Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The antiwar theme of Bierce’s story depends on the basic tensions between the child world and the adult world and between fantasy and reality. The boy’s fantasy world of playing at war is his only reality; consequently, when he encounters the genuine, external reality of war it seems curiously fantastic to him; thus he is able to integrate it effortlessly into his fantasy play world. Bierce develops the story on the ironic realization that the adult view of war often springs from childlike views in which men glorify battle in a heroic and fantasy image, only to find out too late that the reality of war is horror and death. This is a common antiwar convention, used in other Civil War stories, often in terms of the southern gallantry of noble knights who then confront the gritty and horrifying reality of battle. It was also a common device in World War I stories, in which young American men go off to fight the honorable battle and save the Old World only to confront the horrors of the muddy trenches of Europe. The primary communicators of this fantasy image of war in Bierce’s story are books and pictures that glorify war, for the boy has been taught “postures of aggression and defense” by the “engraver’s art.” Thus when he encounters the actuality of war, the boy responds to it as he has to the fantasy pictures that he has seen and the world of play-reality that he has known.