‘Awkins is a strident atheist and materialist (someone who believes that economic structures drive world events). He thinks that the capitalist class predates the priesthood, and that capitalists use priests as a method of social control. The old Irish woman who houses the prisoners, however, has more spiritual beliefs. With a blend of Catholicism and paganism, she explains momentous world events, such as the First World War, as a consequence of disturbing “hidden powers.” While ‘Awkins and the woman fiercely debate their beliefs, O’Connor suggests that neither prayer nor atheism is up to the task of grappling with death or the realities of wartime, as both spirituality and materialism seem meaningless in the face of the executions at the end of the story. Instead of a fatalistic ending in which meaning and belief are shown to be absurd, however, O’Connor leaves room for a more ambiguous spiritual truth, one that can only be grasped by those who have passed on to the “next world.”
‘Awkins makes a sport of arguing with Noble and the old woman that there is no life after death, a belief he holds with a religious intensity. O’Connor, in fact, is clear that ‘Awkins’ commitment to materialism is essentially religious in nature; ‘Awkins argues for his beliefs “as if he was preaching a sermon.” The parallel between ‘Awkins’ nonbelief and traditional religion is made stronger by the fact that ‘Awkins explains both his individual fate and global conflict through the lens of the afterlife: he believes that the capitalist class that backs religion and encourages belief in heaven also instigates international wars like the one that has taken him prisoner. Presumably, belief in the afterlife makes better soldiers—for religious men who believe that they won’t lose everything in death, the stakes of fighting are lower. Therefore, ‘Awkins thinks that religion manipulates men into fighting harder, and that his own life has become collateral damage.
‘Awkins’s extreme and somewhat nonsensical belief that both heaven and war are capitalist conspiracies mirrors, in a way, the old woman’s belief that World War I began when a Japanese temple was plundered. However, O’Connor shows that neither explanation of war is satisfying when the real horrors of war come to them in the form of the executions. While arguing for his life, for example, ‘Awkins seems to utterly disregard his beliefs about class warfare, making individual appeals to personal friendship instead. In the face of death, the appeal of materialism vanishes, its ideas seeming suddenly irrelevant. Likewise, spirituality doesn’t seem to provide much comfort. Belcher and ‘Awkins both refuse the invitation to say a final prayer, with Belcher specifically noting that he doesn’t see the point of prayer in this moment. Bonaparte “tries to say a prayer” while witnessing ‘Awkins’ death, though it doesn’t seem to do much good. In the end, the men are killed and they transform from human beings to objects that fall “like a sack of meal.”
With both religion and politics failing to provide meaning for the characters, O’Connor acknowledges that people can never fully make sense of tragic events. Belcher seems to support this view when he describes the dead ‘Awkins as possessing knowledge he could never have gained while alive. He muses that “‘e knows as much about it as they'll ever let 'im know, and last night 'e was all in the dark.’” After Belcher is killed, Bonaparte remains in the dark, as well, and images of darkness and obscurity accumulate as they return through “pitch blackness” to the old woman’s kitchen, which is also cold and dark. This emphasizes that, if there’s certainty to be had about this world, it’s not to be found until the next one, if at all.
Religion, Spirituality, and Materialism ThemeTracker
Religion, Spirituality, and Materialism Quotes in Guests of the Nation
And another day the same 'Awkins was swearing at the capitalists for starting the German war, when the old dame laid down her iron, puckered up her little crab's mouth and said, “Mr 'Awkins, you can say what you please about the war, thinking to deceive me because I'm an ignorant old woman, but I know well what started the war. It was that Italian count that stole the heathen divinity out of the temple in Japan, for believe me, Mr 'Awkins, nothing but sorrow and want follows them that disturbs the hidden powers!”
“Poor blighter,” he says quietly, “and last night he was so curious abaout it all. It's very queer, chums, I always think. Naow, 'e knows as much abaout it as they'll ever let 'im know, and last night 'e was all in the dark.”