Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

A major theme of Fallen Angels centers on the multiple meanings and ironies of the book’s title. Fallen soldiers may be seen as becoming angels, and Judy Duncan, who appears in the initial pages of the book, is a kind of ministering angel for the injured. Furthermore, innocence is often seen as an “angelic” quality, and the loss of this innocence is a powerful motif in the novel, involving all the men who must kill and who learn the realities of war’s evils. Fallen angels may also refer to war’s corrupting effects: Literal fallen angels are former angels who have fallen from grace, succumbed to sin, and become devils. The ambiguity of the title underscores the ambiguity of the war itself and raises the question of who are the devils and who the angels of the story. The title thus raises complex questions and signals difficult answers, contributing to the complexity and multidimensionality of the story as a whole.

Myers also portrays the multiple possible responses of soldiers to war’s horrors, as his characters deploy myriad coping devices to deal with their experiences. They attempt to create more acceptable realities to counteract the unacceptable reality of barbaric warfare. They also develop a solidarity that transcends race, petty rivalries, and class status to face their common enemy. The members of Perry’s unit support one another—even in the face of a captain who seeks to sacrifice the unit for his own self-aggrandizement.

Finally, multiple ironies in the novel emphasize the contradictory nature of war: Perry is not supposed to be on active duty, and when his medical release is granted and he can leave, he does not. Furthermore, when he sets the claymore mortars facing his own men, enemy soldiers sneak in and reverse them, damaging themselves and saving Perry’s fellows. Gates makes a doll for a child who is then used to deliver an explosive device, killing herself and American soldiers.