Themes and Meanings
Love and death are pervasive themes in American fiction, and both of these elements permeate “White Angel.” Michael Cunningham based this story on newspaper reports of an actual event that occurred near Cincinnati in 1965. The Morrow house is close to a graveyard, which becomes a symbol of both death and love. The graveyard is where Carlton first makes love to his girlfriend and where he and his brother smoke the pot and drink the whiskey that help unite them in an unusually close fraternal bond.
Death hovers over the story from start to finish. In its third paragraph, the narrator reveals that Carlton is going to die, although the means of his death is withheld until near the end of the story. Isabel Morrow suffered the loss of her first husband, who was killed in action during World War II. She has also given birth to stillborn babies or has lost children in their first days of life.
The love theme in “White Angel” is less pervasive than the death theme, although the close relationship between Carlton and Bobby is clearly one of fraternal love, with Carlton acting almost parentally toward his younger sibling. Cunningham also makes clear that Isabel loves Carlton unconditionally, even though his actions perplex her. On one level, he does things such as track mud through the house. On another, more serious level, Isabel fears he is leading a secret life that she correctly assumes is related to his involvement with drugs.
The boys’ father attempts to remain the neutral parent. He views his sons as living examples of genetic continuity. They will preserve the family name. His hard work in assembling a grandfather clock from a kit is his nod to future generations. He wants to have something tangible to pass on to his heirs. When he is drawn into the conflict between Isabel and Carlton after Carlton tracks mud into the house, he suggests a practical solution that will put the matter to rest, something Isabel is too irritated to do.
Cunningham deals skillfully with the two major themes that pervade “White Angel.” He interweaves them and uses the theme of fraternal love to project the irony of Carlton’s assuming the role of surrogate parent, even though what he teaches Bobby is far from what conventional parents would teach a child.