“The Man of the House” first appeared in the New Yorker in 1949 and has been anthologized in the collections More Short Stories by Frank O’Connor (1953), Traveller’s Samples (1951), and Collected Stories (1981). This short story was one of more than 40 stories by Frank O’Connor that the New Yorker published. O’Connor, whose real name was Michael O’Donovan, wrote over 200 short stories, many centering on children’s experiences in Ireland. Some of O’Connor’s stories are overlooked because of their simplistic nature and childlike focus. The author was an only child born to a sensitive mother and an alcoholic father in Cork. Many of his short stories and the first part of his autobiography, An Only Child (1961), feature remnants of his childhood experiences, including his relationship with his mother and the family’s abject poverty. “The Man of the House” provides a glimpse of life from the point of view of a young boy who feels responsible for the care of a sick mother.
At the start of the story Gus, the narrator, admits that he has his shortcomings. His attention span is fairly low, and he has to concentrate in order to be responsible and help his mother. He becomes the man of the house as he gives her the orders she expects from men. The mother, with a cough that could be deadly consumption or a simple cold, takes her son’s orders and lies down for the day. Gus quickly takes over as head of the household and, accordingly, becomes the good Christian while other children are heathens. However, a young girl easily convinces Gus to taste his mother’s medicine, and it is soon gone. Feeling tricked and guilty, Gus runs home in tears and confronts his mother and her friend Ms. Ryan with the empty medicine bottle. His mother is simply grateful that Gus is home, and she then gets up to take care of him. Ms. Ryan levels her judgment against Gus, naming him a simple child after all. In the end, now sick and feeling defeated, Gus happily falls back into the role of a child who is dearly loved by his mother, heathen or not.
As is true of most of O’Connor’s protagonists, Gus does not mind being judged by the likes of Ms. Ryan or others in the community. Above all, he seeks the love of his mother and the comfort of her caretaking. Though he tries to be a good man of the house to help his ailing mother, what he truly prays for and happily receives is the permission to be a child and make mistakes. Ms. Ryan tries to use religion as a way to force Gus into being a good man, but Gus manages to brush off her judgment in the light of his mother’s love and acceptance.
It is possible to argue that young Gus mirrors the young Michael O’Donovan/Frank O’Connor. Both face poverty and judgment at a young age because of an absentee father and medieval ideas about children. However, both also find solace in their mother’s love. The close relationship between mother and son compensates for the boy’s struggle over having to grow up quickly and replace a father who cannot or will not assume his role in the household. The story suggests that a mother’s love is strong enough to allow moments when Gus, and perhaps O’Connor in his life, can make the mistakes necessary to learn how to be a proper and successful adult.
O’Connor, Frank. Collected Stories. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Sheehy, Maurice. Studies on Frank O’Connor. New York: Knopf, 1969.