Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

A note at the beginning of Wilson’s novel gives the dictionary definition of “swamp angel”: an eight-inch, two-hundred-pound gun, mounted in a swamp by the Federals at the 1863 siege of Charleston, South Carolina. Subsequently, there was an issue of small revolvers, inscribed “Swamp Angel.” This symbol, derived from the American Civil War, points to the conflicts and “severances” in the novel: the separation of the Vardoes, the death of Maggie’s first husband in the war, the rivalry between Maggie and Vera, and the separation of Hilda from her parents. The title also underscores the split between primitive depths and divine flights, between raw nature and godlike power. The novel opens with an angelic flight of birds to freedom and end with the flight of the revolver turning downward to sink into the ooze.

This ability of the symbol to reconcile opposites renders it central to the thematic concerns of reunion between man and man, and man and nature Maggie unites with nature when she fishes or swims; the Canadian wilderness stirs her romantic imagination. “What a land! What power these river were already yielding, far beyond her sight!” Within nature, the battle of birds parallels the human struggle between Maggie and Vera: An eagle rob an osprey of the fish it caught: “Did a bird’s rage or a bird’s acceptance possess him?” From nature, Maggie learns about compassion and “beautiful action,” which is divine and human in its...

(The entire section is 469 words.)