Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The irony so central to Bierce’s style is established immediately in “One of the Missing.” The major source of his irony is the gap between what the character knows and what the reader knows. In the first line of the story, Searing disappears into the forest, the realm of the unknown. His competence and expertise are emphasized, yet one of the pickets announces, “That’s the last of him.” Though the reader does not yet know Searing’s fate, it is apparent that he is already one of the missing. This tension between what Searing knows and what the reader knows climaxes in the concluding section of the story when the reader knows what Searing did not, what his brother Adrian did not: that the gun had not been loaded, that Searing died not in action but in fear, and that the body in the timbers is not that of a Confederate soldier. In this knowledge resides the horror of the story.

Kinds of knowing are also represented in the shifts in style employed by Bierce. The stark, flat, reportorial style of the opening and closing portions of the story depicts the activities of the brothers as they know them to be, rather routine and emotionally void. These unemotional narratives envelop the dense, shifting, complex account of Jerome Searing’s personal terror. In this portion of the story, the escalation of Searing’s terror and his loss of emotional control are depicted in the subjectification of time and space. In a few chronological moments, Searing’s perceptions of time enlarge greatly. Time accelerates with fear, then slows with pain. Space expands immeasurably, then contracts into a private universe, a prison of timbers. Finally, both time and space disappear for Searing entirely in his unmitigated terror. Only the reader knows the “truth” of Searing’s death; only the reader understands where this missing piece fits in the mosaic of history.