Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.
"Secrets" by Bernard MacLaverty is a part-epistolary short story of almost 3,400 words.
A young man's great aunt is dying. He joins his family at her home to be there for her final moments. His reminiscences reveal a significant incident that changed their relationship.
Summary of "Secrets"
The protagonist, who had been studying with his girlfriend for their "A" levels, returns home. His Great Aunt Mary is near death, and the house is full of relatives.
He kneels, joining some others in prayer at the bedroom door. His aunt lies in bed with little strength.
He can't bear the noise she's making. He gets up and goes to her sitting-room. He sits at the table, trembling, staring at a vase of flowers. After a long time has passed, he hears women crying from the bedroom.
The young man remembers his aunt. She was always small and neat. Her only jewelry was a cameo ring and a gold locket.
As a child, he had sat on her knee and she had read to him. He asked about the ring. She had gotten it from her grandmother.
One day he went into her room, asking if she had any stamps because he had started collecting them. She took some keys off a shelf and opened a compartment on her desk. There were various piles of papers inside. She gave him a batch of postcards so he could steam off the stamps.
She has him bring the kettle to the room rather than taking the postcards down to the kitchen.
As he steams off the stamps, he notices the name "Brother Benignus" on many of the postcards. His aunt says he was a friend who's dead now.
After getting the stamps off, he puts the postcards back in their place. He reaches for a batch of letters. His aunt tells him not to touch those. Anything else is fine.
He finds a picture of a beautiful girl, who turns out to be his aunt.
There's a picture of a soldier named "John". He asks if this is Brother Benignus, but Aunt Mary doesn't answer. He asks if John was killed in the war. His aunt says no but then says he may have been.
They put her things back in their place. She locks it again and puts the keys back on the shelf.
He remembers a Sunday evening when Aunt Mary was going out for Devotions, a church service. His mother was busy tidying up.
When his aunt leaves, he goes into her room, gets the keys, and opens the desk flap. He takes out the bundle of letters.
The first one is from a soldier who censors letters. He says he loves Mary. It seems to be signed "John".
In the next one, John says how much he thinks of Mary. He reminisces of time they spent together, including their first kiss.
In the next letter, John writes of the terrible cold and the horror of all the frozen dead bodies.
A soldier hit with shrapnel died next to him today. He's angry and feels the experience has changed him. He still loves Mary.
The boy selects a letter at the back of the pile. John is recovering in the hospital. He's been thinking a lot and feels he should sacrifice something. He's had a religious awakening.
The young protagonist hears creaking on the stairs. He frantically tries to gather everything together and put it back. He closes the desk flap as his aunt enters the room.
She opens the desk and sees the untidy pile of letters. She hits him on the face and orders him out of the room. Before he walks out the door, she tells him he's dirt and always will be and that she'll never forget this.
Back in the present, the young man is at the table in his aunt's sitting-room. There's a fire going. His mother comes in to start clearing out the room.
She takes out the papers and letters, glancing at them before throwing them into the fire.
He asks about Brother Benignus. His mother doesn't know who he was, only that Aunt Mary sometimes got books from him in the mail. She keeps burning the cards and comes to the letters. She reads one and throws it in.
The young man asks if Aunt Mary said anything about him before she died. She was too far gone to speak.
He puts his head down and cries into his arm, wanting forgiveness.
Theme: Guilt and Forgiveness
Guilt and forgiveness are major themes in the story even though we might not fully realize this until the end.
We see it, of course, in the protagonist but also in John, the soldier.
The climactic scene where the boy is caught snooping into his aunt's private letters doesn't happen until about 90% of the way through the story. This is when we know without a doubt that the protagonist feels guilt.
Details that were unclear before now make sense in this context:
- "He had been called to be there at the end." His aunt had been dying for a few days but he seems to be the last family member to get there. There could have been many reasons for this, but now we know he feels guilty in her presence.
- "He was trembling with anger or sorrow, he didn't know which." At first, we could think he was angry over the loss of a beloved aunt. Now, it seems he could have been angry with himself, or angry that she was going to die without forgiving him.
Very near the end, the young man asks his mother if Aunt Mary said anything about him. Clearly, he feels guilt over what he did. Even this late in the story, though, we don't know what his main concern is. He might just have been worried that his aunt would reveal what he did, and he'd have to face the judgment of his family. It isn't until the last sentence that we're told that his real concern was being forgiven for his transgression.
Knowing that forgiveness was his main concern makes us empathize with the protagonist. He wasn't worried about getting in trouble. He was worried because he had hurt his aunt.
Guilt is the reason that Aunt Mary has the secret that is revealed in her letters.
John loved Mary and wanted to get back to her. As the horrors of the war pile up, he feels he's changing. He writes, "If I live through this experience I will be a different person." His love stays constant, though.
When it's over he says he "must do something, must sacrifice something to make up for the horror of the past year." It seems that John feels guilty for surviving when others have died. He can't forgive himself for this. His guilt moves him to take up a religious life, thus giving up a "normal" life with Mary.
1. What is the significance of the title?
The obvious secret in the story is the one in Aunt Mary's letters.
Another secret is the incident between the protagonist and Aunt Mary. It seems neither he nor she ever told anyone else what happened between them. She took that secret to her grave, and the protagonist might do the same.
2. What is the significance of Aunt Mary's cameo ring?
The scene with the ring establishes Aunt Mary's secretive nature and, thus, foreshadows the primary conflict.
Her young nephew would occasionally ask her about it when she read to him. She was only comfortable giving him a limited amount of information. Her grandmother gave it to her as a brooch, and she had it made into a ring. She wouldn't say anything else about it. In answer to the boy's further inquiries she would say, "Don’t be so inquisitive."
If a reader was paying really close attention, this scene would create a sense of foreboding. Taken in combination with the story's title, we could guess that something Aunt Mary wants to keep private is going to come out. If she doesn't want to reveal details about the provenance of a family heirloom, how will she react to the airing of a personal secret?
Because of this understated scene with her ring, we could guess that the story's climax will involve her reacting badly to an exposure.
3. Why does Aunt Mary react so strongly to her nephew's transgression?
Her reaction to a young child's violation of privacy is undoubtedly extreme: "‘You are dirt,’ she hissed, ‘and always will be dirt. I shall remember this till the day I die.’" This is in addition to hitting him across the face.
If she had struck him in the face and then been upset with him for a while, that would have been fairly extreme. Calling him dirt and holding onto the grudge forever is way beyond what we would expect.
Aunt Mary seems to be taking out her anger over losing John on her nephew.
She loved him. She kept in touch with him long after she knew they had no romantic future. She never married someone else, whether by choice or from lack of opportunity we don't know. Either way, losing her young love was a major blow to her life.
It's possible that her outburst is against the unfairness of her life—her love was figuratively killed in the war. The man who was going to marry her "died".