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.


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.


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

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.