Autobiographical to a large extent, The Stoat by John MacGahern, an Irish writer, is also a study of impulses and instincts. The story is bracketed off literarally by a display of animal insticts and aggression. This story was rewritten several times and revised more than once.
The story pivots on different themes. Apart from human relationships and the animal insticts in all living beings, the story is also about values, persoal refinement and opportunism. The first paragraph and the last paragraph are mostly about how, a rabbit is killed but not eaten by a stoat. The reference to a stoat appears three more times in the story. Thus inhuman aggression can be considered the main theme of the story.
“All night the rabbit must have raced from warren to warren, he thought, the stoat on his trail. Plumper rabbits had crossed the stoat’s path but it would not be deflected ; it had marked down this one rabbit to kill”
This sentence in the second paragraph of the story repeated at the end of the story raises the story from the level of mundane allegory to that of subtle parallelism. However, there is no sin of generalisation here as there are different kinds of characters in the story. Contraty to this parallelism, it is a dying lady who stalks a robust widower.
Miss Mcabe was the real name of a lady with whom the authors father was in love. So, the author himself can be considered as the narrator of the story. The story which has been a puzzle for several critics, is different from its true life version only in its details. It being not so different from real life is one reason why the author gave up working on it any further and avoided it from his major collections.
The story has a very simple plot. A father rents a cottage where he spends a month every August. He, a widower, plans to remarry and puts up an advertisement. After testing and trying about a fifty responses, he settles for Miss McCabe, a school teacher. One day, the son brings home a rabbit which a stoat attacked and left half dead. The son had ended its life. The son cooks it and enjoys it with his father and Miss McCabe who was staying at a hotel near the beach close to them. That night, back in the hotel, the lady shows signs of heart failure. On hearing this the father decides to leave her. In the end, the boy feels more than a little irritated about the father’s ways. In between we hear also about the boy’s uncle with whom the boy is in very good terms.
The key point appears right in the middle of the storry. The uncle and the boy are in a bar where he tells the boy that he likes his company and hopes to see more of him if his father remarries.
He’d like that too. With his uncle everything seemed open: ‘Life seems to have no purpose other than to reproduce itself. Life comes of matter and goes back into matter. We inherit it and pass it on. We might as well take as decent a care of it as we can. You can’t go against love and not be in error.’ Nothing was closed. This freedom was gaiety, even though it seemed that it caused him to seem most lonely.
Eventually, we see how much the son is influenced by his uncle and how much he resents his father’s behaviour and how he chooses to stand alone and be strong. For his uncle, nothing was closed. For the father, nothing was open and he could not even reveal to his girlfriend how his son came by a rabbit he cooked for her.
The interactions between the boy and the uncle on one end, between the rabbit and the stoat on the other end and between the father and his girls somewhere in the middle, this story gives a spectrum of relationships, from co-existence to parasitism to agression and dominance.
When the boy brings the dead rabbit, the father teases the boy’s and his uncle’s humane side,
“No doubt, it can be another specimen for youself and your uncle to mull over”
To this the boy has a proper reply hinting at the father’s narrowminded politics,
“Well, it is as good as what you find in The Independent”
This defines the difference between the uncle and the father since the political magazines generally care only about the lives of humans and this is only a natural outcome of the misled quest for survival. The uncle and the son have soared over what is natural and refined themselves to have better values and principles in life. When he comes to know the father’s joke about getting grant to improve the look of women who responded to the ad, the uncle coments that,
“…the man must finally have gone off his rocker.”
and says to the son that,
“At least, if he does get married, it’ll get him off your back.”
Finally it is the son who tries to make the father see that he is being too selfish. But the father fails to see the point. The insight and objectivity help the son see deep into situations and people. He sees ‘with terrifying clarity that it was the stoat the father had glimpsed in Miss. McCabe’s hotel toom’ where she was recuperating after a heart attack.
Even though the story is ridden with details, everything is carefully chosen to make meaning. Miss McCabe and the father revels in the dinner and looks forward to more while the son feels bad about having been part of what he sees as buffoonery. The uncle later contrasts a driving licence with a marriage licence. Another example is the opportunism shown by the people at he post office when they see so many responses to the marriage ad. All this obviously support the theme.