The Sniper Commentary
“The Sniper” by Liam O’ Flaherty is a short story about a sniper, set in the Irish Civil War. The author uses characterization, symbolism and third person limited point of view to develop the central theme of the horrors of war. The main character in the story is the mysterious Sniper, who is serving active duty in the Irish Civil War for the Republicans. The story opens with the Sniper attempting to eat on a rooftop, when an enemy sniper opens fire on him. He retaliates and manages to take down the enemy sniper and his informant, a frail old woman. During the course of this, his arm is wounded by fire from another Free State sniper. Unable to hold on to his rifle, he draws his revolver and kill the enemy with it, only to find that he has shot his brother.
Using characterization, Liam O’ Flaherty develops the main character in the story and builds a foundation for the other literary devices in the narrative. The author indirectly characterizes the Sniper, showing him to fairly nonchalant. “He paused for a moment, considering whether he should risk a asmoke. It was dangerous. The flash might be seen in the darkness, and there were enemies watching. He decided to take the risk. Placing a cigarette between his lips he struck a match inhaled the smoke hurriedly and put out the light. Almost immediately a bullet flattened itself against the parapet of the roof. The sniper took another whiff and put out the cigarette”. The Sniper is stone cold in the face of death; he feels his life is worth as much as a puff on a cigarette. His calm in the face of death is shown repeatedly, the author goes so far as to state it implicitly when his facial features are described. “His face was the face of a student, thin and ascetic, but his eyes had the cold gleam of a fanatic. They were deep and thoughtful, the eyes of a man used to looking at death.” To the Sniper, death is an everyday occurrence, a necessity of war.
He has become desensitized to it. Even the prospect of his own death doesn’t seem to faze him, “Suddenly from the opposite roof a shot rang out and the sniper dropped the rifle with a curse. The rifle clattered to the roof. The sniper thought the noise would wake the dead. […] ‘I’m hit’, he muttered”. This serves again to showcase the unnatural stoicism that war has brought on. He’s seen so much death and killed so many people that even when he’s been in the arm, unable to hold his rifle and facing sudden death, he accepts it. Life holds little to no value for him. These points assist in creating a base for the next literary device, which is the third person limited point of view. The third person limited point of view is crucial to the story, it sets up the readers for the surprise ending and is the reason that the aforementioned indirect characterization is so effective. This point of view allows for the narrative to be impersonal but still relatable. “He paused for a moment, considering whether he should risk a smoke. It was dangerous. The flash might be seen in the darkness, and there were enemies watching. He decided to take the risk. Placing a cigarette between his lips he struck a match inhaled the smoke hurriedly and put out the light.
Almost immediately a bullet flattened itself against the parapet of the roof. The sniper took another whiff and put out the cigarette”. Due to the structure of the storytelling, this excerpt manages to be impersonal, distant but still relatable. The author can provide details about the character and setting but still keep a distant tone, as there is no personal bias as there would be in other POV’s. If that passage was written in first person, the element of distance would be gone, rendering it not nearly as effective as it could have been.
Turning to symbolism, another key element, used by the author to tie together plot and showcase how the war detrimentally affects the lives of people living in the warring nations. In the narrative, the two warring factions, the Free Staters and Republicans are both comprised of Irishmen, who are fighting each other because they want civil things. This internal conflict is shown on a smaller scale with the Sniper and his brother. The conflict between the brothers and the Free Staters and the Republicans is internal conflict, a mirrored conflict of sorts. The two warring factions in the Irish civil wars both happen to be Irish, they’ve picked up arms against their brothers. The Sniper “felt a sudden curiosity as to the identity of the enemy sniper whom he had killed. He decided that he was a good shot, whoever he was. […] The sniper darted across the street. […] He threw himself downward beside the corpse.
The machine gun stopped. Then the sniper turned over the dead body and looked into his brother’s face.” This excerpt relates back to the first point that was made, both the sniper and his brother were excellent shots, both had advantageous vantage points, the sniper’s brother was an extension of his own being. This scenario symbolizes the futility of a war like the Irish civil war, in which brother fights brother and Irishmen fights Irishmen. Furthermore, the theme of the horrors of war is further developed by the lack of names given to any characters. This symbolizes how in war, the act of taking a life is ofttimes thoughtless. Countless, unnamed individuals die, no one but their families and friends knew who they were yet they died for their cause.
To conclude, Liam Flaherty’s “The Sniper” is a piece that resonates with the readers on a personal level, one that stays with you even after you finish the story. The message of the horrors of war that the author supports with adroit usage of symbolism, narrative structure and characterization, will always be relevant. The author leaves us with a feeling that is somewhat reminiscent of the words of the late Emperor Shōwa of Japan during WWII, “All men are brothers, like the seas throughout the world; So why do winds and waves clash so fiercely everywhere?”.