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Joyce Carol Oates: Angel of Light

It was Thoreau that called John Brown an Angel of LightHe is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light. Whether Maurice Halleck is an angel of light or the book is so called because Halleck is a descendant of John Brown is left somewhat open. Oates’ story – as well as references to John Brown – is also based on the story of the House of Atreus, where a son and daughter kill their mother and her lover to avenge the death of their father at the hands of the pair. Maurice Halleck was the director of the Commission for the Ministry of Justice. It was alleged that he took a bribe to help an American corporation in South America. He resigns and later dies in a car accident, apparently a suicide, leaving a note admitting his guilt. Kirsten, his daughter, does not believe either that he was guilty or that he killed himself and enlists the help of her ambitious brother, Owen, to help her kill Isabel, their mother, and Isabel’s lover, Nick.

The book follows, of course, the plot of Owen/Orestes and Kirsten/Electra, which they hatch over several months, but intertwined with the story of the Halleck family and their relationship with Nick, who had saved Maurice from drowning when they were younger and remained a family friend ever since. The plot gets somewhat messy and the story is not always convincing. Oates more or less leaves us with the message that true justice cannot be obtained in this corrupt world in which we live. The Orestes/Electra legend has been done many times in Western literature and the same story is, of course, found in Hamlet. Oates may not be up to the level of Sartre but she does a pretty good job.

Publishing history

First published 1981 by Dutton