Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Orphan Angel places the idealized figure of Shelley in the midst of raw, democratic America. The spiritual portrait of Shelley and the nineteenth century American landscape are both emphasized by the juxtaposition. The rough American setting adds realism to the novel. Wylie provides details of lifestyle that anchor the narrative in the early days of the country. Geographical details are accurate, and the time it takes for the protagonists to travel from city to city or state to state proves true to the period. The rawness of the land, particularly the large expanse of unsettled areas of the West, appears harsh beside the young Shelley character.

Despite the realistic details of early nineteenth century America and the genuine devotion to the Shelley portrait, Wylie’s novel is developed largely through humor. The twin themes of adolescent America and idealized Shelley allow for a playful treatment. With adventures onboard ship, rafting down the Ohio River, crossing the desert, and in Indian territory, Wylie humorously sets frontier experiences and stories next to Shiloh’s romantic poetry. With some humor, Wylie brings to life the Shelley she has admired and places him in a locale that, through contrast, reveals the beauty of his character. The aristocratic Shiloh has plenty of opportunity to demonstrate the strength of his character and the depth of his feelings. Paired with Butternut, a perfectly straightforward American youth, kindhearted but limited in his knowledge and experience, Shiloh’s characteristics are emphasized.

In large measure, The Orphan Angel, Wylie’s longest novel, represents her homage to Shelley. The novel celebrates the vastness of the United States and the idealism of Shelley at the same time. She places him in a land as large as she sees his spirit. He walks across the landscape under no one’s authority, spiritually free. Shiloh’s qualities are shown to be anchored not in the world but on some plane above.