The Coup de Grâce Themes
by Ambrose Bierce

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

First published as “A Coward” in 1889, “The Coup de Grâce” is one of the most bitter tales by the celebrated horror-story writer Ambrose Bierce. Bierce was a Union Army infantry and topographical officer during the Civil War. Between 1861 and 1865, he saw action in major battles at Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Stone River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and elsewhere. After receiving a severe head wound at Kennesaw Mountain in June, 1864, he recovered in time to participate in part of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Georgia campaign. Bierce often saw hideous, useless, and indiscriminate carnage, and the memories of it colored his life and literary production ever after. A graphic example is “What I Saw of Shiloh,” a reminiscence that he wrote in 1881, long after the war. In his characteristic prose, he describes a “variously hurt” soldier, details his ghastly head wound, and closes with this statement: “One of my men . . . asked if he should put his bayonet through him. Inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal, I told him I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.” This memory was surely an inspiration for “The Coup de Grâce.”

War was not merely the central experience of Bierce’s life; it became his metaphor for life itself—whether in wartime or in times of so-called peace. In Bierce’s view, life is a meaningless struggle against incomprehensible forces. Because it is futile to understand such imponderables, we should not bother trying. What we can do, however, is be aware of life’s grotesque ironies, not grow too disappointed when things turn out badly, and try to laugh, though perhaps with considerable bitterness and scorn.

It is darkly instructive to trace the complexly knotted motives of the three central characters in “The Coup de Grâce” and those of Bierce himself in writing it. Caffal Halcrow enlists to be near his friend Downing Madwell but is rigidly separated from him by rank and is eventually killed by him. Major Creede Halcrow orders Madwell into an action that causes his brother to be fatally wounded. Madwell finishes off his friend with his sword, which Caffal instinctively grabs—with the ironic result that the merciful action looks like murder. Presumably, the relief trio has come to...

(The entire section is 575 words.)