Student notes on Joyce Carol Oates’ Angel of Mercy


‘Angel of Mercy’ by Joyce Carol Oates is one of nine short stories published in the bookThe Female of the Species. This collection of short stories was published in 2005 by Harcourt Books and instantly achieved recognition, acquiring a large collection of positive reviews including features in The New York Times and The Gaurdian. All agree it is the nature of her stories that the public found so addictive. Each of the nine short stories are suspense thriller yet deal with completely different women from completely different walks of life. The primary themes of violence and sex provide thrill and excitement to the tales.

Mercy vs. pity

‘Angel of Mercy’ is no different. In this short story, Oates forces us to confront our own personal ethics and to examine what truly constitutes mercy and what constitutes pity. Though one might consider the two to be similar, upon closer examination we realise that there is in fact a difference. Pity is an emotion. It is not an action. It is the sympathy and kindly sorrow one might show towards another in pain. Mercy however is an act. It is an act of kindness, of sympathy. Of course pity can lead to one showing mercy however the two are very different indeed.

We see that mercy is the physical act of pity.

‘Angel of Mercy’ demonstrates the difference between the two through the characters of Agnes and R-. At the beginning R- is pitiful and sympathetic towards the ‘doomed’ patients of the City of the Damned. Her strong principles keep her on track, and we see her showing pity, not mercy. R- relates to the patients in order to show kindness and compassion regarding them as her grandmother etc. Agnes on the other hand despises pity. After working in the City of the Damned for 8 years she has lost all hope and believes the only way that she can show kindness and compassion to her patients is through the act of mercy.


Character of Marcus Loper

Though the character of Marcus Loper is not given speech nor characteristics at all throughout the story, it is undeniable that his presence is imperative.

I felt that this character serves two purposes.


Upon examining the character of Marcus Loper, one realises that the physical destruction of this young man in the prime of his youth personifies the mental destruction of both Agnes and R-.  Marcus Loper was rich and handsome. His gruesome and untimely death shocked and dominated public culture. The loss of a young man so prosperous and handsome created a kind of tragic sensationalism the public couldn’t resist. However all the while Loper’s physical degradation dominated the public eye, the beauty and richness of the character of R- is being destroyed in a manner equally as gruesome and horrific. R-‘s desperation to find in Marcus the man he had once been correlates with her desperation to rediscover herself – find the woman, the nurse she had once been. “In the City of the Damned, among the daed, catatonic, comatose, Marcus Roper was fascinating.For he is not damned; he’s young. He will survive.”

Roper also personifies the sexual element of this story. This is another aspect that differentiates R- from Agnes at the beginning of the tale. At outset, R- is seen as “striking and attractive”. She appears as almost a beacon in the midst of the desolation and decay of the hospital. Agnes on the other hand is rarely ever viewed as a sexual creature. It is noted that though Agnes dies a virgin she had in fact been kissed. We can only presume this was before she began working in the City of the Damned and lost her herself to the hopelessness and desolation of the place. The stripping of her sexuality serves to almost dehumanise Agnes from the beginning “Male hospital workers took notice of her red hair and ruddy flesh until she passed the age of thirty-two or three, by which time it was difficult to imagine Agnes as a sexual being”. By stripping Agnes of her sexuality and hence her humanity, Oates creates the image of an almost ethereal being further emphasising the sinister nature of the ‘Angel of mercy’.  We see her even refuse her imaginary lover for the sake of her ‘work’ at the hospital. “I mean, thank you for asking me to be your wife, but my work at the hospital is all the life I need.” And this rings true when we see R- stripped of her sexuality towards the climactic point of the tale. D- is unable to continue to be intimate with her due to “that smell” and we are instantly realise that the pungency and decay of the hospital has taken her over.


This story largely centres around the loss of human traits of R-.

Predominant themes of story

Loss of humanity

·     Love welts on skin; first sexual association with work at hospital

·     Recognises patient is no longer person after stroke ‘the body may remain; the “patient” is gone’

·     Has hope that Marcus will recover

·     Gives Roper hope, tries to protect him from reality of situation “Outside the grime flecked window what R- could see of the sky was the hue of a soiled bandage, but Marcus Roper need not know”

·     First realisation of power, control? “for it seemed to her that she held the man’s very heart in her hand”

·     Needs D- to love her in order to feel human “R- silently pleads with D- to love her, that R- will be saved from what R-‘s fate would be if D- does not love her”

·     Can no longer eat meat – feels as though she is eating human “meat nauseau”

·     Father losing his ‘manhood’ – losing his humanity

·     Loses D-

·     Realises Marcus shall never recover can never be the man she wants him to be “R- was stroking the limp stubby penis”

·     By end of story R- has lost notion of time and so we see that the hospital has swallowed her up – tracking of time is a significant human attribute birthdays, seasons etc.


One cannot ignore the hell-like references throughout the story.

Burning river – river styx

Constant death and despair

“In the City of the Damned, the gods Stroke & Tumor reign. Fatherly gods gone bad.”


This short story deals with many themes. It forces us to look at our own personal morals and question societies everprevailing desire to preserve life, no matter how grim the quality is. It also forces us to recognise how quickly a person can become dehumanised due to their environment and surroundings. Both agnes and r- were extremely intelligent and prosperous finishing first in their class. However the hospital swallows them up and spits them out dead like it does everything that enters it doors i.e. Marcus Roper.


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