Ambrose Bierce wrote volumes of acid, satirical prose in his long career as a journalist and even managed to get a somewhat pretentious twelve-volume edition of his collected works published. Most of it, because of its time-bound nature, was doomed to oblivion by the time the edition appeared. One of his works that continues to survive is the collection of short stories titled Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. Bierce’s literary reputation rests largely on this book.
The bland title of the collection stands in ironic contrast to the vision of life that informs the stories themselves. Indeed, Bierce seems to have attached bland, noncommittal titles to most of his stories intentionally. Titles such as “Chickamauga,” “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” and “The Mocking-Bird” tell little of the macabre nature of these tales. Bierce seems to have chosen his mild titles with deliberate irony. When this volume was reprinted in 1898, it was given a more meaningful title, In the Midst of Life. The irony is clearer and more indicative of the true content of the book: In the midst of life is death.
Death is the sole absolute of this book, the common denominator of each story, and the final proposition in a logic of ruthless necessity. Each protagonist is part of a greater logic; each is subordinate to the plot, and each is cursed. Death is separated from life, is raised up as a separate principle antagonistic to life, and becomes an entity in its own right. Death is seen as a hostile specter rather than as a normal part of life. As such, death seeks to conquer life rather than to aid it. Death then becomes an inevitable victor that “has all seasons for his own,” as Bierce was fond of remarking.
Against such a powerful antagonist, the heroes become victims in a web of cruel necessity, shadow figures drawn into the Valley of the Shadow; as such, they are depicted with sharp, relentless strokes. Bierce’s heroes are essentially lonely men who derive their reality from the fear they experience. These men are cursed and driven by the logic of their curses. Their strongest motivation is fear, an all-pervasive anxiety that frequently annihilates them. The success of each story depends on its ability to arouse this same fear in the reader.
In consequence, Bierce places a great value on courage in the face of death. He is acute enough, however, to see that courage is not so much fearlessness as it is a greater fear overcoming a lesser fear, in most cases a fear of dishonor overcoming a fear of death. Courage, then, is the faith that one’s honor is more important than one’s life. Frequently the heroes Bierce admires court death with an awesome recklessness. His heroes are inevitably damned. There is no escape, no transcendence, and no salvation from the macabre situations into which they are drawn. Their dooms are inescapable facts, and the measure of their manhood is expressed in how they meet death.
Bierce’s vision of life is fatalistic, but there is more to it than that. Avenging Furies hover about his stories, but they are not the same Furies that haunted Orestes. Bierce is nihilistic, but inevitably there is a macabre humor in his nihilism. The acid, satirical touch that colors the rest of Bierce’s work is present here as well. Bierce’s Furies are diabolical jesters who love irony more than they love the wretched human spirit. His Furies are divine practical jokers who drum “Dixie” and “John Brown’s Body” on the human skull for laughs. One can scarcely tell whether the shriek one senses in Bierce’s prose is that of humor or that of horror.
Bierce’s grotesque wit serves as a relief from the horror of his...
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