The Man of the House by Frank O’Connor
In The Man of the House by Frank O’Connor we have the theme of innocence, temptation, guilt, responsibility, control, resilience, redemption and acceptance. Taken from his Collected Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by a man called Gus Sullivan who is looking back at an incident in his life when he was ten years old. It is also after reading the story that the reader realises that O’Connor may be exploring the theme of responsibility. Gus tries on several occasions to act older than his years. He lights the fire in the house. He does the shopping for his mother and he goes to the dispensary to get the medication for his mother. However it is noticeable that while he is at the dispensary Gus does end up drinking his mother’s medication. Which leads to Gus feeling not only guilty but struggling with his conscience. It is also interesting that O’Connor throughout the story looks unfavourably on most of the male characters in the story. The man in the bar comes across as not only been a drunk but also as an irresponsible buffoon. With no real connection with the world. This may be deliberate as O’Connor may be attacking the male dominated society that existed in Ireland at the time the story was written.
The fact that Gus is tempted by the young girl at the dispensary to drink his mother’s medication is also important as not only is it the first occasion in the story in whereby Gus lets himself down. But O’Connor may be drawing on the biblical story of Adam and Eve (and the apple) in the Garden of Eden. Prior to taking the medication Gus’ concentration levels and his desire to do the right thing for his mother were high. Things were going well for him and he was acting responsibly. It is only when he becomes enamoured with the girl that he loses concentration and forgets what his intentions really are. It is also noticeable that for such a young boy the guilt becomes unbearable for Gus. Not only does he feel he has let his mother down but he also feels guilty because he won’t be able to pay for a candle in the Cathedral. Having spent the money on sweets (for the girl). The fact that Gus can’t say his prayer and light a candle in the Cathedral may also be important as O’Connor may be putting a spotlight on the Church and the practice of paying for prayers.
The only thing stopping Gus from going to the Cathedral and lighting the candle is the fact that the Church has an expectation (at times) that an individual pays for their prayer. Something which Gus has most likely been taught. How influential the Church is (at the time the story was written) is noticeable by the fact that Gus adheres to the principles of paying for his prayers and doesn’t go to the Cathedral to light the candle. Based solely on the fact that he has no money. If anything Gus may feel trapped by the conditions imposed on him by the Church. Conditions which would seem to be more about the Church making money rather than assisting the individual. It is also possible that O’Connor is using the candle (and prayer) as symbolism for hope. If this is the case it is noticeable at the end of the story that Gus feels a miracle has happened. His mother has gotten better without the need of the candle or prayer. Which may be important as O’Connor could again be putting a spotlight on the Church. Possibly questioning again the practice of paying for candles (or prayers). When there may be no need to.
What is also interesting about the story is that though Gus’ mother is poorly. She does not scorn Gus when he returns from the dispensary. Instead she takes care of him. Thinking of Gus rather than of herself. Gus’ mother is also resilient. When Gus first sees that his mother is sick, she smiles at him. This may be important as not only does it suggest that Gus’ mother doesn’t want to upset Gus but she also is displaying an exterior toughness. She won’t be beaten by what life throws at her. Regardless of the circumstances she might find herself in. It may also be important that when Gus takes control of the situation, when his mother is in bed, rather than it being Gus who is writing down what needs to be done. It is his mother who is doing the writing. Gus without knowing it seems to be dictating or ordering his mother. It is him telling her what to do. Which may again play on how the female was treated by the male at the time the story was written. By having Gus tell the reader that ‘It’s funny about women, the way they’ll take orders from anything in trousers.’ O’Connor may be highlighting how dominated women may have been (by men) at the time the story was written.
The end of the story is also interesting. Gus feels that a miracle has happened when he wakes up and discovers that his mother is better. It is also noticeable that Gus has redeemed himself. He has told his mother the truth about what has happened. Hiding nothing from her. If anything he is closer to his mother. Gus also realises that he is too young for responsibility and that it is better if someone else takes on that role. His one attempt at being responsible, though good natured, was not successful. He was led to temptation, suffered guilt and because of the practices of the church (paying for prayers) was unable to say the prayers that he wanted to for his mother. Gus spent his day in an adult world. A world which he may not realise is dysfunctional. As to why it is dysfunctional is left to each individual reader to decide. Gus just appears to be happy that he is a child again. A happy and innocent child who has yet to fully learn of the complexities of life. Though he does accept that he is not a good nurse.