Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

“The Sniper” emphasizes one of the greatest ironies of civil war: Brother is pitted against brother. In this story, Liam O’Flaherty deals with a strife that has divided Ireland for more than sixty years and still shows few signs of moderating. The Republican sniper in the story is young, and his youth is emphasized. However, under conditions of war, this youth is growing up fast, probably too fast. He has the look of a fanatic, and he is forced to develop the cunning of a seasoned warrior. If he fails to develop that cunning, he will not live.

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In the course of two hours, the young sniper kills three people, one his own brother—who, ironically, is poised to kill him if he is given the opportunity. The Republican sniper outwits the Free Stater into being careless, and this carelessness costs the Free Stater his life.

In a sense, carelessness also costs the man in the turret of the armored car his life. He should not have responded to the old woman who came to give him information. Had he not exposed his head, he could not have been killed, because the car’s armor would have protected him. In a moment of relaxed security, he makes himself vulnerable and loses his life. In the next instant, the sniper kills an old woman.

O’Flaherty demonstrates the impersonality of war: One shoots the Enemy, not people. When the sniper is doing his killing, it is the Enemy at whom he is firing. The Enemy, however, becomes a person when the protagonist sees the opposing sniper’s body fall to the ground. He is sickened at the thought of what he has done, and one can only speculate on the implications for him of discovering, ultimately, that it is his own brother he has killed.

O’Flaherty is saying that soldiers grow up fast or not at all. There is no question that the sniper does what he has to do, and at the beginning, there is a great adventure in what he is doing. The adventure, however, depends on anonymity. No one in this story has a name, and everyone, even, to an extent, the protagonist, is seen from a distance. Once one is killing people, the whole impact of what war is about crowds in on the killer.

Although one perhaps cannot go so far as to call “The Sniper” a pacifist tract, certainly it depicts several of the worst horrors of war. It shows that war makes life seem cheap. It shows that war also hardens the hearts of those who participate in it. In the end, the story shows the absurdity and futility of fighting against individual human beings.

Both snipers in this story are pawns of forces larger than themselves, and these forces split families, shatter loyalties, and pervert the very causes that they purport to be fighting to preserve. The first irony is that men will kill other men. The second and greater irony in the O’Flaherty story is that in this case the two men are of the same parents.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 998

Civil War
The complementary themes of civil war and warfare are the most obvious in “The Sniper.” The story takes as its setting Dublin, Ireland, during the Irish civil war. The fighting began in 1922, after the Irish Parliament voted to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty dividing the island of Ireland into northern and southern parts. Before the treaty, Irish nationalists had united against the British, their common foe, or against Northern Irish Protestants who supported union with England. After the treaty was signed, however, Irish aggression was turned inward. Over the next few years, the Irish people remained bitterly split, and some took up arms against their friends, family members, and countrymen.

O’Flaherty sets the stage of the civil war in his opening paragraph with sensory descriptions such as the “heavy guns [that] roared” at the “beleaguered Four Courts” and the “machines guns and rifles [that] broke the silence of the night, spasmodically, like dogs barking on lone farms.” O’Flaherty concludes this first paragraph with the factual statement, “Republicans and Free Staters were waging civil war.” This simple statement both serves to place the conflict and to undercut the devastation that this war has caused.

Though the story is quite brief, the reader can infer that the Irish civil war has brought great change to its protagonist. The phrase that the sniper has “the face of a student, thin and ascetic” implies that the sniper may have recently been a student but has taken up the arms of a soldier. Now warfare has transformed him. His “deep and thoughtful” eyes are “used to looking at death,” and they even hold “the cold gleam of the fanatic” in his dedication to the Republican cause. The protagonist is only one of many young men who have joined either one side or the other of this brutal civil war.

The story also makes clear that this civil war has driven enormous rifts into Irish society. After the sniper has killed his enemy, he grows curious about the other man’s identity. “He wondered did he know him,” and he even speculates, “Perhaps he had been in his own company before the split in the army.” With the final sentence, however, the civil war’s power to divide takes on even greater signifi- cance: “Then the sniper turned over the dead body and looked into his brother’s face.” This sentence tells the reader that members of the same family could become enemies because of civil war. It also underscores the long-lasting repercussions of warfare that breaks up a society.

Warfare
A few key details in the story emphasize the bizarre landscape of warfare. The sniper undergoes a number of emotional responses to the battle that non-soldiers or those who have not taken part in battle are likely to find unusual. At the beginning of the story, during his stakeout, the sniper “had been too excited to eat.” Right before he shoots the enemy sniper, his “hand trembled with eagerness.” When he sees that he has hit his enemy, he “uttered a cry of joy.” All the words O’Flaherty uses to describe the sniper’s reaction to meeting and vanquishing his enemy are positive, anticipatory words. In the world of warfare, killing a fellow human being is a victory; for in war, soldiers, like the sniper, face a situation where they must kill or be killed.

By the end of the story, the protagonist has undergone a wide range of feelings stemming from his own actions. With his enemy dead, the sniper feels regret at what he has done. After the “lust of battle died in him,” his body reacts by shuddering and sweating, and his teeth chatter. His mind gets involved in denying his situation as “he began to gibber to himself, cursing the war, cursing himself, cursing everybody.” However, even these regrets only last a short time. He throws down his revolver, and it accidentally goes off, returning him to his senses. He also bolsters his courage and brings himself back to the proper state of mind by taking a drink of whiskey. Again able to face the state of warfare, laughing, the sniper descends from the rooftop to rejoin his company and continue his role as a soldier. By the end of the story, the sniper’s emotions have moved in a circular pattern, from excitement to nervousness to remorse and back to excitement.

Survival and Isolation
The concept of survival underscores the entire story. Even before the sniper kills any of the Free State soldiers, he knows “there were enemies watching.” The sniper’s actions are driven by his desire for survival. He must kill anyone who has the capacity to bring about his destruction. So the soldier manning the armored tank must be taken out. Indeed, anyone who takes part in this warfare can become an enemy, even an old woman who becomes an informer with a few simple words and the point of a finger.

The sniper’s main combatant and the biggest obstacle to his survival is the Free State sniper on the rooftop across the street. The man has the power to keep the sniper pinned down throughout the night, but he knows that “[M]orning must not find him wounded on the roof.” Such an event would mean certain death. The sniper has little choice but to devise a plan, even though it is a long shot, to kill his enemy first.

The fact that the sniper is isolated on his rooftop emphasizes his need to depend upon his own wits, courage, and abilities for survival. Though other men fight side by side with their companies, for instance, at the Four Courts and in the streets of Dublin, the sniper conducts his fight alone. It is up to him to kill the other sniper. No one will come to his aid. Because of his isolation, the sniper finds the resources within himself to overcome fear and pain and continue to fight.

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