagined circumstances” of the Irish Civil War. Troy wrote that these stories “constitute the most remarkable record of the period which we are likely to receive: the most complete because derived largely from personal observation and participation; the most reliable because written without any other bias than that of artistic selection.” Years later, A. A. Kelly contradicted parts of Troy’s statement. Kelly did agree that O’Flaherty drew upon his personal experiences to write “The Sniper.” However, she believed that O’Flaherty’s “reason for writing is to damn warfare in general as inhuman and debasing.” Another critic, James H. O’Brien, would also seem to agree that O’Flaherty condemns warfare. In his discussion of O’Flaherty’s short stories, entitled Liam O’Flaherty, O’Brien wrote that “the open, matter-of-fact presentation of the shooting and the pain of the wound makes the revelation that brother has shot brother the final atrocity in a barbaric world.” The critics, however, do generally emphasize O’Flaherty’s careful attention to detail, although Kelly did believe that the “historic aspect and factual accuracy of the work is secondary.”
Of all the critics, Kelly has paid the most attention to “The Sniper.” She highlighted such elements as its surprise ending and O’Flaherty’s “abruptness and economy of style.” Similarly, Calahan noted that, as a writer, O’Flaherty was a “master of the art of omission.” Kelly also proposed her belief that the sniper served as a “type figure illustrating all those caught up by warfare and forced to shoot the enemy.”