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· Suspended Sentences ·

I read today that three-hundred-and-fifteen prisoners have been released from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. With the aim of saving America's good name, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has of course engineered the event, perhaps also saving his own job. A clever move, it clearly suggests Rumsfeld's rising to do George W. Bush's political chores, trying also to save the President's own political life.

The news reminds me of a passage from Frank O'Connor's short story "Guests of the Nation." Set in Ireland during the First World War, the story deals with the fate of two British prisoners (Belcher and Hawkins) who are sacrificed to a sadly fateful political necessity. They are eliminated because, following word of the execution of Irish prisoners elsewhere, their captors can't excuse them from the terrible, bloody consequences of war. Despite their good efforts, they must go.

The particular passage that interests me is this:

It was a treat to see how Belcher got off with the Old woman of the house where we were staying. She was a great warrant to scold, and cranky even with us, but before ever she had a chance of giving our guests, as I may call them, a lick of her tongue, Belcher had made her his friend for life. She was breaking sticks, and Belcher, who hadn't been more than ten minutes in the house, jumped up from his seat and went over to her.

"Allow me, madam," he says, smiling his queer little smile, "please allow me"; and he takes the bloody hatchet. She was struck too paralytic to speak, and after that, Belcher would be at her heels, carrying a bucket, a basket, or a load of turf, as the case might be. As Noble said, he got into looking before she leapt, and hot water, or any little thing she wanted, Belcher would have it ready for her.

Now I don't mean to trivialize his story, but O'Connor's stylistic finesse is breathtaking. His larger intent notwithstanding, he has shifted — or so it seems to me — from objects initially listed in his fine penultimate sentence ("a bucket, a basket, or a load of turf") to the objective, substantive weight of "hot water" marked in his last. Reread and you'll maybe see his move!

What I ask is this: does anyone know the correct stylistic name for it — or perhaps, too, the political?

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Have you checked other editions of this story? The sentence might be the result of an accidental editorial error.

Posted by loretta markle on May 18, 2004 08:21 AM

I've read three reprints. Chances are the sentence is intentional — perhaps O'Connor's "elliptically deferred Irish idiom."

Posted by
Styles on May 18, 2004 10:04 AM

Consulting several sources, I think the inverted sentence order might be somewhat characteristic of Irish idiomatic English. It's a way of emphasizing certain words: "If ever I find you doing this again," my grandmother would scold, the "ever" being unexpectedly placed before the subject rather than after it. "Himself, he would own the whole town," she would say about an affluent neighbor, beginning the sentence with the reflexive.

Another characteristic of Irish idiomatic speech is the "aside" or the parenthetic expression, both of which may be at work here. Consider the effect of alternate punctuation: "And hot water — or any little thing she wanted — Belcher would have it ready for her."

Posted by loretta markle on May 22, 2004 01:58 PM

Yes, by deferring the inverted aside in Noble's idiomatic speech, O'Connor's Irish narrator (Bonaparte) emphasizes Belcher's necessary subordination to provisional Irish authority.

"[A]nd hot water, or any little thing she wanted" (whether dashed, or not) is deferred, emphasized, inverted, and subordinated in one elegant, quite obviously stylish move.

I agree — especially if John Kerry can make that same move now for our beleaguered nation.

Posted by Styles on May 23, 2004 02:48 PM

Belatedly, I should note that Rumsfeld's final day at work was yesterday.

Perhaps for Rummy's shoe to drop only hastens our current hope now for Bush's.

"Suspended Sentences" indeed.

Posted by Styles on December 19, 2006 12:01 AM


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