First Confession by Frank O’Connor
In First Confession by Frank O’Connor we have the theme of conflict, appearance, division, connection, fear, innocence and honesty. Taken from his Collected Stories collection the story is a memory piece and is narrated in the first person by a man called Jackie. What is interesting about the beginning of the story is that O’Connor may be exploring the theme of conflict and appearance. Jackie doesn’t like the fact that his grandmother lives with him. He doesn’t like her way of life and if anything is embarrassed by her appearance. Something that is noticeable by Jackie’s refusal to bring Bill Connell into his home. What is also interesting about the conflict that exists between Jackie and his grandmother is that O’Connor appears to be drawing on the common divide between city and country people. Jackie is from the city and is unaccustomed to how his grandmother lives her life. If anything not only is he embarrassed by her lifestyle choices but he also appears to be agitated by them. Even going as far as refusing to eat any food that his grandmother may have prepared. This may be important as by refusing to eat any of his grandmother’s food Jackie is distancing himself further from his grandmother. Unlike Nora who appears to be open to indulging her grandmother’s peculiarities (in Jackie’s eyes) because she gets a penny from her every Friday.
The sense of division that exists between Jackie and his grandmother is also replicated when it comes to Jackie’s father. After Jackie attacks Nora with the bread-knife his father scolds him while his mother takes his side. This may be important as it suggests that Jackie, though he finds life difficult, has an ally (his mother). He is not alone despite how he feels about his grandmother. If anything there are two factions in the family. Jackie’s father, his grandmother and Nora on one side and Jackie and his mother on the other side. By being on Jackie’s side it is possible that O’Connor is suggesting that Jackie’s mother has an ability to connect with him. Like Jackie she too may understand how difficult her mother-in-law can be. Mrs Ryan’s character may also be important as it is through her introduction that O’Connor appears to be exploring the theme of fear and innocence. By telling Jackie and his classmates about the man who made a bad confession Mrs Ryan successfully manages to frighten Jackie. Rather than introducing Jackie and his classmates to a loving God Mrs Ryan seems to focus on the children’s innocence. Using that to frighten them into her way of thinking.
It may also be significant that Mrs Ryan is dressed in a black cloak. Symbolically O’Connor may be suggesting that she is not only a dark or negative influence on the children but she is also unenlightened (or in the dark) herself when it comes to matters of religion. The reality being she may not necessarily be an appropriate guide for children when it comes to their first confession and Communion. It is also noticeable that when Jackie is on his way to make his first confession Nora also instills fear into him. Just as Mrs Ryan played on Jackie’s innocence and naivety so too does Nora. In many ways both Nora and Mrs Ryan are the same when it comes to their interpretation of religion. Neither may be appropriate guides for Jackie.
O’Connor further explores the theme of connection while Jackie is giving his first confession. There is a sense that the priest rather than scorning Jackie for wanting to kill his grandmother is actually identifying or connecting with him. Unlike Mrs Ryan who used fear as her starting point or introduction to first confession the priest is kind and considerate. Taking on board the difficulties that Jackie feels when it comes to living with his grandmother. If anything the priest, who is described as being young unlike Mrs Ryan, is allowing Jackie to be a child and human. It is also noticeable that the priest supports Jackie. When Jackie tells the priest about the incident with Nora and the bread-knife the priest suggests that ‘someone will go for her with a bread-knife one day.’ Though Jackie doesn’t fully understand what the priest means it is clear to the reader that just as Jackie’s mother is his ally, so too is the priest. He understands Jackie.
The end of the story is also interesting as O’Connor appears to be using the setting to breathe a new lease of life into Jackie. By having Jackie dazzled by the sunlight O’Connor may be suggesting that Jackie is no longer living in fear of God (or first confession). Mrs Ryan’s dark influence is gone. Also O’Connor tells the reader that Jackie’s ‘heart soared’ while he was outside the church. Which would again suggest that any fear or negativity (from others) that Jackie felt is likewise gone. It may also be significant that Nora can’t believe that Jackie was only given three Hail Mary’s for his penance. It is possible that O’Connor is disassociating Jackie from Nora. Though Jackie may have thought of killing his grandmother he has been honest throughout the story with not only the priest but the reader too. Unlike Nora who seems to have an agenda or motive behind all her actions. Something that both Jackie and the priest are aware of.