Assignment 1 -Short Analysis

Submitted by: Trevor Olafson

“The Meaning of Duty in the Short Story ‘Guests of the Nation’ by Frank O’ Connor”

Duty – a word imbued with importance by those who banter it about.  In the context of ‘Guests of the Nation’, Frank O’ Connors’ treatment of the concept of it, forces in a very visceral way the question – what does it mean?  This short story compels the reader to confront the notions of fate, self and morality, within a nationalistic, spiritual framework – bringing into question the validity of a system that uses subordination and fear, to compel people to carry out orders given by unseen forces.  In ‘Guests of the Nation’ these hidden powers are exposed as the capitalist and military structures that use this sense of duty to control the soldiers in the story(372).

The bloody irony of institutions of power (military/industrial/church) using human nature and feelings that bind us to control us, is made glaringly apparent in the story by one of the guards, Bonaparte – who narrates it.  It is he alone who questions whether shooting Belcher and Hawkins is the right thing to do.  The officer in charge of the two guards, Donovan does not even entertain the idea when he says “If they shoot our prisoners, we’ll shoot theirs”.  This is all the more disturbing after having established that the men (prisoners/guards) have shared time in the same house, eaten meals together and played cards as if they were ‘chums’ (the colloquialism picked up by Bonaparte from the two Englishmen). The underlying question being asked in the story is whether a person is pushed through life by fate which determines ones’ destiny – or is there a choice.

The situation the men are involved in is purely by chance, Bonaparte and Noble happen to be on the business end of the guns which they eventually wield “against their fellow humans beings as if compelled by a power beyond their control”(373). When the order comes from Jeremiah Donovan that they are to shoot Belcher and Hawkins as a reprisal against the British, Bonaparte recounts as Hawkins begs Donovan to quit joking. Donovan himself is shaking with excitement as he tells him that it is no joke and however unpleasant, it is his duty, at this point that Bonaparte tells us “I never noticed that people who talk a lot about duty find it much of a trouble to them”.

As the trip from the house to the bog starts, Hawkins begins to ask why would they want to shoot him, he had done nothing to them; and after all they had been friends and understood each other. Hawkins continues on and asks Noble and Bonaparte “Did we imagine for an instant that he’d shoot them for all the so-and-so officers in the so-and-so British Army?” Hawkins makes a last-ditch attempt at redemption by appealing to Noble with an offer to switch sides, or consider him a deserter – his appeal does not make an impact on Donovan however, who shoots him mid sentence.

The shooting of Belcher is where O’ Connor forces the reader to consider the stories main theme – when Donovan asks him to understand that they are only doing their duty, Belcher says “I never could make out what duty was myself”. In the end Bonaparte and Noble have allowed themselves to be used to contribute to the already existing brutality in the world because of the mistaken impression that they have no choice(376). By the end of ‘Guests of the Nation’ the reader should have thought about what the word ‘duty’ implies, and what the possible consequences of following a false sense of it could be.

Works Cited

Renner, Stanley “The theme of hidden powers: Fate vs. human responsibility in “Guests of the Nation” Studies in Short Fiction; Summer90, Vol. 27 Issue 3, p371, 7p