Ambrose Bierce Essay - Critical Essays

Ambrose Bierce American Literature Analysis

Bierce wrote almost all of his fiction during the height of the realist movement of American literature. Bierce, however, was emphatically nonrealist, rejecting virtually all tenets of the movement, particularly that concerning the use of “local color.” Bierce believed that fiction, in the tradition of great literature, should make use of and engage the imagination rather than merely attempt to paint a detailed picture of contemporary reality. It is precisely this belief and the exercise of it in his works that placed him outside the mainstream of American literature during his lifetime. It is also precisely this belief that makes his stories seem ahead of their time and which makes them so much more appealing to the post-Sigmund Freud reader than they were to late nineteenth century readers.

The majority of Bierce’s stories are intense, detailed, and objectively told. They are sharply focused narratives which present protagonists faced with a psychologically challenging situation. Bierce penetrates the inner world of his characters and often places them in a macabre, even supernatural, and often cruelly ironic world (frequently set against the backdrop of the Civil War) both reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe and anticipating a host of twentieth century writers, from Franz Kafka to Jorge Luis Borges. At their best, the stories both captivate and surprise the entranced reader. At their worst, they are marred by coincidences so improbable that even the reader capable of the most profound suspension of disbelief finds them impossible to accept, even within the context of their fictional world.

No collection of Bierce’s stories so vividly displays both the strengths and the weaknesses of the author’s fiction (often within the same story) as does Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (or In the Midst of Life, as it is more commonly known). “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “Chickamauga” are included in this collection, as are “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” in which a Civil War artillery captain fires, unknowingly, on his own plantation; “The Man and the Snake,” in which a man dies of fright of what turns out to be a stuffed snake with shoe buttons for eyes; and “The Suitable Surroundings,” in which a man dies after reading a ghost story in a haunted house.

Beyond fiction, Bierce’s literary writings, from essays to poetry, are characterized by the pessimism, cynicism, and wit for which Bierce the journalist was more known than was Bierce the short-story writer. It is his stories, however, particularly the much-anthologized “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and, to a lesser degree, “Chickamauga,” that have earned for Bierce his place in the history of American literature.

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

First published: 1891 (collected in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, 1891)

Type of work: Short story

During the Civil War, a Confederate spy is about to be hanged; he seems to escape, but his escape is only a dream.

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is by far Bierce’s most widely read story, and it may also be his best. It focuses on Peyton Farquhar, a Southern planter and part-time Confederate conspirator, who, as the story opens, is about to be hanged on the Owl Creek bridge for having attempted to burn it. As Farquhar is being hanged, the reader is told, the rope breaks and he plunges alive into the water below. The rest of the story recounts his escape down the creek and then through the forest toward his home. Just as he reaches his house, where his wife awaits him, he feels a sharp blow to the back of his neck. In reality, he is not home at all: He hangs dead, of a broken neck, beneath the Owl Creek bridge. The rope has not, in fact, broken. Farquhar’s escape has been only a momentary illusion.

What makes this plot so successful, as it lures the reader into the story, and what makes the whole story so captivating, is the technical brilliance of the narration. Bierce begins the story, for example, with a very objective, unadorned, strikingly dispassionate, and minutely detailed description of both the soldiers and Farquhar on the bridge as the former prepare for the latter’s execution. The objectivity of the prose lends an official air to the narrative, almost as though it were not a piece of fiction at all but a military report. This objectivity combines with the detail with which the scene is set, including everything from an explanation of the various postures of the soldiers to the exaggerated ticking of the prisoner’s watch, to lend a profound degree of realism to the...

(The entire section is 1913 words.)