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The Killer Angels | Symbols

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Angels

The angels in the novel symbolize the duality of human nature, which has both the capacity for virtue and murder. There are two different angels in the novel. The first is the allusion to the line about angels from Hamlet, from which the novel derives its title. The play likens men to angels in their ability to reason and act, but Chamberlain's father adds that humans are "murderin' angels" if they are angels at all. Chamberlain latches on to the concept and uses it as the topic for a speech with the same title as the novel. The second angel in the novel is the stone angel Buford sees in the cemetery on top of Cemetery Ridge. He cannot find it when he returns after the battle. Readers can infer it was blown apart by enemy fire. The angel has been carved by skillful human hands to commemorate someone's death, yet the same skill made and fired the deadly weapons that destroy the statue and so many lives. Men on both sides fight for family, for duty, for freedom, for each other, and to obey God's direction, yet to win they must kill. Men are killer angels.

Fourth of July

The Fourth of July, the day after the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, is the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and a holiday that celebrates American independence from Britain. Just as the first Fourth of July represented the formation of a brand-new nation, in the novel the date symbolizes another dramatic shift in national identity. After a long war the Rebel defeat at Gettysburg signaled the beginning of the end of the conflict that threatened the union of the nation. The nation divided in conflict at Gettysburg would soon be reunited in spite of but also because of the tragedy that happened there.

Lee's Heart

Lee's heart represents the heart of the nation, broken by the division of civil war. Lee's weak heart manifests as shortness of breath, palpitations, and dizziness. Just as Lee is split between his vow to the Union and his love of Virginia and family—breaking his heart—the country is broken and divided. It too is weakened and working in fits and starts, finding itself off balance. Both try to hide their infirmity, hoping for a quick end to the war. Lee knows his time is limited. The weak heart will kill him, and he wants to end the war before that happens. Neither can the nation survive an indefinite civil war.

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