Ambrose Bierce Essay, Research Paper
Ambrose G. Bierce
The style and motives of Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce are those of a great intellect and cynic. Through his short stories, his views on war, death, religion, love, and for a twist, the supernatural are blatantly illustrated. His experiences in his own life evidently shaped his literary works, and the end of his life as mysterious as it was was fitting for such a man. Having no true formal education, other than that from his one-year stay at the Kentucky Military Institute, his writing shows remarkable intelligence and wit. Bierce enlisted in the Union army during the Civil War, and it is doubtful if any other experience in his life had as much influence upon him as did his military service, (Sowa, 1965). A great deal of his short stories were stories of soldiers and their experiences, but he also incorporated mysterious occurrences and supernatural events into these tales. The fact that Bierce s stories demonstrate his wealth of knowledge is rather odd, considering his upbringing and educational background. He mainly had to rely on his father s library for his education, but it seems obvious that he had a great intellectual potential anyway, which would have been and was developed no matter what. His literary style is an amazing one that paints a perfect picture of the mood as well as the settings of his stories. He did not seem to exclude one detail as he wove the intricate web of each and every tale that he wrote. My introduction to Bierce was with the short story Chickamauga, which tells of a young boy who experienced first-hand the horrors of battle during the Civil War. This tale is an incredibly gory one, full of detail about the soldiers injuries. The lack of emotion that Bierce put in is effective considering the terrible things that this boy was seeing while he was lost in the woods. The most influential aspect of this story was the fact that this boy was a deaf mute, and until the end of the story, the reader does not know that a common characteristic of Bierce s writing. The story could not have been written if the boy was able to hear because he would have known that there was a battle going on near him, and he would not have been able to sleep through it. Not knowing that a battle was going on made it such that he didn t know why these people were crawling through the woods. Of course, they were gravely injured and trying to get to safety. The young boy did not truly appreciate what had happened until he went home to find his home burned and his mother dead. An additional soldier tale that I read was A Horseman in The Sky, telling of a young man shooting his father. It was written rather mystically, and again, the reader did not know that the horseman in the sky was the young man s father until the very end. I say that it was written mystically only because when the young man was seeing this horseman, he appeared to be flying through the air toward him, which gives the reader reason to believe that the young man was hallucinating or that he was delirious from battle. Bierce again left out the young man s emotion over shooting his father, who had joined the war fighting for the opposing side, the Union. Another soldier tale that I read, which was quite different, was An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. It was the story of a man who was being hanged by the Federacy, and he was to be hanged off of a bridge over Owl Creek. The man was a simple planter, and the reason that he was being hanged was rather ambiguous he had offended the enemy in some way. The majority of the story tells how this mans, after dropping from the bridge, fell into the water because the rope had broken and tried desperately to escape. He was being shot at with rifles and eventually with a canon while swimming to safety. The pain in his neck was very real to him, because he had dangled a bit before the rope broke. His strife during the time that he was in the water was the first I have seen of Bierce s explanation of the emotions of his characters. This poor man was desperately trying to get into the woods, and eventually he did. After running through the woods for some time, he realized that he was on the right route to his home and from that point on all he could see in his mind s eye was his wife s face. He got all the way to his driveway, then he was dead. The end of the story was not that simple, of course, because the rope had never broken and he had really died while dangling from the bridge over Owl Creek. The thoughts he had about swimming to safety and making it home were mere hallucinations, his life flashing before his eyes. Another genre of tales written by Ambrose Bierce is his tales of civilians. One such tale being The Boarded Window, which is about a reclusive old man and the strange death of his beloved wife. The man was not always a recluse, and something besides years had had a hand in his aging (Bierce, 1943). That something was the untimely and avoidable demise of his wife. I say avoidable demise only because she would not have died in the same manner had the husband, Murlock, known more. She most likely would have died from her illness anyway, but that was not what made poor Murlock feel so terrible. After his wife fell ill, Murlock could not leave her side and help was too far away. She eventually became unconscious and he had assumed her dead, so he prepared the body for burial. He did not allow himself to grieve until that preparation was complete, and when it was done, he put his head on the table near his wife s body and promptly fell asleep. He awoke to a wailing sound outside, which came closer and closer until he was thrown back by the force of a panther coming through the window and dragging his wife s body out it. At this point, Murlock was unsure whether he was awake, hallucinating from grief, or dreaming the entire thing. The twist at the end which convinced Murlock that he had not been dreaming was the fact that his wife s throat was gushing blood from the panther s bite, her fingers were clenched, and a piece of the animal s ear was between her teeth. It was then that Murlock also realized that she had in fact not been dead like he thought, but was merely unconscious or in a coma, and the panther had killed her. It was thought that that was why the window was boarded up from then on. There is a great commonality in all of Bierce s stories, in his soldier tales as well as his tales of ordinary civilians. That being that at the end of the story the reader is thrown a curve ball, so to speak, and actually needs to go back and read the story again. In doing so, one sees that Bierce put great thought and detail into every one of his sentences. While reading the tales of soldiers, one realizes that his memories of [war] were not the least bit sentimental. He emphasized, rather, the blood, stink, boredom, and waste of battle, occasionally joined, as they were, by moments of intense fear and exhilaration (Silbey, 1999). Throughout history, war has been glorified and promoted as a noble and brave thing for any man. Nowhere in any of Ambrose Bierce s tales will those words appear when referring to battle. I think that his experiences in the Civil War, known for being the bloodiest war in American history, he was hardened and emotionally dulled for the rest of his life. One can only imagine the types of things that those soldiers saw on the battlefield, yet they were forced to overlook them and keep going. Bierce obviously wanted to paint war for what he saw it to be, brutal, horrible, disgusting, and a waste of many lives. He did so through his soldier tales, but that bitterness also spilled over into all of his stories. He denied his characters the emotions that were only natural given the circumstances, and he rarely pointed out positive aspects of anything. I get a sense that he held nothing sacred, which added to his use of the supernatural ghosts, flying horseman, and such. In the stories that I have read, he never mentioned anything religious, except maybe Good God at the end of A Horseman in the Sky. Ambrose resented religion but never abandoned the strong religious influence of his youth, yet retaining it, he did so in a very strange way, (Sowa, 1965). The fact that he resented religion so probably made it easier for him to be such a cynic. He did not worry about offending anyone with his writing, which I admire. There are qualities that Ambrose Bierce possessed which I have never encountered before. Most authors write from their hearts, yet there is something about his stories that show who he really was and what he stood for. He was a most intriguing author, with an equally fascinating life whose name, in my opinion, should be given the same respect as Whitman, Poe, and Hemingway.