Joyce Carol Oates story ‘Angel of Mercy’

Enda’s Literature in Medicine presentation notes 9.11.09

Imagery: – river on fire; flaccid flesh, runny bedsores;

Narrator= cynic:- “I don’t believe personally that there was any Agnes. I mean, an individual nurse who committed those acts. … Have I seen the Angel of Mercy? No I have not

You scorn such tales as the most ridiculous superstition

Recovery rate on neuropsychiatric floor/ ward (City of the Damned)= nil. Ability to cling to life (even though in vegetative state)

Arrogance of R—: “She’s a nurse: she doesn’t need to be told

She will not become hard, cynical, depressed, like the others” – (naivety)

it might be possible for him to relearn speech, motor skills…

Of course I’m not. Not in love. Not with a patient. Not such a patient

Refusing to see the shimmering translucent shadow at the end of the corridor

R- observes his penis move as if of its own volition; and it seems to her that Mr. Roper’s breath quickens too.” – wishful thinking re recovery

Agnes “harbor(s) no fear that any Court of Law will “try” me” – mercy killer, – acts of love, believes that it is in the victims best interests that she kills them. “It is Good, to dispel Evil. I bring Mercy to those who suffer. I AM MERCY

Acts of Mercy committed upon patients you would not expect to die so soon

This is Mercy, this is needed

G-D whose terrible name cannot be uttered” – fear of name.

Use of descriptive imagery: “brain-stricken on the City of the Damned stare

barely breathing stoke victim mummy you must shift, turn, turn, shift, in his stale-smelling bed in the (futile) hope of alleviating bedsores

Unmistakable odor of bacteria gleefully breeding

the body may remain; the “patient” is gone

For if you see Agnes, in the next instant you don’t. If you don’t see Agnes, in the next instant you might

Class segregation – R- didn’t like Marcus Roper at first because he was from a higher social class to her

Marcus Roper was … “of indeterminate sex, race, age, swathed in gauze and bandages and motionless as a bundle of laundry

Ability to cling to life (even though in vegetative state): “there were vital functions that persevered grimly, despite the trauma”, “Yet the heart was strong and did not cease its beating”, “Now patient was breathing laboriously but unassisted”, “How bored we are with the dying, who cling to their diminished lives like barnacles to the hull of a rotting ship.

Agnes: “Radiation room is leaking its rays… I protect myself with double layers of underwear stockings. Beneath my cap a knitted cap.” – innocence

A clumsy look to Agnes… so you were surprised how capable Agnes was in her work, yes and how graceful.

In the City of the Damned such vigils were not uncommon


Towards the end Agnes seems to be deteriorating mentally, her spelling in her diary entries is getting worse and she becomes more unpredictable.

Summary of Class Discussion:

  • Euthanasia.
  • Agnes is the end product of the atmosphere of the ward.
  • Agnes: Link between pity and mercy. Mercy = killing, Pity= keeping alive.
  • Empathy/sympathy/pity: Pity has a shameful connotation. All of the above have general, colloquial meaning of “that sucks”
    • Difference in religious terms between “Have pity on us” and “Have mercy on us”
    • Empathy definition: “The power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.
    • Sympathy definition: “A (real or supposed) affinity between certain things, by virtue of which they are similarly or correspondingly affected by the same influence, affect or influence one another (esp. in some occult way), or attract or tend towards each other. Obs. exc. Hist. or as merged in other senses.
    • Pity definition: “The disposition to mercy or compassion; clemency, mercy, mildness, tenderness.
    • All above definitions from
  • Doctor’s are unable to convey the experience unless they have had that experience themselves.
  • Written work is scientific only if the science is quantifiable, that is, as long as it is in a requisite amount to prevent it from being just opinion.
  • Fiction:
    • Delves deeper than non-fiction – there is a confidentiality aspect that is associated with non-fiction that isn’t present in fiction.
    • There are always elements of reality in fiction.
    • The use of appropriate language in fiction.



One thought on “Joyce Carol Oates story ‘Angel of Mercy’

  1. I think to say that Agnes is ” the end product of the atmosphere of the ward “, is an excellent interpretation of the human condition, ” what it means to be human ,”i am of the opinion that it is almost always our environment which shapes our decision making, no matter how dramatic or irrelevant. We are ultimately the product of our environment.

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