Despite being set in wartime, much of the story focuses on domestic simplicity, if not bliss. Belcher is the focal point for this theme, as he reveals his shattered domestic situation and his desire to cobble together a new one. “Guests of the Nation” suggests that home is not merely one’s birthplace, but rather a feeling that can be found or built in unlikely places. Here, even a stint as a prisoner in a foreign land can be a sort of home. But that can also work in the other direction, as it does for Bonaparte, when the trauma of the executions makes him feel like a stranger in his homeland.
The image of the hearth, or fireplace, is threaded throughout the story to symbolize the pull of home and domestic life. It also emphasizes how successful this hodgepodge of soldiers, prisoners, and a civilian have been in creating a home. Belcher, the character most drawn to domestic life, always has his legs in the “ashes,” meaning he’s trying to warm himself by the hearth. Furthermore, the religious argument between ‘Awkins, Noble, and the old woman is a feature of a family gathering, rather than an assembly of strangers. The power of this domestic imagery is especially felt when it’s taken away. After the execution, the old woman’s house is cold and dark in contrast to its earlier liveliness. Noble even kneels by the fireplace, drawn to that symbol of the home that was lost.
Additionally, the Irish find it strange that Belcher is so eager to assist the old woman with her chores, anticipating her movements to ease her burdens. They don’t know then that Belcher’s wife and child left him eight years ago, and that his time at the old woman’s house is a chance for him to “start again.” ‘Awkins has a similar longing, revealed when he complains that he’s being moved “just as a man mikes a ‘ome of a bleeding place.” But while ‘Awkins loafs and squabbles and expects a home to spring up around him, Belcher is willing to build one. When Jeremiah informs him that he’s moving back to the Second Battalion, Belcher expresses his gratitude to the old woman for the opportunity to create a home with her, behaving like a grateful son to an elderly mother. Even at the brink of execution, Belcher, who’s normally so quiet, babbles about “being so ‘andy abaout a ‘ouse.” His last thoughts turn to simple household chores and the “feeling of a ‘ome” they bring.
As the execution approaches, images of domesticity are twisted in Bonaparte’s mind, as he thinks “I began to perceive in the dusk the desolate edges of the bog that was to be their last earthly bed.” The word choice of “bed” marks a haunting contrast between the bed—a core feature of home—and the lonely swamp they’ll rest in. The idea of that final resting place for two former friends haunts Bonaparte, and he becomes estranged from the land he thought he knew. Bonaparte describes the aftermath of the execution as “mad lonely” and the bog as the “treacherous bog,” as if the landscape not only betrays his footing but also his trust. When the old woman and Noble fall to their knees by the fire, Noble pushes past them as if sickened by the effort to recreate a lost home. He describes a feeling of receding from his homeland, “as though the patch of bog where the two Englishmen were was a thousand miles away…” Instead of twittering, the birds shriek and even the stars seem alone. O’Connor emphasizes that just as home can be built anywhere, it can be lost anywhere.
Home Quotes in Guests of the Nation
At dusk the big Englishman Belcher would shift his long legs out of the ashes and ask, “Well, chums, what about it?” and Noble or me would say, “As you please, chum” (for we had picked up some of their curious expressions), and the little Englishman 'Awkins would light the lamp and produce the cards.
I rose quietly from the table and laid my hand on him before he reached the door. “What do you want?” I asked him. “I want those two soldier friends of yours,” he says reddening. “Is that the way it is, Jeremiah Donovan?” I ask. “That's the way. There were four of our lads went west this morning, one of them a boy of sixteen.” “That's bad, Jeremiah,” says I.
“Just as a man mikes a 'ome of a bleedin' place,” mumbles 'Awkins shaking her by the hand, “some bastard at headquarters thinks you're too cushy and shunts you off.” Belcher shakes her hand very hearty. “A thousand thanks, madam,” he says, “a thousand thanks for everything . . .” as though he'd made it all up.
“Listen to me, Noble,” he said. “You and me are chums. You won't come over to my side, so I'll come over to your side. Is that fair? Just you give me a rifle and I'll go with you wherever you want.”
“But my missus left me eight years ago. Went away with another fellow and took the kid with her. I likes the feelin' of a 'ome (as you may 'ave noticed) but I couldn't start again after that.”
“I never could make out what duty was myself,” he said, “but I think you're all good lads, if that's what you mean. I'm not complaining.”
…but with me it was the other way, as though the patch of bog where the two Englishmen were was a thousand miles away from me, and even Noble mumbling just behind me and the old woman and the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lonely. And anything that ever happened me after I never felt the same about again.