Liam O’Flaherty’s “The Sniper” is a popular story, as it’s engaging, very short, and has a powerful ending.
Summary of “The Sniper”
Night falls on Dublin. Around the Four Courts, guns roar; throughout the city, gunfire is heard as the Free Staters and Republicans fight a civil war.
A young Republican sniper lies on a roof-top. He eats a sandwich and drinks some whiskey, the first food he’s had since morning. He risks lighting a cigarette, aware that the flash could give away his position. As soon as he lights it, a bullet whizzes over his head and he drops immediately.
He saw the flash come from a housetop on the other side of the street. He rolls to a chimney stack, using it for cover as he looks to the other side. He can’t see anyone.
An enemy armored car crosses the bridge, stopping about fifty yards ahead. An old woman approaches it and talks to the man in the turret. She points at his rooftop. The soldier opens the turret and looks. The sniper fires at him, killing him, then fires at the woman as she heads for cover. She shrieks and falls into the gutter dead.
There’s a shot from the other rooftop and the sniper drops his rifle. He’s been hit and his right arm is deadened. He crawls back to the parapet, and tends to his wound and fights the pain.
The armored car leaves across the bridge. The sniper lies still, thinking of his escape. He can’t still be there come morning. He has to kill the other sniper, but he can’t lift his rifle. He comes up with a plan.
He hangs his cap on his rifle and pushes it up until it’s visible from the other side. A bullet pierces the cap. He tilts the rifle so the cap falls off the roof, lets his left arm hang lifelessly over the side, and then lets his rifle fall to the ground.
He crawls to the left and looks at the other roof. The enemy sniper is standing in the open, thinking he has killed his target. The Republican sniper lifts his revolver and aims. It’s a difficult shot, but he makes it. His enemy reels, drops his rifle, then falls off the roof to the ground below.
The sniper shudders and feels remorse. He curses everything and throws his revolver to the roof. It goes off, nearly hitting him. The shock returns him to his senses. He finishes his whiskey. It makes his feel reckless.
He retrieves his revolver, then crawls into the house below. On the street, he’s overcome with curiosity about his fallen enemy. Maybe he knew the man.
There’s firing up the street, but this part is quiet. He darts into the street. Machine gun fire follows him, but he’s not hit. He dives face down beside the corpse. He turns over the body and sees his brother’s face.
Theme: Effects of War
The general effects of war like all the killing and dying are obvious. There’s also the isolating and alienating effects (see next section).
Here we’ll consider the effect on the protagonist. “His eyes had the cold gleam of the fanatic”, and he’s “used to look at death.” This seems to be contrasted with what comes immediately before: “His face was the face of a student. . .” He could have been a student not too long ago, innocent of the terrible things he knows now.
We can see he’s been hardened by war in the incident with the gunner and old woman. An inexperienced soldier might have hesitated but he doesn’t. He kills them both, the gunner as an obvious enemy combatant, and the old woman who’s inserted herself into the conflict, giving up her civilian status.
Up until he kills the enemy sniper, he feels “the lust of battle.” Most likely, he didn’t have this before the war. After, there’s a flash of his old self, as he’s “bitten by remorse” and he suffers a minor breakdown looking at his dead enemy. This lapse nearly gets him killed again, as his dropped revolver fires, narrowly missing him. It’s clear that this attitude isn’t conducive to survival. The effects of war on individuals, while seemingly undesirable, might be helpful in combat situations.
Theme: Isolation & Alienation
The protagonist’s isolation is immediately established—he’s alone on a rooftop at night without any support nearby. He has no one to cover him or to help overwhelm the enemy. His isolation is emphasized when he’s shot in the arm and has to do everything himself—cutting his sleeve, opening the field dressing, opening and applying the iodine, then covering, wrapping and tying the dressing.
The Irish people are alienated from each other, divided along political lines—those in favor of the Anglo-Irish treaty and those against it, resulting in civil war. This extreme reversal is pointed out directly in the text when the sniper starts wondering about his dead rival: “Perhaps he had been in his own company before the split in the army.” Soldiers who fought side by side in the recently ended Irish War of Independence are now trying to kill each other.
The shocking reveal at the end brings the theme of alienation to the fore. It’s even worse than the killing of a former comrade. He’s killed his own brother. Their alienation is now forever.
The protagonist has to go long stretches without food and rest, but these are the least of his survival concerns.
The simple act of lighting a cigarette for a little pleasure nearly gets him killed. On the roof, he has to crawl and roll around, and stay behind cover at all times. His enemy on the other roof is taking similar precautions.
The consequences of carelessness are also seen in the incident with the armored car gunner and old woman. They conspire against the sniper in the open and immediately die for it. His offensive nearly gets him killed again, as he’s hit by the enemy sniper.
The sniper’s survival skills are seen after he’s struck in the arm. Fighting through the pain, he tends to the wound himself. His thinking stays clear, as he keeps out of sight and then formulates a plan.
His survival is almost guaranteed when his plan succeeds, making the enemy sniper think he’s been killed. This makes him stand in the open, allowing a kill shot. As often happens in war, for one to survive, another has to die.
Although he has a way out now, the sniper’s survival is in question one more time. After finishing his whiskey he feels reckless, incorrectly thinking there isn’t much danger in the street. He nearly dies for the third time, as he’s narrowly missed by a hail of machine gun fire.
The sniper’ survival ultimately seems to depend as much on luck as on his skills.