Response to Frank O’Connor’s
“Guests of the Nation”
by Bree Binks
Frank O’Connor writes “Guests of the Nation” with the notion that all humans are faced with surreal situations. In his short story, O’Connor depicts five fictional characters in realistic, yet uncharacteristic, situations. From the beginning to the end of “Guests of the Nation,” readers are compelled to feel the characters are forced into a paradoxical world where nothing happens in the manner expected. The term irony depicts this incongruity between actual and normal events, and it is through his fictional setting, characters, and plot that O’Connor’s readers feel this strong sense of paradox or irony.
Frank O’Connor places five characters in the midst of conflict between a foreign occupying army and a local insurgency—English vs. Irish. Since each main character is a member of one army or the other, readers would generally expect the five to be placed in settings where battle or war conflict is taking place. Instead, O’Connor does the unexpected and places his characters out of the heat of fighting. He places the two Englishmen, Belcher and Hawkins, and three Irishmen, Bonaparte, Donovan, and Noble, in a remote boarding house far from any distracting sounds of the battle. The environment each character now exists in at the distant farmhouse provides the proper setting for uncharacteristic, or ironic, events. For example, the distant battlefields of war would not provide the same close-quartered interaction that the five main characters encounter at the boarding house. In a battlefield, readers would not expect the five characters to participate in dances, card games, and nightly squabbles about random topics. In fact, readers would anticipate animosity or turmoil between the characters.
The different settings provided by O’Connor allow the characters to uncharacteristically bond with one another, which would not have been possible on the heat of the battleground. In addition, this type of bonding does not necessarily imply forthcoming trouble, which presents irony. Instead, these actions describe how acquaintances—friends—behave when they are comfortable with one another. The tragic ending of the story is not what a reader expects. Although the story ending is set in the dreary, dark, muddy bogs, the reader forgets about the setting and wishes the characters to hold their moral fiber. Readers expect a triumphant refusal to the tragic ending and a return for the characters to their ‘natural’ setting of the old boarding house. What happens is readers pay less attention to the setting, even though it is sending a strong message. Irony is extremely apparent throughout the setting of the story, from the beginning at the boarding house to the end at the muddy bogs, and becomes increasingly important as the characters and plot are developed.
It is through his character development that O’Connor further assigns irony in “Guests of the Nation.” He develops round and dynamic characters throughout this particular story. Because round and dynamic characters make readers feel the pull and play of actions or emotions throughout a story, it is important that O’Connor give his readers the feeling that they understand and can identify with the characters. The story begins with four main characters deciding to play a game of cards. Over the first few paragraphs, readers are introduced to the reasons these characters have come together. Each is given a specific personality—a different piece to the puzzle of how they came together. Two of the five are prisoners of war and are to be guarded by the remaining three. Typically, one might assume guards would be cruel to prisoners of war, but in the same opening paragraphs, readers are struck by the characters’ referring to one another as ‘chum’ or ‘pal.’ The uncharacteristic behavior of Hawkins, Belcher, Bonaparte, Noble, and Donovan is that they do not behave in the manner expected by readers, which instigates character irony. They do not consider one another enemies of war; instead, the characters behave more on a moral or ethical basis and begin to consider each other friends. For example, the character Bonaparte remarks,
“I couldn’t at the time see the point of me and Noble guarding Belcher and Hawkins at all, for it was my belief that you could have planted that pair down anywhere from this to Claregalway and they’d have taken root there like a native weed... So whatever privileges Belcher and Hawkins had with the Second they just naturally took with us, and after the first day or two we gave up all pretense of keeping a close eye on them.” (O'Connor 1155)
This type of dialogue illustrates characters who are at ease with one another. It does not describe characters in fear of one another or the outcome of their time together. Further, O’Connor allows his characters to have feelings. At the end of O’Connor’s short story, each character expresses his feelings on the morality of the situation with which he or she is faced. Having orders to murder their "chum" and "pal," both Noble and Bonaparte find they are unable to simply consider the "guests" as prisoners of war. They had come to know, to like, and to adapt to the Englishmen. In the atypical situation, the characters are faced with—being at war—one would certainly expect heartless and cruel actions to take place among the characters. Instead, actions taken are in consideration of another character. Of the five characters, only one may be misconstrued as flat and static. From the beginning of the story, Donovan portrays exactly what the reader expects—an impatient, uncaring guard of prisoners of war. Ironically, when the time comes for Belcher’s death, Donovan helps him tie a blindfold about his head and appears to hesitate before pulling the trigger. It is this level of irony that plays a major role in character development throughout the story. Without irony, the characters would simply be in a predictable situation and react in predictable ways.
The plot presented in Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation” displays subtle hints of irony. As the characters are led in to a world where enemies have become friends, readers are compelled to feel that everything is just too perfect. Frank O’Connor’s intent is to imply that something just is not right in the boarding house. Although the characters play games, go to dances, and engage in conversation with one another—occasionally calling one or the other "pal" or "chum"—O’Connor makes readers feel uneasy about turning the following pages. The ‘too perfect’ feeling does not seem to fit in a story about war, guards, and prisoners of war. Sure enough, as the story progresses, it is discovered that the guards, Noble, Bonaparte, and Donovan, have been instructed to murder the Englishmen they have been ‘guarding.’ The natural instinct of moral people is to push the Englishmen away and refuse the retaliatory execution, which is exactly how Noble and Bonaparte react.
However, since these characters were participants in opposite sides of a battle, readers see the characters are required to feel no emotions for their newfound friends. Without hesitation, Donovan decides to follow through with the instruction, and the others must follow suit. When the execution of Hawkins is unsuccessful, Bonaparte finds he is overcome with sympathy for the fallen friend and yet fires the final shot into his "chum." This action illustrates the irony of Bonaparte’s duty as a member of his army outweighing his duty as a moral human being. In addition, Donovan’s reluctance to fire upon Belcher is characteristic of irony as well. Readers expect he would have no trouble following through with the execution. After the events at the bogs, the Irish guards return to the boarding house. Readers find the characters reacting to the events as the murder of friends, not the murder of enemies. Each is quiet and filled with a sense of sadness. Bonaparte reflects, “and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about it again” (O'Connor 1163). The plot of the story, while relying heavily on the characters’ actions and feelings, gives readers an impression of irony.
Are all humans answerable to God? This question implies that humans must consider moral and/or ethical implications of their actions during all aspects of their lives. The hierarchies of social class, governmental institution, or even race do not determine what humans consider moral. In some cases, however, as in Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation,” five characters are faced with the dilemma of choosing morals or hierarchy when murdering friends. In such a story, readers are encouraged to feel each step of the plot, character development, and setting contribute to a strong sense of irony. While a governmental institution may make them different from one another on the outside, human morality makes them the same otherwise. Ironically, O’Connor’s characters choose to follow institutional hierarchy instead of morality. The ironic push of military duty essentially outweighs the push of moral duty.
O'Connor, Frank. “Guests of the Nation.” The Story And Its Writer.
Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003. 1154-1163.