The Killer Angels: Metaphor Analysis
The title of the novel, The Killer Angels, presents a recurring metaphor with a paradoxical meaning. Early in the novel, before a shot has been fired, Buford sits quietly in a cemetery and sees a statue of a “white angel, arm uplifted, a stony sadness.” After the first day of battle, Buford returns to the cemetery but he is unable to find the statue of the angel. The apparent disappearance of the angel suggests that it has been wiped out by the brutality of war.
But this is not the only occurrence of the angel image in the novel. Colonel Chamberlain recalls that as a boy, he memorized a speech from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, which includes the lines, “What a piece of work is man . . . in action, how like an angel!” (p. 126). His father gruffly remarked, “Well, boy, if he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel.” Impressed by this image, Chamberlain later gave a speech at his school titled “Man the Killer Angel.” The image recurs after the battle ends, in Chamberlain’s thoughts as he looks out over the battlefield, where the corpses are being laid out.
The image of man as the killer angel suggests the paradox at the heart of the novel; it reveals both sides of man’s nature. Chamberlain himself believes that there is a “divine spark” within man, and Lee and many of the other characters believe that the battle represents the working out of God’s will, whatever the outcome. The soldiers in that respect are agents of some divine plan, which is unknown to everyone except God. Traditionally, angels are regarded as messengers from God. The image of man as a killer angel encompasses the opposites in his nature. He is capable of great brutality and destruction, as the novel, which does not shy away from the grim realities of war and combat, repeatedly demonstrates. But man also has another dimension to his nature that connects him to God. This higher aspect of his nature is seen in the way that the characters express their noble ideals and are willing to sacrifice their lives for a cause that transcends their small individuality. Even the battle itself, in Chamberlain’s eyes, has some almost divine quality to it. He recalls how he felt on the last day as he watched the rebels approaching in perfect formation: “It was the more beautiful thing he had ever seen” (p. 362).