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The Stoat - Analysis

English Literature – The Stoat
Strive for Perfection
It is rightly said that ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’. The Stoat, by John
McGahern, is an accurate representation of this age-old proverb, the tale of a stoat and a
rabbit, the hunter and the hunted, the predator and its prey. Just as the stoat marks the rabbit
for death, so does the father who hunts for perfection, for a perfect wife in a virtually imperfect
world, while abandoning any imperfection he encounters, just as the stoat abandons every
other rabbit, in order to attain its conquest.
The story begins with the introduction of the medical student, the son, who is seen playing golf
before hearing the anguished cries of a rabbit, moments away from death, while a stoat slithers
away, looking for an easier, more viable candidate. Unbeknownst to us initially, this is a pivotal
moment in the story ahead.
We are introduced to the father, a school principal, a supposed “perfectionist”. He is engaged
to a woman named Miss McCabe and both father and son seem to have no objections against
the current arrangements. However, the heart attack of Miss McCabe is a turning point in the
story which sheds light upon the true nature of the father, the principal. Already reeling from
the loss of his first wife, the father expresses his reluctance to marry Miss McCabe, due to the
fact that she can ‘pop off’ at any second; her death was imminent and unpredictable. That is
what death is about. Yet the principal’s meticulousness is such that even death must adhere to
a strict timetable. We don’t always get what we want, though. Although there is no possible
way to justify his disgusting actions, it must be taken into consideration that the father does
not want to bury another woman. It is as if Miss McCabe is a ticking time bomb, just waiting
to explode, unpredictable and dangerous.
The father abandons all notions and plans of marrying her and unanimously calls off the
engagement, without so much as an explanation to Miss McCabe, a display of his cowardice;
he is too scared to even explain the reasons behind his actions to Miss McCabe. He is unwilling
to take responsibility for his actions; instead, he attempts to flee. He is paramount to most of
the themes of the story – selfishness, responsibility (or the lack of it) and fear. It is ironical
that he who considers himself a perfectionist has so many imperfections. This suggests that
the world is not perfect.
Towards the end of the passage, McGahern repeats the third paragraph of the story, which
now clarifies the pertinence of the stoat and the rabbit to the story. The father is symbolised
by the stoat, whereas the rabbit is symbolic of Miss McCabe. The slaying of the rabbit mirrors
the abrupt end of the relationship between Miss McCabe and the father. Just as the stoat
slithered away, so did the father. It is a sign that he will strike again with various women,
rejecting the ones who do not fulfil his criteria. He is the main character and main antagonist
of the story – The Stoat.
The other themes in the story are – rejection and honesty. The theme of rejection accentuates
the father’s meticulousness. He rejects the women who are flawed ‘wrecks and battleaxes’, as
if they are just ruins wallowing in self-pity and misery. He has no interest in taking care of
anyone, other than himself due to his lethargy. The theme of honesty, or rather the lack of it,
pertains to the father’s dishonesty with Miss McCabe. Rather than confronting his demons
and speaking to her face-to-face, he plans to ‘write to her’, due to his cowardice and spineless
nature. He is nothing more than a coward who, in his opinion, is too good to be true. And when
things got tough, he did not get going.
Nobody is perfect. Perfection is rare. Flaws make up who we are and make us special. The story
accentuates that nobody is perfect and that if perfection existed, then our world would be an
immaculate place. It also teaches us that there is no such thing as true selflessness in our world.
Everyone has an ulterior motive.
Dhruv Raghavan
26 August 2019
Feedback: Overall very well written. However, the essay is rather one-sided; there needs to
be more emphasis on the father’s callousness and other traits of the father. Mention that he
decides to run away. Overall the essay requires balancing but is well written.