Robert Stone

A Flag for Sunrise

  • This summary of A Flag for Sunrise includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

A Flag for Sunrise Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone.

A Flag for Sunrise (1981), a novel by American author Robert Stone, follows three Americans—an anthropologist, a nun, and a psychopathic ex-Coast Guard—as they are drawn into a violent revolution in the fictional Central American republic of Tecan. Exploring American complicity in South American politics as well as religious mysticism, the novel was hailed as “the best novel of ideas…since Dostoevsky escaped from Omsk” by the New York Times. However, most reviewers noted that the novel does not reach the heights of Stone’s best-known novel, the 1975 National Book Award-winner Dog Soldiers.

In Tecan “there’s nothing but failure…The country is a failure. A disaster of history.” The dictator hides out in a fortress, protected by his brutal police force, the Guardia Nacional. Meanwhile domestic and foreign oligarchs get rich extracting the country’s mineral wealth. However, as the novel opens, idealistic guerrillas have set up camp in the hills, preparing for a sudden coordinated attack. They are backed by the native Atapa Indians. The whole nation is tense, poised on the brink of violence.

In the tiny port town of French Harbor, a Roman Catholic mission station weighs its options. The mission leader, an American priest Father Charlie Egan, has declined into raving alcoholism. Its congregation has declined too, consisting of a few ex-pat American hippies and a Mennonite named Weitling. The Mennonite is insane: he sacrifices Tecan children to the Lord. Egan knows this but has decided to try to reform Weitling rather than report him. Egan’s subordinate, an American nun Sister Justin Feeney is beginning to lose her faith. This loss of faith is stoked by her romantic passion for revolutionary local priest Father Godoy, who convinces her to support the rebels.

Tecan is a client state of the U.S., so when the Guardia begins to suspect Justin of helping the rebels, they report their suspicions to the CIA.

Meanwhile, American anthropologist Frank Holliwell is giving a lecture in the neighboring state of Compostela. He is surprised to see an old friend, who turns out to be working for the CIA and asks Frank to visit French Harbor to report on the activities of the mission. Holliwell is reluctant but has no reason to refuse: he is “without beliefs, without hope—either for himself or for the world. Almost without friends, certainly without allies. Alone.”

Back in America, a young Coast Guard Pablo Tabor is in the process of blowing up his life: he kills his dogs (for no obvious reason), abandons his son, and sets off for South America, winding up in Compostela. There he falls in with a wealthy American couple, Jack and Deedee Callahan. The Callahans hire Pablo to work on a shrimp boat, which turns out to be a disguised gunrunning motor launch. The Callahans are making a large profit supplying arms to the rebels in Tecan.

Holliwell arrives in French Harbor and is immediately taken with the beautiful Sister Justin: “He avoided looking her in the eyes; it was harrowing because she could conceal nothing. Along with the fear, mastering it was a mighty pride. More was what drove her. Whatever the world afforded in the name of virtue, sacrifice, good works—she wanted more, wanted it all, as though she deserved it. She could be clever, she could play a little homely poker but she had never learned to trim the lights of her pride.” As Holliwell falls in love with Justin, he, too, is drawn into the rebel cause. Eventually, they embark on a love affair, in which both are humiliated.

Father Egan has begun having powerful mystical visions of entities from the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. He and Justin are ordered to close the mission and return to the U.S. Both refuse and go rogue instead.

Justin volunteers as a nurse in the revolutionary army. Her service for the rebels satiates her hunger for meaning, and she experiences a religious joy, but when the battle is joined, a psychopathic member of the Guardia bludgeons Justin to death. Sister Justin’s last words—“Behold the handmaid of the Lord”—disturb the Guardia lieutenant, making him question his actions.

Pablo embarks on a murderous rampage, abetted by the various guerrilla factions and the machinations of the CIA. Holliwell likewise drifts through the country, encountering various American figures with cynical interests in Tecan: journalists, a jeweler, resort developers. Holliwell concludes that these outsiders have “no business down there.” Meanwhile, through the actions of these American interlopers, the revolutionaries are gradually betrayed and killed.

Pablo and Holliwell end up together, escaping on a small boat. Holliwell feels “alone and lost, in utter darkness without friend or faction . . . a frightening place—the point he had been working toward since the day he had come south . . . his natural, self-appointed place.” Alluding to Marlowe’s Faust, he addresses the dawn sky, “where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament! One drop of blood will save me!” Nevertheless, he is unable to take solace in this religious impulse. The novel’s final image is of the churning sea: the world at its most hostile, inhuman, and destructive.