Sullivan is a little boy of ten years. It’s a small family of two persons with meagre means. The mother is working and the son like any other boy of his age goes to school. He is a loving son and for the mother her son is as good as gold itself.
The story starts with the terrible sound of constant coughing of the sick mother which wakes up the little boy and he runs downstairs to look into the matter. There he finds his mother in a critical condition collapsing in an armchair holding her sides. Totally distressed she was trying to light a fire to make tea for the boy but the smoke generated by the wet sticks worsened her cough. The worried son immediately takes charge of everything. He stops her from going to work and makes her lie in the bed.
Dutiful Sullivan makes tea and toast for her. He immediately decides that instead of going to school he would stay at home to look after his mother and mind home affairs. Systematic boy heats up another kettle of water and cleans up the breakfast mess. Then he comes to his mother to make a list to shop for dinner. Caring Sullivan is worried and wants to call a doctor for his mother but his thrifty mother declines his wish as she is afraid that the doctor would send her to the hospital. To cheer up the frightened son the affectionate mother tries to pretend that she is fit and fine but their neighbour Miss Minnie Ryan has all the doubts that she might be suffering from pneumonia. She advises him to give his mother some hot whiskey mixed with a squeeze of lemon in it to comfort her.
Determined Sullivan goes to the public house for the first time to get whiskey. Although scared he does not lose courage and overcomes his fear. Whiskey does not work that well and the whole night depressed Sullivan could not sleep due to the terrible coughing of his mother. She keeps on rambling badly while talking. In the morning bewildered Sullivan heads to call the doctor from the distant dispensary. Before that, he goes to get a ticket from the house of a Poor Law Guardian to save the doctor’s fees. The organized boy tidies the house and keeps ready the basin of water, soap and a clean towel for the doctor. Much to their relief the doctor doesn’t advise hospitalizing the mother instead he prescribes a cough syrup for her.
Reliant Sullivan’s sincerity and concern earn all the praise of Miss Ryan and the doctor for him. Again the poor boy sets off with a bottle to get the medicine from the dispensary situated at a distant place. On the way, he comes across a cathedral. With complete devotion, he prays for his mother’s quick recovery in his heart and makes up his mind to spend his only penny to light a candle in the church when he would finish his task. At the dispensary, he meets a little girl Dooley who has come to get medicine for her sister. The girl is very clever and talkative. Anguished Sullivan enjoys her company after going through such terrible times. On the way back the innocent boy spends his penny on sweets which they both enjoyed. Dooly is a cunning girl. She incites Sullivan to taste the sweet cough syrup of his mother. The confused boy gives way to temptation. Both of them relish it immensely. When the entire medicine is consumed confused Sullivan realizes his fault. He begins to panic and starts crying. Dooly misleads him to tell a lie that the cork fell out.
Repentant Sullivan is full of remorse and guilt feeling. He fears that because of his negligence his mother would not get well. Panicked Sullivan prays the Virgin Mary to do some miracle to save his mother. He gets back home totally broken and shattered. Mother is alarmed to see him howl. She hugs and consoles him passionately. Truthful and honest Sullivan confesses his crime. The forgiving mother shrugs it off. The tired boy falls fast asleep under the intoxication of the medicine. With the grace of God, the miracle happens and Sullivan wakes up to find his mother smiling and recovering.
The story is written in autobiographical mode. The language of the text is rich and descriptive. The content of the story is based on the delicate relationship of a mother and son. The marathon efforts of the little boy to make his ailing mother comfortable fill the hearts of the readers with compassion and sympathy. The childish act of drinking the medicine of his mother by the kids is the climax of the story. Along with the boy, the readers too get nervous that what is going to happen now. The plot of the story is binding.
The title of the story is very appropriate. Having his mother ill the small boy takes up the whole responsibility to attend to her and mind the household. He does everything that an adult person would have done to manage the situation. Even he goes to a pub to get whiskey for his mother although he was scared to see the ruffians there. He acts like a mature person taking all the wise decisions to help his mother get well soon. That is why he is aptly called ‘The Man of the House’.