Student notes on ‘Angel of Mercy’ by Joyce Carol Oates

(by moriartn)

This gothic short story portrays two nurses, who at the outset seem extremely different, but who by the end have intertwined to become intimately similar. One, Agnes, or the Angel of Mercy who worked in the “city of the damned” in the 1950’s is followed 8 years into her career, when she has already began to question her values as a nurse in terms of her definition of care and how far it should go. The other, Nurse R- who remains unnamed throughout the story works in the hospital almost 50 years later, but we follow the beginning of her career, when she is trying to remain true to the values of her profession unquestionably. We follow R- as she begins to move in to the realm of where we begin to follow Agnes, and we follow Agnes herself further from society and deeper into her own world of beliefs and morals.


Both characters develop a distinct idea of mercy throughout the story, and this idea of how far Mercy should go, is a prevalent theme throughout, as is the characters development which plays a key role in the telling of this story. Nurse R- is staunch in her beliefs and understanding of where her duty is in helping someone at the beginning of the story, what society believes and what she has been taught is absolute. There is no question of what her duty of care involves, and where the line is that she must not cross for a patient. As the story progresses she begins to doubt this, and the first signs of this are after her encounter with B-, when she observes her arm and the marks he has made, almost as though she wishes there was more she could do for him. Then as Marcus Roper is introduced we see her resilience being tested as she tries to maintain her boundaries and stick to her rules. As the story develops she falls further and further away from her initial ideals and turns more towards the views of the Angel of Mercy. Agnes on the other hand is described at the beginning described as a “smiling and eager” young graduate nurse, excited at the prospect of her new career. Clean, and well turned out, the “perfect nurse”. She begins her serial killings in her 8th year of service, which is where her narrative begins in this story, and notes them in her journal. It seems that Agnes is in the place that nurse R- is moving towards, while we have skipped over Agnes’ journey that R- is currently making. She has moved from the beliefs of her peers of mercy and how far her care should go. Although her killings stem from a wish to help her patients and end their suffering, she seems to develop an Angel complex, from her time at the city of the damned. This, and the running theme of the damned Vs the non- damned is highlighted by her journal entries, where she writes God’s name in a mode that is between both, writing G-D instead of God or just G-. She seems to believe that god has abandoned the patients of the “city of the Damned” and so has chosen to complete what she believes to be God’s work herself. She also seems to develop a sick enjoyment of what she does, as is portrayed at the end, where the killing becomes a compulsion; she must do it, despite the fact that the patient is not at deaths door, like her other victims and fights back with a strength that surprises her. Rather than stop she fights her victim, quite literally to the death.

Although the story is about the personal journeys of the nurses rather than the development of themes, although some main ideas or run throughout. These included:

  • The idea of “mercy” as shown by both main characters, in contrast with the somewhat restrained view of society.
  • The damned, before and after they become so, highlighted by the use of some names and not others, the damned being named and those who have not yet been damned who remain anonymous. Nurse R- remains anonymous only because she is on the journey towards the damned during the story.
  • The Angel complex of Agnes, which is prevalent in her diary entries, where she claims that G-D has abandoned the city of the damned, taking it upon herself to relieve the suffering of the abandonees.
  • Depression. The hospital is portrayed as a dismal place to say the least, and using description, the town although remaining fairly anonymous is portrayed as a mortal Hades, with the burning river Styx, and the “city of the damned” in the hospital. It is also depression among other things that drives both nurses to their killings.

In an interesting twist, I found that it was a difficult piece to read, but well written. Although it was well written, especially the descriptions and developments of the two characters, the phrasing was often difficult to understand, syntactically it made it difficult to breeze through, a clever tool, as it made you think about the story more as you tried to decipher what was going on and the meanings. I felt that interlocking the two stories rather than telling them both together in a chronological fashion was a good tool for the author as it made the journeys more comparable, so that the similarities and differences were both highlighted.


In conclusion the two central characters and their journeys highlight a number of issues. The younger nurse R- becomes hardened and cynical; exactly what she said she would not “R- vows she will not. She will not become hard, cynical depressed like the others”, while Agnes gives up steadily and moves further and further into her world and her ideas and further away from societal beliefs of mercy right and wrong. She develops a distinctly unnerving enjoyment and rush of pleasure when she acts as the “angel of mercy”.  Their development as characters highlights just how fragile human morals and “sanity” can be.



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