What does the title Look Homeward, Angel mean?
The “angel” in the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel refers both to a statue and to the idea of the dead observing the living. In the novel, the W. O. Gant family are stonecutters, as was Wolfe’s own father. The statue of the angel is also based on an actual statue that formerly occupied a prominent place at the family business and was later installed in the cemetery. The quotation “Look homeward Angel” is taken from a John Milton poem that was an elegy for a dead friend. The theme of the dead taken too young and their inspiration to the living relates well to the character of Ben, Eugene’s brother, who dies in the novel.
Milton wrote Lycidas (1637) in memory of Edward King, whom he had known at Cambridge; the young man drowned when his ship sank. In the lines quoted and those just above them, Milton refers to the places where King’s remains might have ended up beneath the water, as well as to high vantage points from which they might be observed. The last vista, “mount,” is on an island off Land’s End, Britain’s southwesternmost point, and is associated with a vision of St. Michael; the lines are thus interpreted as referring to the Archangel Michael. The final line, apostrophizing the dolphins, refers to washing King’s body back to shore, with which the compassionate angel could assist.
Where the great vision of the guarded mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona's hold;
Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth:
And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth.
The subtitle “The Story of a Buried Life” gives you one clue as to who the angel is. The angel of the title appears in the book in the form of a stone angel that Gant sells to Eliza to use for a gravestone of a poor woman. Gant became a stonecutter when he was not such a horrendous person, but his behavior spirals downward throughout his life and he is an abusive alcoholic. The angel in the story is Eugene, who is often described as angelic or ethereal. He is introspective and reflective beyond his years from the very beginning, but he never really realizes his potential. He may lead a buried life because he has trouble moving beyond his upbringing despite his heavenly potential. He constantly looks homeward until the final moments when he leaves Ben in the graveyard and turns to leave Altamont.
Actually, the title "Look Homeward,Angel" comes from the John Milton poem "Lycidas" with the line "Look homeward, Angel,/now, and melt with ruth,"...the novel was originally supposed to be titled "Oh, Lost!" but Maxell Perkins and others at Scribers veto-ed it. The title now refers to the journey of the narrator to reconcile the death and subsequent journey of the title character.
Ultimately, it's a message of hope.