Chickamauga Analysis
by Ambrose Bierce

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As is typical of many Bierce stories, style and technique are practically everything in “Chickamauga.” Although he wrote during a period of American literature characterized by realistic depictions of external reality, Bierce maintained his allegiance to Romanticism. Often compared with the originator of the American short story, Edgar Allan Poe, Bierce focuses not so much on external reality as he does on the strange, dreamlike world that lies somewhere between fantasy and reality. Thus, the genius of his stories lies not in their theme, which is often fairly obvious, but in the delicate and tightly controlled way that Bierce tells the story, creating a playfully nightmarish world that involves the reader emotionally.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of “Chickamauga” —the technique that creates its unforgettable effect—is Bierce’s handling of point of view and tone. On the one hand, the story depends on Bierce’s developing the perspective of the child, in which the reader is made to see the maimed and bleeding soldiers as circus clowns and childlike playmates for the boy. However, this point of view is balanced by that of an adult narrator, who counterpoints the boy’s childish view, sometimes in a developed background exposition, sometimes in a flat declarative statement. For example, when the boy seems to see some strange animals that he does not recognize crawling through the forest, the narrator simply says, “They were men.” When the boy sees men lying in the water as if without heads, the narrator simply says, “They were drowned.”

This narrator is not named in the story but is presented as a disembodied presence who not only sees what the boy sees but also sees the boy and draws conclusions about the boy’s responses. The boy’s mind is as inaccessible to the narrator as it is to the reader. This technique enables the reader to respond dually, both to the boy’s point of view and to the adult narrator. As the narrator says about the scene witnessed by the boy, “not all of this did the child note; it is what would have been noted by an elder observer.” Indeed, it is the elder observer who establishes the ironic tone at the beginning of the story that mocks the “warrior-fire,” the heroic race, and the notion of a spirit of battle in the boy that make him born to “war and dominion as a heritage.”

It is indeed the subtle tension between this adult point of view and the childish perception of the boy that creates the story’s impact and reflects its theme. At one point in the story, when the boy goes to sleep and (because of his deafness) sleeps through the battle that rages nearby, the adult narrator says that he was as “heedless of the grandeur of the struggle as the dead who had died to make the glory.” Because of this structural counterpoint, the narrator has no need to make any more explicit comment on the action. The juxtaposition of the two perspectives creates a tragic irony of war as something more than a heroic and childish game, even as it makes the reader see how war, in order to persist, depends on precisely such a childish point of view. The boy is innocent in his playful point of view, but at the same time the playful point of view is what is responsible for the death of the men who surround the child.

Like many of Bierce’s other stories, “Chickamauga” is meant to shock, to catch the reader up in a nightmarish reality. Also like many...

(The entire section is 845 words.)