The Devil Among Us

[an analysis by Fancy Childers]

In Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, “The Mark of Satan,” the narrator spins a tale that utilizes characterization, allowing the reader to come to false conclusions regarding who amongst the characters is truly the incarnation of evil. The story focuses on a woman, Thelma, who goes door to door preaching the Good Word, trying to convert sinners. She and her daughter happen upon a house inhabited by “Flash,” though he doesn’t really live there. It’s his sister’s house, and he’s only staying there for an indefinite amount of time. During the conversation between Flash and Thelma, Flash attempts to drug the woman and her daughter through a glass of lemonade. It isn’t clear whether he wants to sexually assault them or kill them, only that he’s insistent of having them knocked out. He succeeds with the daughter, but the staunch Thelma is more of a challenge. In the end, he fails as Thelma leaves with her daughter, but not before Flash is overcome with the need to be saved and has Thelma pray over him.

The use of characterization up until this point clearly paints Flash as a “devilish” figure, attempting harm upon two unsuspecting females. However, as Thelma points out, “the wickedness of the world is Satan’s hand, and the ways of Satan, as with the ways of God, are not to be comprehended by man.” Thus, the Devil’s inclinations are obscure, as Flash’s intentions might be. However, if that were the case, it makes it too obvious that Flash is the Devil. We, as the reader, comprehend all too well the evil that resides within Flash, so how can he be the Devil? Instead, I purport, that he is a victim as well. He bears traumatic damage, or the “Mark of Satan.” There are subtle clues through the text that indicate a growth in his character. These would be missed the first time reading through the story. He mentions that he doesn’t remember his childhood, so it can be deduced that something happened to him that has made him suppress his childhood memories. But what?

The answer comes at the end of the story, when Flash’s sister arrives home, after Thelma and her daughter had left. Flash had undergone a spiritual transformation through Thelma’s prayers, but the sister, Gracie, walks in and starts demeaning and debasing him. She scoffs at the religious pamphlet Thelma had brought, and the story ends with her observing her backyard, hoping it will catch fire. She ruminates that Flash, now revealed to be “Harvey,” had been successful and an honors student, but now was a junkie. It can be gathered that she had something to do with his transformation, and perhaps emotionally and verbally abuses him on a constant basis. She, as it turns out, is the evil that has been plaguing Flash/Harvey. But Flash/Harvey is no longer bound by her evil ways, having been saved by Thelma. This is made clear on the final line, “Waiting, bored to see if it caught fire, if there’d be a little excitement out here on Route 71 tonight (…) but it didn’t, and there wasn’t.” This ending line shows that her gleeful prospect at having things burn has been foiled, a fitting metaphor for her crumbling hold on Flash/Harvey’s psyche.

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