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  • Amari I. Seldon

How An Angel Falls From Grace

At what point does an angel fall from grace? To address this question, it is necessary to consider what properties are inherently “angelic.” The stereotypical view of an angel is one of overwhelming kindness and unconditional forgiveness. They reside in Heaven, carry out His will, and safeguard the believers of God, “[bearing] you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” One can attest, then, that to “fall from grace” is to abandon the home of Heaven, to forsake duty in His service, and to obtain the blemish of human sin. When framed in the context of the Bible, such an occurrence sounds like the birth of a fallen angel. When considered from another perspective, however, to fall bears a striking resemblance to a death sentence.

This perspective is explored in the short story “An Extinct Angel” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In the story, instead of residing in Heaven to carry out God’s will, “angels” exist in houses made of brick and stone and fulfill the wishes of the human(s) living therein. Manifolds are the advantages of owning an angel: the residents of a home have an almost ensured guarantee to a blissful afterlife, a companion that will comfort and reassure them in times of toil, dishes that seem to clean themselves, beds that are made on command, and a specimen whose unearthly qualities that existed without stain could always be praised. The relationship between man and angels was a happy one, and despite commonly being beaten “with a stick no longer than [a] thumb” and suffering through intense punishments and physical labor, an angel could always be relied upon to complete their tasks without complaint.

That is until they went extinct.

By indulging in blasphemous behaviors such as cultivating their intelligence, defying their masters, and even intermarrying, “angels” as a species ceased to be. Their virtuous qualities of toiling without question and complete subservience were tainted by the obtainment of knowledge that grew the seed of defiance.

Gilman’s “An Extinct Angel” represents characteristics of enslavement through the description, treatment, and eventual extinction of the “angels.” The identity of the angels is purposefully kept vague so as to demonstrate the human’s interpretation of the creature; specifically, that their submissive and compliant nature is inherently “angelic.” Furthermore, this interpretation has real-world parallels to the existence of prejudice toward many minority groups. A term coined by social psychologists known as ambivalent prejudice captures the idea that members of a group are viewed and portrayed positively when they act according to expectations, yet are viewed and portrayed negatively when they do not. The idea of regarding an individual positively or negatively based on expectations surrounding their race or gender is further illustrated in the short story when the human’s interpretation of angels shifts from angelic to “extinct” following their quest for knowledge. Put bluntly, it goes without saying that a slave that learns of their condition and then yearns to be free is of no use to their master. At that point, the slave, or “angel” under these circumstances, is as good as extinct.

A real-life behavioral tendency toward people of a different color, gender, race, or religion is expressed in a story spanning less than a thousand words. Whether intentional or unintentional, we as humans have the tendency of treating others better when they conform to our expectations and less so when they do not. In extreme cases, these attitudes can result in borderline enslavement. Think of how Africans were treated during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, how women in the present-day struggle with the stereotype of care-taking, how Jewish people were slaughtered during the Holocaust to justify returning Germany “to its former glory,” and how Christians and Muslims killed each other to reclaim the Holy Land. “An Extinct Angel” and real-world examples alike demonstrate the kinds of tragedies and atrocities that can occur when people are enslaved by an all-encompassing interpretation of their identity. Confirming the stereotype becomes a justification for one’s treatment by reasoning that if they did not find it enjoyable, they would say so. Fighting the stereotype also becomes a justification for one’s treatment by reasoning that going against said treatment will somehow result in a worse outcome. This is why the angel is praised for its submissiveness and also beaten “with a stick no longer than [a] thumb.” Both measures are taken to ensure that the angel does not lose its usefulness, an outcome which, to the master, is the same as death.

A depiction of the biblical story of Adam and Eve eating the apple and being cast from Eden. Could there be some merit to eating the forbidden fruit and attaining knowledge?

Thankfully, the same story that reveals the problem also reveals the solution. To quote the story, “The angelic virtues… A human being did not pretend to name them, could not be expected to have them, acknowledged them as far beyond his gross earthly nature.” As the narrator illustrates, humans have not made a single attempt to understand the very beings they are treating as slaves. They merely assume the characteristics that make up their angels are fundamentally different from their own. It is only when angels break away from their owners, intermarry, and make human knowledge their own that they suffer a fate all living organisms do–extinction. In terms of their enslavement, extinction signals the conclusion. However, in terms of their existence, extinction signals a new beginning. The story fails to mention the fate that befalls the angels, but the context of them gaining human wisdom implies that they are still alive. Alive, and living as humans.

Through understanding, the barriers that separate one group from another breakdown. Only then is it revealed that both groups are fundamentally similar. Beyond shedding light on the issues of stereotypes and prejudice, Gilman’s “An Extinct Angel” preaches that understanding is the solution to the problem at hand. To understand one another, we cannot acknowledge differences alone. Ultimately, eating “the fruit of the forbidden tree of knowledge” is the key by which one “falls from grace” and comes to realize that those around them are inherently cut from the same cloth.


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