One of the Missing

by Ambrose Bierce

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

Three interdependent parts make up this story: Jerome Searing’s military mission, his entrapment, and his brother’s military mission. Like so many of Ambrose Bierce’s stories, “One of the Missing” centers on the individual human body and mind in crisis. Juxtaposed to everyday experience, such crises disclose most vividly the fascinating paradoxes inherent in every man’s life. In those few moments trapped beneath the timbers, Searing experiences the convergence of the polarities of his existence. His public and private selves face each other. His rational and irrational beings are at war. His life and his death meet.

The polarity between Searing’s public military role as fearless slayer of men and his private and very human desire to go on living is symbolically dramatized in his plight as he looks directly into his own murder weapon. The callous killer is ironically reduced to the state of a captive, trembling animal. Dual impulses of the human mind toward control and toward anarchy meet. The man so competent, so disciplined, so daring, becomes the helpless victim of his own emotions. He is literally murdered by his own rampant fear of the death that he imagines awaits him, for in each life is borne the seed of its own death. The hardened maker of widows and orphans loses all control in the face of his own destruction. The vital young warrior dies an unheroic, unsung, and ignominious death.

Bierce explores both the limitations and the amazing powers of the human mind. Searing’s acute senses and his self-control allow him to be an efficient military machine. He deals with danger calmly and goes about the business of killing with a cool detachment. Under the gun himself, in contrast, he assumes that his plight is far more hopeless than it is. In truth, he is only moments away from potential rescuers, and the gun pointed at his head is no longer loaded. His false assumptions blind him to reason. The power of the mind to create its own reality is vividly demonstrated when not the unloaded weapon but his own fear kills him.

The Civil War in which he fought became Bierce’s most powerful metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man. It is also his central metaphor for the human condition: man born but to die, frequently existing in a hell of his own creation. Within the panorama of horror and death that is war occurs a personal experience of horror and death, a private war with fear even more appalling than the surrounding one. The hellish terrain of the march through Georgia through which the scout moves so fearlessly, so gamely, seems prosaic when juxtaposed to the landscape of fear he traverses while helplessly trapped and awaiting a humiliating death.

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