Guests of the Nation Summary
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“Guests of the Nation” is a 1931 short story written by Frank O’Connor. It was adapted into an Opie Award-winning play. The story depicts the experiences of two English hostages in the war for Irish independence. The story is full of irony, as the camaraderie between the Irish soldiers and the British are highlighted, though they are amid a forceful and brutal war.
Two Englishmen, Hawkins and Belcher, have been held on a rural farm for quite some time. Although they are hostages, they get along well with their captors. They play cards together. Bonaparte, the narrator, and Noble are the guarding Irish soldiers. The officer in charge, Jeremiah, who is not as friendly with the Englishmen, sometimes joins them. The four men joke a lot. When they meet, Hawkins teases Bonaparte because Hawkins knows the Irish countryside better than he does. Hawkins and Belcher have spent some time in Ireland and have even gone to dances and learned Irish songs. Because the men had been so well behaved with their previous captors, Bonaparte and Noble give the Englishmen plenty of freedom. They do not try to run away—they do stand out with their different accents and in their different clothing.
Belcher strikes up a friendship with an older woman. The soldiers are staying at her house, but Belcher helps her cut wood, which makes her feel affectionately toward him. Bonaparte notes that for such a large man, Belcher is short with words. He is also a great card player. Bonaparte believes Belcher is a good card player because he seldom speaks, whereas Hawkins and Noble argue and distract themselves. Hawkins is quick to argue with Noble about religion and with the older woman about capitalism.
One night, Noble and Hawkins are arguing heatedly about capitalism and religion. Hawkins being against them and Noble being for. Bonaparte notices that Jeremiah is leaving and, as he is bored with the conversation, Bonaparte leaves with him. Jeremiah stops suddenly on their walk and tells Bonaparte he should be watching the prisoners. Bonaparte scoffs at him, wondering why they are even prisoners. Jeremiah informs him that the enemy has Irish prisoners, and the English are threatening to execute them. Therefore, the Irish will retaliate by executing Hawkins and Belcher. Bonaparte is stunned by this information and says that he does not feel comfortable with the thought of killing them. Jeremiah explains it does not matter, as they are to be executed within the next few days.
Bonaparte is depressed as he heads back to the cottage. Hawkins and Noble are still debating religion in a good-natured fashion. As they lock Hawkins and Belcher up for the evening, Bonaparte tells Noble what Jeremiah has told him. Noble is uncomfortable as well and wonders if they should tell the Englishmen what is to come. They both agree that it might not even happen, so they should not tell them. Bonaparte wonders what would happen to him if he tried to stop their execution.
The next day, the mood is different in the cottage. Belcher does not notice, but Hawkins attempts to chide Noble to no avail. In the evening, the men begin to play cards after tea, and Bonaparte relaxes slightly, thinking the execution does not have to happen. Jeremiah arrives, informing Bonaparte and Noble it is time. Four Irish soldiers have been killed, including a sixteen-year-old.
Bonaparte understands, but Noble is too uncomfortable. Therefore, Jeremiah sends Noble to dig graves as surreptitiously as possible. Jeremiah tells Bonaparte that they are to tell the men they are being transferred again. They do so, which perturbs Belcher. Hawkins mostly moans and groans about leaving. The Englishmen get their things and say goodbye to the old woman.
They take the men down by the bog where the graves are dug. Jeremiah informs Hawkins and Belcher that they are to be shot. Hawkins scoffs at him in disbelief. Jeremiah points to Bonaparte, saying he will confirm their fate. Bonaparte tells them that they have been ordered to execute the men. Hawkins is still in disbelief. Jeremiah taunts him, saying they must pay the price for the executed Irishmen.
Hawkins wonders if Noble is a part of this plan. Jeremiah says yes, but Hawkins scoffs again, saying how they are friends and there is no way Noble would shoot him. Noble arrives, and Hawkins tells him how they are friends and how Hawkins would never shoot Noble. Jeremiah answers for Noble, telling Hawkins Noble would shoot him. Jeremiah remarks that they have had enough and asks the men if they have any last words.
Hawkins says he will go over to the other side of the war and desert, because he and Noble are “chums.” Jeremiah gives Hawkins one more chance for last words. Hawkins continues to fight back, claiming Noble and Bonaparte would never let the men be killed. Bonaparte sees Jeremiah raise his gun to the back of Hawkins’s head. Bonaparte shuts his eyes. Jeremiah fires, and Hawkins lands at Noble’s feet.
Belcher tries to wrap a blindfold around himself, but it is too small. He asks for Bonaparte’s, who obliges. They notice Hawkins is not dead yet, so Bonaparte shoots him again. Belcher does not have any last words, but tells the men Hawkins has a letter to his family in his pocket. The men apologize, referencing duty once again. Belcher remarks on how he never really figured duty out himself, but he does not think any less of the men. Jeremiah shoots him and he falls, without the need for a second shot.
The soldiers bury the men and Noble finds Hawkins’s letter. They return to the house despondently, where the old lady is upset with them for killing the men. She prays her rosary beads. Noble goes down to his knees in front of the fire. Bonaparte remarks that he feels very small, and never feels the same way about anything ever again.
The main theme of the story, the conflict between duty and humanitarianism, is clearly enunciated in two signature passages (technically, places in which the author explicitly articulates his theme). The first is in section 3 in the interchange between Donovan and Bonaparte about duty; the second, in section 4, in the interchange between Donovan and Belcher about the same subject. In these and other passages, the story shows that unlike Donovan, Bonaparte and Belcher, as well as Noble, Hawkins, and the old woman, move beyond a circumscribed conception of nationalistic duty to a sympathy and compassion for their fellow human beings that transcend the borders and politics of separate countries. Thus, unlike Donovan, the other major characters feel that harming another human being who is both friendly and innocent is wrong, even in the name of patriotic duty. The Englishmen’s “peculiar” expression “chums,” picked up by Bonaparte and Noble and repeated seventeen times in the story, embodies the idea of the paramount importance of friendship or humanitarian sympathy. So, too, does the biblical genealogy that Hawkins scorns as “silly” in one of his arguments with Noble. Hawkins does not realize that Old Testament genealogies suggest by way of descent from a common ancestor the brotherhood of humankind, making humankind a nation that surmounts individual countries—a belief that would have saved his life, which is instead sacrificed because of the conflict...
(The entire section is 500 words.)