Ambrose Bierce Analysis

Discussion Topics

Is Ambrose Bierce’s an “overlooked” writer because he was a nonrealist in a realistic literary era, because his output was too small, or for some other reason?

What virtues of good journalistic writing did Bierce bring to the composition of short stories?

Was “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” designed to lead to a “surprise ending,” or is the story’s ideal reader expected to perceive that Peyton’s “escape” is an illusion?

Discuss Bierce’s “Chickamauga” as a striking fictional fulfillment of the following statement: The Civil War was a conflict in which contacts between soldiers and civilians were frequent and keenly felt.

Bierce’s fiction is referred to as psychological rather than realistic. Justify or challenge this assertion by reference to several of his stories.

Other Literary Forms

ph_0111201183-Bierce.jpg Ambrose Bierce. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

As a lifelong journalist and commentator, Ambrose Bierce wrote prodigiously. He was fond of vitriolic epigrams and sketches, together with miscellaneous works of literary criticism, epigrams, and both prose and verse aphorisms.

Achievement

For many years, Ambrose Bierce was labeled a misanthrope or pessimist, and his dark short stories of murder and violence were understood as the work of a man who, obsessed with the idea of death, showed himself incapable of compassion. A less moralistic and biographical reevaluation of Bierce’s work, however, reveals his intellectual fascination with the effect of the supernatural on the human imagination. Many of his morally outrageous stories are “tall tales,” which certainly cannot be taken at face value. Their black humor, combined with the coolly understated voices of their criminal or psychopathic narrators, reflects a society gone to seed and pokes fun at the murderous dangers of American life in the West during the Gilded Age.

Contribution

Ambrose Bierce has been labeled a misanthrope or pessimist, and his short stories dealing with murder have been misunderstood as the work of a man who, obsessed with the idea of death, showed himself incapable of compassion. A less moralistic and biographical reevaluation of the work of Bierce, however, discovers his intellectual fascination with the effect of the supernatural on the human imagination. Further, his morally outrageous murder stories, collected by the author under the title of “The Parenticide Club” in The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce (1909-1912), are tall tales, which are certainly not to be taken at face value. Their black humor, combined with the cool understatement of the voice of their criminal or psychopathic narrators, serves to reflect a society gone to seed and to poke fun at the murderous state of American life in the West during the Gilded Age.

Bibliography

Berkove, Lawrence. Presciption for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002. Iconoclastic study that revises the traditional view of Bierce as a cynic.

Bierce, Ambrose. A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schutz. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003. A collection of the author’s correspondence calculated to nourish a more sympathetic portrait than is usually presented of Bierce.

Bierce, Ambrose. The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce: A Comprehensive Edition. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Lawrence I. Berkove, and David E. Schultz. Knoxville : University of Tennessee Press, 2007. This comprehensive collection of Bierce’s short fiction is covered in three volumes spanning 1868-1910. The general introduction as well as the introductions to the sections are lucidly written, drawing attention to the themes and literary devices that appear in many of Bierce’s stories. The editors provide a wealth of information on the author’s short fiction and give readers the tools to examine the works critically.

Bierce, Ambrose. Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce. Edited by Russell Duncan and David J. Klooster. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2002. This volume collects all of Bierce’s Civil War writings and places each piece in the historical context of the war. The lengthy introduction describes Bierces’s battlefield experiences and discusses their effect on the psyche and literary expression of the writer.

Butterfield, Herbie. “’Our Bedfellow Death’: The Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce.” In The Nineteenth Century American Short Story, edited by A. Robert Lee. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1985. A brief, general introduction to the themes and techniques of some of Bierce’s most representative short stories.

Conlogue, William. “A Haunting Memory: Ambrose Bierce and the Ravine of the Dead.” Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Winter, 1991): 21-29. Discusses Bierce’s symbolic use of the topographical feature of the ravine as a major symbol of death in five...

(The entire section is 959 words.)