To contemporary audiences, Ambrose Bierce is known for his writings—journalism, essays, and short fictions—for his cynicism and his misanthropy, and for his famous disappearance into revolution-torn Mexico in 1913, an adventure from which he never returned. His literary reputation, however, rests primarily on his short stories of the Civil War and the supernatural. In both of these genres, Bierce explores his interest in bizarre forms of death and the horror of existence in a meaningless world. Shortly before his disappearance, Bierce also took on the monumental task of organizing his body of work into the twelve-volume Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce. In the second volume of this work, amongst the gripping Civil War tales which perhaps have brought him his greatest renown, Bierce chose to included the slight ‘‘weird tale’’ ‘‘The Boarded Window.’’
‘‘The Boarded Window’’ is not a popular story; that is, reviewers rarely discuss it and reference to it among Bierce scholars is almost nonexistent. Critics who have paid it attention have generally commented on its surprise and sudden ending. The story deals with a turning point in a man’s life, one which has the ability to completely change his future. Murlock believes that his seemingly dead wife has returned as a ghost and as fear immobilizes him, she actually does die a most horrific death. While Bierce artfully reverses the supernatural element of the plot, the story still contains the essence of its enigmatic author. Though masquerading as a ghost story, ‘‘The Boarded Window’’ conceals within its words an even greater mystery of the relationship among its characters. This mystery is one to which Bierce proposes no easy answers.
The story opens with an unnamed narrator recalling years past, back in 1830, when the area around Cincinnati was almost unbroken forest. A man named Murlock lived alone in a small log house. Murlock kept to himself, making his living by bartering animal skins. The most noted aspect of the house was a window, directly opposite the front door, that was boarded up. Nobody could remember a time that this window was not boarded, yet no one knew why, except for this narrator, who learned Murlock’s story from his grandfather.
At the time of his death, Murlock was about 50 but looked decades older. Murlock had come to the frontier while still a young man. He lived in his cabin with his wife. It would appear that the couple lived happily, for Murlock’s life after her death was that of a lonely, burdened man.
One day when Murlock returns home from hunting, he finds his wife sick with fever. As they have no neighbors or nearby physician, Murlock tries to nurse her back to health. His efforts are unsuccessful, however, and she falls into a state of unconsciousness and apparently dies without ever recovering awareness.
Murlock thus sets about preparing her body for burial. He conducts this task stoically, and it occurs to him that he should be more saddened at the loss of his wife. He tells himself that after he buries her, he will miss her; for the present moment, he must convince himself that things are not as bad as they seem. The...
(The entire section is 550 words.)