An Angel in Disguise: Summary & Quotes

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores the plot of ''An Angel in Disguise'' (T.S. Arthur, 1851) through quotes from the short story. We will learn about the setting, the characters, and facts about their destitute way of life in 19th-century rural America.

An Angel in Disguise Background

''An Angel in Disguise'' is a short story written in 1851 by American author T.S. Arthur. The story is set against the backdrop of a poor rural village. It's the kind of place where everyone has problems of their own. Everyone tries to be good while living within their means. That's why the death of a drunken beggar woman brings little sympathy from the villagers. The three orphaned children she leaves behind, however, deserve charity because they can't fend for themselves. ''An Angel in Disguise'' plucks at the heartstrings, making readers question their capacity for charity and compassion.

An Angel in Disguise Summary

An unnamed pauper woman dies from excessive alcohol use. A pauper is a poor person, though not necessarily a beggar or a charity case. She was something of the town pariah: ''This woman had been despised, scoffed at, and angrily denounced by nearly every man, woman, and child in the village; but now, as the fact of her death was passed from lip to lip, in subdued tones, pity took the place of anger, and sorrow of denunciation.'' Following her sudden death, the villagers take pity on her and the three orphan children she has left behind. The villagers take up a collection and put together a modest funeral.

As for the children, 12-year-old John is old enough to work. Farmer Jones adopts the boy because he will be of good use in fieldwork. Mrs. Ellis begrudgingly adopts Kate, who is still a few years too young to go to work in a factory. Mrs. Ellis complains about the responsibility involved in taking on an undisciplined orphan.

But no one says ''I'll take Maggie.'' Maggie, the third and youngest child, suffered an injury to her back as a child, and as a result she's bedridden. Nobody knows what to do about Maggie. Lacking a better option, some villagers assume she will have to be taken to the poorhouse. Today, the word can sometimes be heard thrown around figuratively, but in the 19th century, the poorhouse was a very real place, a government-funded facility where paupers lived and worked. They were sometimes also called ''almshouses'', especially when funded by a church or other charitable fund.

Alms to the Poor

After the funeral, the villagers return to their everyday business. Joe Thompson lingers. He works in the village as a wheelwright, who is a tradesman who makes wooden wheels for wagons and carts. Maggie is still laying in her bed, alone in the hovel. Joe feels an aching responsibility. '''O, Mr. Thompson!' she cried out, catching her suspended breath, 'don't leave me here all alone!'''

Joe takes pity on the helpless child. He likes children, though he and his wife are childless. The difficult part, he knows, will come when he has to convince his wife. Jane ''was not a woman of saintly temper, nor much given to self-denial for others' good, and Joe had well-grounded doubts touching the manner of greeting he should receive on his arrival.''

Joe confronts his wife wearing ''a firmly set countenance and a resolute pair of eyes.'' Joe draws on the Bible in order to appeal to Jane's compassion. Joe may not be the most devout Christian, but he knows about Scripture: ''I read in the Bible sometimes, and find much said about little children. How the Savior rebuked the disciples who would not receive them; how he took them up in his arms, and blessed them.''

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