Thursday, June 16, 2011

Harriet Zink: The Night Nurse in Joyce C. Oates' "The Night Nurse"

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Harriet Zink The Night Nurse in Joyce C. Oates The Night Nurse

Lifes experiences have a way of making or breaking a person. How we handle the trials we face makes us bitter or better. Harriet Zink, in Joyce Carol Oates The Night Nurse, has certainly had her share of hardship. However, the compassion we feel for her is overshadowed by disgust for who she has let herself become. Although it is admirable for her to have overcome such obstacles, Harriet is now a skeptical, merciless, and vengeful woman, who fails to generate our sympathies.

Our first impression of Harriet is negative we are introduced to her flat, nasal, ironic voice (Oates 660). We sit uncomfortably through her belittling of Grace Burkhardt, and endure her ill treatment of the woman, to be rewarded with a fuller picture of Harriets background...suffering at the hands of more fortunate schoolmates, one of which was Grace. The reader can sympathize with Harriet, who cried [herself] to sleep every night (66). This picture is heartbreaking, and gives us a glimpse into injury that Harriet has had to work through. She has risen above the criticism of her peers and completed her education, acquired a position of respect, all through her tears. It is human nature for us to be moved by tears, and by the pain of another. However, our compassion for Harriet fades as she fails to display this same human nature, and displays only hatred and bitterness for Grace.

Clearly Harriet is a skeptic in the way she treats Grace. She continuously repeats Graces name in their conversation, invoking it almost like some kind of vulgarity. Harriet seems to resent the dignity and beauty of such a name. Grace is something she has never been known for. On the contrary, her lack of femininity and social graces has been a source of much torment for Harriet. As a consequence, the pain comes lashing out in an attack on Graces grace. The

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reader is appalled as Harriet throws off any trace of maturity and insults her patient, being childish in derision (661). She looms over her, speaking condescendingly to her. She even accuses Grace of being a liar. While being drilled as to the whereabouts of Jill Herman, Grace replies that she hasnt seen her in a long time. Harriet responds, You expect me to believe that? [...] Oh, no, I dont believe that! (66). Harriet deliberately demeans Grace with biting sarcasm and skepticism. The reader cannot respect such juvenile tactics.

We further lose respect for Harriet through the merciless treatment she hands Grace. Harriets occupation, not to mention her religion, obligates her to show mercy to the suffering woman. Instead, she withholds what Grace desperately needs. Youre helpless. You need help. So what? Grace Burkhardt (661). What kind of response is this to a cry for mercy? Who would want to encounter an enemy like this in a time of need? She sees Grace shivering and cold and does not even attempt to cover her up; instead, she throws back what little cover Grace has. This is symbolic of the entire encounter--Harriet exposing her enemy, while the woman is defenseless. What a lack of mercy on the part of someone who is supposed to be filled with Jesus strength (664). If the God Harriet serves is the God of the Bible, this same God that has empowered (664) her to forgive, has also empowered her with compassion (1 John 47-8). In contrast, Grace has no saving faith; she grasps wildly at her own name, the sympathies of others, and the medicine in her IV, for security. Grace, in her weakness, cries out to God to help her through the night. If only Harriet were not wrapped up in herself, she could offer Grace the stability and strength she had found in the Lord. Instead, she opts to be merciless to the one who had shown her no mercy years earlier. Harriet sees the condition Grace is in, hurting and needing the bedpan removed, but ignores her in an act of utter selfishness. To be merciless is a


sin of omission, to not do good when it is in ones power to do so. It seems to delight Harriet to have something that Grace wants and needs.

Not only does Harriet withhold mercy and kindness from her patient, but she chooses to act in a vengeful manner. The most unsympathetic thing about Harriet is this vengefulness toward Grace. Harriet, supposedly a Christian, wants an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Matthew 58). Harriet really loses our sympathies with this attitude. In some way, we could almost justify Harriets anger toward Grace, but the condition Grace is in makes it seem so cruel and inappropriate a time for Harriet to confront her. A character we could sympathize with would tend to her patients needs considerately, and discuss the issues between them judiciously. Harriet instead vindictively brings up the past while Grace is vulnerable, and tries to make her feel pain, as she was once helpless and felt pain Do you remember what you did to me? (Oates 660). Harriet compares the help she needed years ago with the help that Grace needs when Grace asks for assistance. Her voice emanates vengeance I was in pain. You didnt help me. (66). Her words are simple, like a childs. The wounded young girl within Harriet, who has been waiting years for such an opportunity, lunges forth and corners Grace. She continues to recount everything, ignoring the fact that Grace seems apologetic, because she wants to make the woman feel debased. Something within us rises in Graces defense, despite her flaws and failures. The fact that Harriet has been through much sorrow and pain is clear, and would almost warrant our sympathy, but her attempt at vengeance toward Grace isnt justifiable in light of Graces circumstances, and causes us not to side with her.

When Grace pitifully states, Im in pain, Harriets response is, So what? (661). To Harriets proud declaration, Im a Christian woman (664) the reader disappointedly counters,

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So what? Where was this womans Christ-likeness when Grace was ringing the buzzer for help? The Lord says, Vengeance is Mine; I will repay (Romans 11). Jesus tells us to Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you (Matthew 54). Harriet was only willing to do the right thing after she had indulged her hatred and spite. The trials of her life seem to have indeed made her bitter instead of better. Therefore, the audience loses all sympathy for this night nurse, who should have been a minister of mercy. In its place, we feel anger at injustice. However, because Harriets appearance is more than likely a figment of Graces imagination, triggered by a guilty conscience and strong medication, we can turn our attention instead to the effect the imagined encounter produced. Grace emerged humbled, and relieved of a burden that had apparently plagued her for years. Perhaps God had answered her prayer, and perhaps she was better prepared for the future rushing toward her (Oates 655). We may not like Harriet, but we will tolerate her for her contribution to Graces spiritual restoration.

Works Cited

Holy Bible. Matthew 58; Romans 11; Matthew 54. Public

Domain. Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 14. 767, 0.

Oates, Joyce Carol. The Night Nurse. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. 6th ed. Ed.

Michael Meyer. Boston; Bedford Books of St. Martins Press, 000. 655-665.

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