The Stoat by John McGahern

The Stoat - John McGahernIn The Stoat by John McGahern we have the theme of selfishness, fear, responsibility, rejection and honesty. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story that McGahern may be exploring the theme of selfishness. The protagonist’s father on hearing that Miss McCabe has had a heart attack decides to abandon any notions he had of getting engaged to Miss McCabe. It is as though the protagonist’s father doesn’t want to care for Miss McCabe should the need arise. This may be important as it suggests that the protagonist’s father is being selfish. Thinking only of his own feelings rather than on how Miss McCabe may feel. It seems to be a case that if the focus is not on him he does not want to get engaged to or marry Miss McCabe. If anything Miss McCabe has become a liability rather than an asset to the protagonist’s father. It is also possible that the protagonist’s father fears the outcome should he end up marrying Miss McCabe. He has already buried one wife and may not wish to have to bury a second. Miss McCabe is no longer of any use to the protagonist’s father and as mentioned she has become a liability. Where previously the protagonist’s father had been happy to get engaged to Miss McCabe this is no longer the case. Driven by his own sense of importance the protagonist’s father decides to go back home without discussing the break-up with Miss McCabe.

If anything the protagonist’s father is not taking responsibility for his actions. It would be more appropriate for him to be honest with Miss McCabe rather than simply abandoning her without any type of explanation. Not only is the protagonist’s father acting selfishly but he is also avoiding having to tell Miss McCabe as to why he no longer has any interest in seeing her or getting engaged. His actions lack any type of honesty. Similarly his fears that he may have to take care of Miss McCabe suggest that the most important person in the protagonist’s father’s life is himself. He had been seeking companionship however everything must be on his terms. Something that is noticeable by fact that the protagonist’s father was unhappy with many of the women that he had seen before he choose Ms McCabe. It is possible that the other women may have been too much work for the protagonist’s father. He is looking for something easy in life without having to put too much effort in. Miss McCabe fits the bill till she has a heart attack.

Though the protagonist’s father has every right to choose the woman he wishes to marry some critics might suggest he is acting spinelessly by abandoning or rejecting Miss McCabe. It may also be a case that the protagonist is rejecting his father (and Miss McCabe). Something that is noticeable by the protagonist’s desire to ‘avoid the trout dinner and anything more got to do with them.’ As to why the protagonist wishes to reject his father and Miss McCabe is uncertain. He may have tired of their interaction with one another. Where previously he had no objection to his father finding female companionship. The protagonist has now changed his mind. The protagonist’s relationship with his uncle is also interesting as he appears to have more constructive dialogue with him than he does with his father. Throughout the story the father has been concerned only with his own goal of finding a companion. Whereas it seems his uncle listens to him. Something that is noticeable by the fact that they go on a four-mile walk together and then go to the Grand Central for a drink. It is as though both the protagonist and his uncle share common interests not only professionally but personally too.

The end of the story is also interesting as McGahern repeats a paragraph. This may be important as McGahern could be suggesting that just as the stoat will kill again so too symbolically will the protagonist’s father. Just as the stoat has killed the rabbit. The protagonist’s father has killed off his relationship with Miss McCabe and he may do so with any other woman that does not match the strict criteria that the protagonist’s father has set out. Though the protagonist’s father is looking for companionship he also seems to be looking for perfection yet he is not able to offer this himself. As a man he is flawed. He has abandoned Miss McCabe for no other reason apart from the fact she had a heart attack. The standard that the protagonist’s father has set and which many women have not been able to attain in all possibility may not be realistic. The protagonist’s father himself has very little to offer. He is stuck in his ways something that is noticeable by his reading habits when it comes to the newspaper. Yet the woman that the protagonist’s father seeks must be able to accommodate his idiosyncratic way of living and at the same time have no quirks of note themselves. Again the protagonist’s father is a selfish man who thinks only of himself. If the woman does not tick all the right boxes the protagonist’s father doesn’t want to know. Yet he cannot tick some of the boxes himself.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Stoat by John McGahern." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 2 Oct. 2017. Web.


  • What are some of the symbols in this story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Afia. In many ways the stoat and its actions mirrors the protagonist’s father. Just as they stoat has the ability to kill the rabbit. So too does the protagonists father have the ability to break Miss McCabe’s heart and other women’s heart. The holiday home may also have some symbolic significance. It is possible that McGahern is using the holiday home to highlight the fact that the protagonist’s father doesn’t really take his relationship with Miss McCabe seriously. He won’t be there for her. Just as a holiday is a time to relax. The protagonist’s father might be a little too relaxed. The fact that the protagonist’s father also was unhappy with a lot of the women he met before meeting Miss McCabe may suggest that the protagonist’s father is too picky. It is more likely that this is the case rather than the fact the women the protagonist’s father met were unsuitable. The protagonist’s father is looking for perfection from an imperfect situation.

  • can you describe the narrator”s relationship with his father?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The narrator’s relationship with his father is strained. The narrator does not agree with how his father is treating Miss McCabe. He would also view his relationship with his uncle as being more father-like than his own relationship with his father.

  • Thank you a lot.

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