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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

“Up the Bare Stairs” opens on a train traveling through Ireland. The first-person, anonymous narrator describes his traveling companion as a big man, about sixty years old, “dressed so conventionally that he might be a judge, a diplomat, a shopwalker, a shipowner, or an old-time Shakespearean actor.” The narrator notices...

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“Up the Bare Stairs” opens on a train traveling through Ireland. The first-person, anonymous narrator describes his traveling companion as a big man, about sixty years old, “dressed so conventionally that he might be a judge, a diplomat, a shopwalker, a shipowner, or an old-time Shakespearean actor.” The narrator notices the man’s initials, F. J. N., on a hat case and reads in the paper that a Francis James Nugent has been made a baronet for his military service. The ensuing conversation and the fact that the boy went to the same school, West Abbey, leads to Nugent’s recollections.

This section, the main action in the story, is narrated by Nugent, as the narrator assumes the role of listener. At West Abbey, Frankie (Nugent) was very fond of one of his teachers, Brother Angelo. Nugent describes Angelo as handsome and full of life, a man who enjoyed solving quadratic equations as much as he liked playing games with the boys. With the perspective of a sixty-year-old man looking back on his childhood, Nugent says that they were “too fond of him. . . . He knew it . . . and it made him put too much of himself into everything we did . . . perhaps he wasn’t the best kind of teacher; perhaps he was too good. . . . With him it wasn’t a job, it was his life, it was his joy and his pleasure.”

Angelo frequently divided the class into teams representing two political factions, the Molly Maguires and the All for Irelanders. Frankie and Angelo both supported John Redmond of the Molly Maguires. One afternoon, Frankie caused his team to lose. Angelo laughed it off—and kept Frankie two hours after class, knowing that Frankie would be in trouble when he got home. Frankie’s politically passionate father, a poor tailor, struggling to send Frankie to school, awakens Frankie’s sick mother, a seamstress, with a roar: “A nice disgrace! Kept in because you didn’t know your Euclid!” His fury increases when he learns that Frankie let down the Redmond side. The scene ends with the entire family in tears and Frankie promising to work harder.

The next day, Angelo asks Frankie to do the same problem, which he completes perfectly and insolently. Frankie continues to answer questions correctly and rudely, goading Angelo into striking him. Frankie never forgives Angelo, and their personal war continues until Frankie graduates. From then on, Frankie studied every night until midnight. When he sat for the civil service exam, he placed first throughout the British Isles in three out of five subjects. This experience in school caused him to despise and pity his parents.

Here the anonymous traveler begins narrating again, and the purpose for Nugent’s trip to Cork is revealed: his mother’s funeral. “I meant to bury her in London. But I couldn’t do it. Silly, wasn’t it?” The story ends with the narrator’s description of Nugent with his “poor relations” as they leave the station.

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