The short story "An Angel in Disguise" by T.S. Arthur tells of the aftermath of the death of an alcoholic, vice-ridden mother of three. The inhabitants of the village arrange her funeral and then debate what to do with her children. A farmer takes the 12-year-old boy, figuring he is able to help with the work. A woman takes the 10-year-old girl with the goal of eventually making use of her as well. However, no one wants to take the youngest, Maggie, who is crippled and cannot leave her bed. After the mother's funeral Joe Thompson, the wheelwright, takes Maggie home with the purported intention of carrying her to the poorhouse. He and his wife eventually see the sweetness in Maggie and decide to keep her with them.
To properly analyze this story, it is helpful to know something about the author. Although he is almost unknown today, T.S. Arthur was a popular writer around the mid-19th century. His most famous work is a novel called Ten Nights in a Barroom and What I Saw There, which was anti-alcohol and pro-prohibition. In fact, it was the most popular novel of the Victorian Era in America apart from Uncle Tom's Cabin. Arthur espoused traditional domesticity and middle class values, which are evident in "An Angel in Disguise."
This short story is touching, of course, but Arthur embellishes the sentimental aspects of it by trimming away the nuances that would accompany a real situation and giving it the stark perspective of a parable. For instance, the poor mother who dies on the doorstep of her own home evokes no sympathy either from the villagers or the author. The other two children are scooped up in a matter-of-fact manner for their practical usage rather than any inclination of kindness. Joe Thompson and his wife are presented as a somewhat estranged couple until the little crippled girl comes into their lives.
The story is effective in evoking sentiment and empathy from readers in an obvious and unsubtle way. In fact, it could be said that the thesis statement is the title, "An Angel in Disguise." This makes the theme of the story obvious before a reader even begins, and Arthur never deviates from this straightforward initial premise. However, as a parable of the value of unselfish love and affection, the story works well.
T.S. Arthur's 1851 short story is a classic example of Victorian era sentimental literature. It features a dramatic opening, death, poverty, and an innocent crippled child who becomes the "angel is disguise" of the story's title when her neediness and love transform a household.
The story is unabashedly sentimental, meaning it aims, first and foremost, to play on readers's emotions and to soften their hearts so they feel love and compassion for those less fortunate than themselves. Victorians believed strongly that appealing to emotions could bring about change and moral reformation.
The story is plot driven, predictable, and uses characters who are types rather than fully fleshed-out individuals. We have the hard-hearted villagers; the innocent children; a man named Joe Thompson, the humble wheelwright who has a heart of gold; and his wife, who also proves to have a tender soul beneath a harsh exterior.
Arthur grips the reader from the start by jumping in, without preamble, to a dramatic and moralizing opening:
Idleness, vice, and intemperance had done their miserable work, and the dead mother lay cold and still amid her wretched children.
The story then moves through predictable steps as the villagers reject caring for the third child of the dead woman, a crippled little girl. Only Joe Thompson is willing to help her. The child herself wins over his reluctant wife by showing her gratitude. The satisfaction in reading the story comes from the completely expected ending, as the child brings a new wellspring of love into the household:
Now the sweetness of that sick child, looking ever to her in love, patience, and gratitude, was as honey to her soul, and she carried her in her heart as well as in her arms, a precious burden.
This kind of story was soundly ridiculed and rejected by modernist 20th century writers, but it was highly popular in its time.
“An Angel in Disguise” by T.S. Arthur is a short story that reflects Victorian Age morals. The story highlights the evils of idleness and intemperance, and throughout the plot, the author hails the qualities of kindness and compassion. T.S. Arthur himself was an outspoken advocate of the temperance movement, and the story conveys the movement’s defining message; Drunkenness brings sorrow and hardship. It devastates one’s family and it contributes to the deterioration of society. In the story, drunkenness was the cause of the mother’s death and the cause of her children’s suffering.
T.S. Arthur’s story is emotionally charged, as he showcases the children’s suffering, just as he showcases the kindness and compassion of the Thompsons. Clearly the story has a moral message, as they were rewarded for their kindness and compassion. It grew into what they coveted most— mutual and unconditional love. The story’s characters are complex and lifelike, and they embody the strengths and weaknesses of modern society, which reveal Arthur’s overriding themes: Intemperance will lead to one’s downfall. Compassion and kindness engender happiness and love. In the story, Arthur contrasts the joy of those who love with the pain of those who are deprived of love. Maggie, as the angel in disguise, embodies love and its power—the power to heal heartache and conquer adversity.