Thoughts on Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Angel of Mercy”

(by Cillian Keogh, first-year medical student, TCD)

The story revolves around two nurses, from different generations, whose paths and duties intertwine. The paragraphs of the passage meander, forming a link between the nurses from the beginning.

The first nurse we are presented with is an anonymous “striking blonde girl” named R-. She is the most modern of the protagonists, living in the 2000s.

The other nurse featured is the “red-haired” Agnes O’Dwyer. She is also given the alias ‘Angel of Mercy’ because of the heinous acts she committed in the 1960s.

The ‘Angel of Mercy’ sees herself as a heroine, a panacea for all the patients’ illnesses. She heals them by killing them, ‘giving them mercy’.

The link between the nurses is initially barely evident as  R- is illustrated as a kind, virtuous character in front of the backdrop of Agnes’ anarchy. R- insists “she will not become hard, cynical, depressed, like the others.” The ironic tragedy associated with this vow is not lost on the reader upon reaching the denouement.

Over the course of the text though the author slowly releases information showing that the nurses are more similar than we previously thought – they went to the same nursing school; they both were summa cum laudé in their class; they bow see themselves as Christians; and the most importantly, they work on the same ward.

The ward is ‘Tumor and Stroke’ but is grimly referred to as the “City of the Damned” in the text. With these harrowing words the reader is immediately thrust into a world of pain and suffering synonymous with the ward.

As the excerpt progresses, we see R- sapped of her original kindness and compassion – “Too hot? Too cold? Am I being too rough?” – and transformed into one of the hardy nurses whom she abhorred – she washes “ a stubby penis . . . to console herself.”

The finale of the text leads the reader to believe that R- has become everything she despised as a nurse, and follow the same path as Agnes, by killing Marcus Roper – the patient with whom she had fallen in love – “I love you, Marcus.”

There are many themes noticeable in the passage but perhaps the most notable is the theme of religion in hospitals. The repeated reference of “G-D” is the obvious symbol which questions God’s presence in the morbid environment of the ward.

The reader is promptly pushed into a place that resembles a hellish dystopia when told about the river bursting into “oily flames rising to a height of 30 feet.”

Another of the many statements which resonates with religion, particularly Christianity, is when we are asked “Is it only those whom we see, who exist?” The question has obvious connotations with Thomas’ doubt of Jesus in the Bible. The author here is attempting to question the readers’ beliefs and religious outlook.

Ultimately, the reader is left with a sense of pity for victims of the ‘City of the Damned.’ The staff are however, as much the victims of the ghastly ‘city’ as the patients. They observe the suffering of the patients everyday and almost reciprocate the emotions, as their lives erode away.

As we reach the conclusion, we realise that both characters, R- and Agnes, have changed – R- has lost her innocence and become the nurse she admonished early in the text; whereas Agnes’ killings had become about guilt – the murder of Bessie – rather than empathy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s