Angel of Light

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The latest addition to Joyce Carol Oates’s already prodigious output is Angel of Light, her thirteenth novel. Still in her early forties, Oates has also published short stories, criticism, plays, poetry, and has edited anthologies. Most of the action in this latest novel takes place in an “imaginary” Washington, D.C.; it deals with the family of Maurice Halleck, who before his death had served as head of the “Commission for the Ministry of Justice,” which the author insists, “bears no direct or tangential resemblance to the Department of Justice.” The terrible legacy of violence and bloodshed inherited by the Halleck family is a contemporary reenactment of a classical tragedy.

Maurice Halleck was a great-great-great-great grandson of the nineteenth century abolitionist John Brown, whose terrorist raids on slaveholders resulted in his sentence of death by hanging. The title of the novel, in fact, comes from Henry David Thoreau’s “A Plea for Captain John Brown” in which he likened Brown’s execution to Christ’s crucifixion and said of Brown, “he is an angel of light.” The novel’s opening sentence essentially summarizes its plot: “It is a windy morning in early March, a day of high scudding dizzy clouds, some nine months after their father’s ignoble death, that his only children, Owen and Kirsten, make a pact to revenge that death.” The rest of the novel shows how Owen and Kirsten carry out that pact against their mother and her lover, Nick Martens, who is also Owen’s godfather and was a virtual blood brother to Maurice. This closeness resulted from a time in their late teens when Nick rescued Maurice from drowning after an accident on a canoeing trip. It is Kirsten, an anorexic seventeen-year-old, who initiates the pact with her older but less imaginative brother because she believes Isabel—her mother—and Nick are responsible for the death of her father.

Officially, Maurie, as his friends affectionately called him, had committed suicide in the midst of a political scandal for which he took full responsibility in a garbled suicide note, written when he had been drinking heavily. The scandal, however, could have involved Nick, who succeeded Maurie as head of the Commission for the Ministry of Justice. Kirsten chooses to believe this possibility because it reinforces her belief in the worst about her mother. In fact, she is convinced that her mother and Nick hired someone to follow her father and force his car off the road the night it went over a cliff into the Brean Down swamp in Virginia. To some extent, Isabel may have contributed to her husband’s death; several months earlier, just before their separation, she had essentially told him that she had never loved him: “How could you imagine that I loved you in that way . . . how could you be so deceived, you aren’t a fool, you should have known.” The actual decision to die, however, must have been Maurie’s. The convoluted plot, with its many flashbacks and occasional flashes of foreknowledge, gradually reveals the complexity of the relationships among the three characters, but Kirsten, although very bright, at seventeen cannot accept the close relationship among Isabel, Maurice, and Nick. Perhaps Maurie’s bond with Nick kept him from being fully aware of the mutual passion between Nick and Isabel, which had existed from the day Maurie introduced Nick to his fiancée. Isabel, a very beautiful woman and leading Washington socialite, had taken lovers other than Nick over the years, but all as substitutes for him.

These infidelities and Kirsten’s own extreme love for her father cause her to hate her mother so much that she wants Isabel to die. Kirsten assigns the actual act of killing their mother to Owen, and she resolves to kill Nick herself. Initially, Owen listens to Kirsten’s plan reluctantly and recognizes the insanity of it; Kirsten takes up old John Brown’s battlecry, “No quarter to our enemies!” Soon after Kirsten initiates the pact, however, Owen, who perhaps not coincidentally bears the given name of John Brown’s father, becomes involved in a revolutionary terrorist organization. A follower rather than a leader, Owen, becomes much more interested in Kirsten’s plan when he realizes that it fits into some of the terrorist activities planned by the group, ironically called the “Doves.” Owen’s involvement with the Doves changes his thinking to the extent that he can rationalize terrorism and even matricide as acts “to restore balance. Equilibrium. They will not be acts of personal vengeance.” For Kirsten, of course, the plan is intensely personal and emotional, but Owen, like John Brown, sees himself bringing a revolution, so that the fact he plans to kill his own mother seems to him, in his brainwashed condition, irrelevant. This mental state allows him to carry out the murder in a most brutal and horrifying way. Immediately after, however, an emotional reaction prevents him from fleeing to his waiting comrades who plan to smuggle him to safety. Beguiled by the memory of his mother’s love when he was a baby, Owen falls asleep on the bed in his mother’s home and dies in the explosion that follows. On the same night Kirsten meets Nick at his apartment to carry out her part of the terrible plan.

Readers may wonder to what purpose...

(The entire section is 2170 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Library Journal. CVI, September 1, 1981, p. 1648.

National Review. XXXIII, July 24, 1981, p. 850.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, August 16, 1981, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LVII, October 5, 1981, p. 192.

Newsweek. XCVIII, August 17, 1981, p. 74.

Saturday Review. VIII, August, 1981, p. 44.

Time. CXVIII, August 17, 1981, p. 83.

Wilson Library Bulletin. LVI, October, 1981, p. 145.