To Conquer Fear In the short story, “First Confession,” by Frank O’Connor, a young boy named Jackie finds himself having to conquer his fear of giving his first confession. He realizes by the end that he really had nothing to be afraid of and it was a silly fear. Jackie, scared to death of confession, tries to fake an illness to avoid it, ends up surprising the priest when he does go, and learns that ultimately, perception is scarier than reality. Although it doesn’t seem like it at first, the reader and Jackie learn that in order to conquer fear, one must face it.
Jackie, a young seven year old has been told stories by a woman named Mrs. Ryan that really worry him. One story is about a man who gives a bad confession and essentially eternally burns in hell. Mrs. Ryan also tries to give Jackie and the others a sense of what hell is like: “She lit a candle, took out a new half-crown, and offered it to the first boy who would hold one finger… in the flame for five minutes… Then she asked were we afraid of holding one finger… in a little flame for five minutes and not afraid of burning all over in roasting hot furnaces for all eternity” (O’Connor 26).
When Mrs. Ryan tells stories and plays mind games like this, she’s basically scaring the children into giving a good, complete. However, with Jackie, this is too much, and he is frightened even more that he’ll mess up accidentally and go to hell. Instead of conquering his fear, he runs from it. The day confession comes around doesn’t go. He says, “I was scared to death of confession. The day the whole class went I let on to have a toothache, hoping my absence wouldn’t be noticed” (27). Mrs. Ryan has done her job well, to the point where Jackie is worried beyond belief.
He decides to fake sick so as not to go, but as readers later find, this idea comes back to haunt him. If he had originally gone and faced his fear, the ordeal would already be over. Like many children, Jackie finds it easier to avoid the fears in life rather than confront them. This, however, is not a successful way to live. Since Jackie doesn’t go to confession with his classmates, he receives an order to go alone with his sister. As Jackie enters his church, it’s as if all his worst nightmares are becoming a reality and he’s leaving anything he ever loved: “The door… hut behind me, the sunlight went out and gave place to deep shadow, and the wind whistled outside so that the silence within seemed to crackle like ice under my feet” (28). This imagery shows how even though Jackie is finally beginning to conquer his fear of confession, it’s like a descent into hell. As he walks into the church everything becomes gloomy, creepy, and ominous. This shows how the process of overcoming his trepidation is difficult even though in the long run it will be worthwhile.
Once Jackie is in the confessional, he talks too quietly for the priest to hear and everything continues to get worse: “It was matter between God and me, and He had all the odds” (29). Jackie is facing his fears and so far he’s failing miserably. Of course, if he had not avoided confession in the first place, he would not be struggling. It’s not until the very end of the story that Jackie realizes how beneficial it is to face your fear. Once Jackie and the priest are settled, Jackie slowly begins to open up to the priest and feels more comfortable.
The priest makes Jackie feel welcome: “Feeling I might as well get it over while I had him [priest] in good humour, ‘I had it all arranged to kill my grandmother… I tried to kill Nora too’” (32). Readers finally understand why Jackie is so afraid of confession. Firstly, he didn’t know what would happen if he told and secondly, he was worried if he didn’t tell about his plan to kill his grandmother he’d go to hell. However, the priest only gives Jackie three Hail Mary’s, a small consequence, and it makes him feel like he did the right thing; suddenly it’s all worth it.
By the time Jackie leaves he has a complete change of heart. Jackie says, “He had me there for a full 10 minutes talking… I was genuinely sorry to part with him, because he was the most entertaining character I’d ever met in the religious line. Outside… the sunlight was like the roaring of waves on a beach; it dazzled me” (33). Jackie realizes that there really was nothing to be worried about. The priest knows how to take care of him. When he walks outside again, the imagery changes from gloomy to overjoyed.
Jackie is relieved because his burden of the idea of killing his grandma has been lifted and his fears have been subdued. Readers now see that this trepidation that was haunting Jackie has been lifted because he faced it; he didn’t hide from it. In “First Confession” by Frank O’Connor, readers are shown that facing fears can only help, not hurt. Jackie is excellent proof of this because although he was terrified at first of confession, he ends up finding it enjoyable and relieving. Readers learn that fear itself can be worse than the actual event.