The Symbolism & Metaphors in "Guests of the Nation"

The Irish flag was adopted around the 1919 start of the Irish War of Independence.
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Former Irish Republican Army soldier Frank O’Connor’s 1931 short story “Guests of the Nation” confronts the difficulties of the Irish War of Independence of 1919 to 1921. The story focuses on a group of Irish soldiers, Bonaparte, Noble and Jeremiah Donovan and their English captives, Hawkins and Belcher. Though these characters are friendly with each other for much of the story, at the conclusion, the Irish soldiers execute Hawkins and Belcher as an act of retribution. The story’s metaphors emerge from the different characters and their relationships with each other. They symbolically represent the relationship between the warring Ireland and England.

1 Game of Cards

The prisoners and their captors often play cards together in the evening. As the narrator, Bonaparte, explains it, Belcher won all his money from Bonaparte and Noble, while they won all their money from Hawkins, but Hawkins only played with money he borrowed from Belcher. This chain in which money forever circulates back and forth between the characters symbolizes the interconnectedness of the Irish and English soldiers. The card games act as a metaphor for the relationship between the two warring countries.

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2 Religious Divide

While Noble is a devout Irish Catholic, Hawkins identifies himself as a Communist anarchist atheist. In the story these two characters often debate each other on the presence of an afterlife. They continue this debate right up until Jeremiah Donovan kills Hawkins as reprisal for the four Irish soldiers killed by English forces. The constant debates between Noble and Hawkins symbolize one of the primary tensions between the Irish and English that prompted the Irish War of Independence: The divide between Irish Catholicism and English Protestantism. The debates are a metaphor for one aspect of the fighting between these two countries.

3 Behavior as Metaphor

Both Jeremiah Donovan and Belcher are quiet, stoic characters. Both seem resigned to their respective fates; Donovan accepts that he is obligated to kill Belcher and Hawkins, and Belcher accepts that he must die. The characters differ, however, in that Donovan believes that he is bound by duty to execute the prisoners, while Belcher seems to posses a “come what may” attitude. He states that he never understood the concept of “duty.” Donovan and Belcher symbolize the great number of Irish and English soldiers caught up in the War of Independence who felt obligated to serve their respective countries. As such, they are metaphors that represents the general ambivalence a large number of English and Irish people possessed regarding this war.

4 The Burial Bog

The Irish soldiers execute and bury Belcher and Hawkins in a bog just outside of the town in which they are staying. In the final scene, as he walks back to the house following the Englishmen’s execution, Bonaparte reflects on the nature of the bog. He equates it to a kind of trap that has captured not just the two dead Englishmen, but also their executioners. The bog symbolizes the quagmire in which both English and Irish have fallen. It acts as a metaphor of the War of Independence, which the story seems to suggest is a trap out of which neither English nor Irish will ever escape.

Samuel Hamilton has been writing since 2002. His work has appeared in “The Penn,” “The Antithesis,” “New Growth Arts Review" and “Deek” magazine. Hamilton holds a Master of Arts in English education from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Arts in composition from the University of Florida.