Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1518
Ambrose Bierce wrote volumes of acid, satirical prose in his long career as a journalist and even managed to get a somewhat pretentious twelve-volume edition of his collected works published. Most of it, because of its time-bound nature, was doomed to oblivion by the time the edition appeared. One of his works that continues to survive is the collection of short stories titled Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. Bierce’s literary reputation rests largely on this book.
The bland title of the collection stands in ironic contrast to the vision of life that informs the stories themselves. Indeed, Bierce seems to have attached bland, noncommittal titles to most of his stories intentionally. Titles such as “Chickamauga,” “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” and “The Mocking-Bird” tell little of the macabre nature of these tales. Bierce seems to have chosen his mild titles with deliberate irony. When this volume was reprinted in 1898, it was given a more meaningful title, In the Midst of Life. The irony is clearer and more indicative of the true content of the book: In the midst of life is death.
Death is the sole absolute of this book, the common denominator of each story, and the final proposition in a logic of ruthless necessity. Each protagonist is part of a greater logic; each is subordinate to the plot, and each is cursed. Death is separated from life, is raised up as a separate principle antagonistic to life, and becomes an entity in its own right. Death is seen as a hostile specter rather than as a normal part of life. As such, death seeks to conquer life rather than to aid it. Death then becomes an inevitable victor that “has all seasons for his own,” as Bierce was fond of remarking.
Against such a powerful antagonist, the heroes become victims in a web of cruel necessity, shadow figures drawn into the Valley of the Shadow; as such, they are depicted with sharp, relentless strokes. Bierce’s heroes are essentially lonely men who derive their reality from the fear they experience. These men are cursed and driven by the logic of their curses. Their strongest motivation is fear, an all-pervasive anxiety that frequently annihilates them. The success of each story depends on its ability to arouse this same fear in the reader.
In consequence, Bierce places a great value on courage in the face of death. He is acute enough, however, to see that courage is not so much fearlessness as it is a greater fear overcoming a lesser fear, in most cases a fear of dishonor overcoming a fear of death. Courage, then, is the faith that one’s honor is more important than one’s life. Frequently the heroes Bierce admires court death with an awesome recklessness. His heroes are inevitably damned. There is no escape, no transcendence, and no salvation from the macabre situations into which they are drawn. Their dooms are inescapable facts, and the measure of their manhood is expressed in how they meet death.
Bierce’s vision of life is fatalistic, but there is more to it than that. Avenging Furies hover about his stories, but they are not the same Furies that haunted Orestes. Bierce is nihilistic, but inevitably there is a macabre humor in his nihilism. The acid, satirical touch that colors the rest of Bierce’s work is present here as well. Bierce’s Furies are diabolical jesters who love irony more than they love the wretched human spirit. His Furies are divine practical jokers who drum “Dixie” and “John Brown’s Body” on the human skull for laughs. One can scarcely tell whether the shriek one senses in Bierce’s prose is that of humor or that of horror.
Bierce’s grotesque wit serves as a relief from the horror of his situations. A related technique that serves the same purpose is his ironic stance, one that removes him from the petty human scene and separates him from the terror of his heroes. Bierce assumes a godlike attitude that determines the objective nature of his prose. He uses a naturalistic style that is precise in diction, spare in depiction, and ironic in narration.
In effect, Bierce takes on the cruel role of the Furies in narrating his stories, and the tone of his prose is frigid, caustic, and inhuman. It is precisely this emotional sterility, this godlike irony, that makes his stories so powerfully chilling. If, for example, Bierce were to sympathize with his heroes, the reader would have pathos rather than terror. The very lack of an appropriate emotional response in the narration stimulates to an excessive degree the proper emotional response in the reader. The fact that Bierce himself was caustic, cruel, and sharp, demanding perfection of his fellow human beings, admirably served his limited artistic abilities and enabled him to focus his talent on evoking both terror and humor.
Tales of Soldiers and Civilians is, as the title suggests, divided into two parts: war stories and mystery stories. The two types of stories develop Bierce’s vision of life in different literary directions. The war tales anticipate the work of Ernest Hemingway, while the civilian stories anticipate more modern horror-tale writers such as H. P. Lovecraft. Beyond a doubt, Bierce reached his artistic peak in the soldier tales. War stories provided the perfect medium for someone of his character and experience. First of all, Bierce had served in the U.S. Civil War, and undoubtedly his stories draw much of their vigor from his firsthand experience. His depictions of various battles and their effects have an unmistakable aura of reality. His description of war is hauntingly vivid and stands in marked contrast to the maudlin accounts found in the vast bulk of Civil War writings.
Second, war tales provided an acceptable outlet for Bierce’s obsessions with fear, courage, and death. These leitmotifs could be presented naturally in tales of soldiers. Since war abounds in abnormal situations, Bierce could write naturally about a man killing his twin brother, about a son killing his father, and about an artilleryman killing his wife. In the context of their stories, these plots become necessary accidents, part of some divine causality. Third, Bierce’s naturalistic style is admirably suited to describing the limited vision of the soldier in war, a vision that is not permitted the luxury of feeling pity and that must avoid all contemplation. It is a vision, moreover, that must concentrate on immediate objectives and on carrying out specific orders. Finally, the army subjugates individuals to the mass. Deeds of fear and courage are the only acts by which a soldier is individualized and judged. Bierce’s characters draw their reality from the ways they face death. Each hero undergoes an ordeal, which means death either for him or for someone close to him, and that test determines his character. Apart from that ordeal, Bierce’s characters are lifeless puppets dancing to meretricious plots.
Bierce’s war stories are his best. Nowhere else did he achieve such a perfect fusion of form and content, except perhaps in his aphorisms. In quality, the tales are superior to nearly all of the other short fiction that was being written during the nineteenth century in the United States. In many instances, they anticipate or rival Hemingway’s stories. Actually, many points of comparison can be drawn between Bierce and Hemingway: Both show obsession with fear, courage, and death; both use a crisp, ironic prose to communicate their vision; both find expression in stories of war; both present character tested through some ordeal; and both possess a cruel and evocative power—a power that at times gives their fiction a haunting quality as vivid as a nightmare. Bierce’s war tales, particularly “Chickamauga,” “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “One Kind of Officer,” and “Killed at Resaca,” are first-rate for what they attempt to do.
His civilian stories, however, fall somewhat short of the high standards he achieves in his war tales. The reason for this diminished quality is that Bierce attempts to impose on his stories of civilians the same vision of life that pervades his soldier tales, and the grafting is not always successful. Pictures of war provide the perfect literary vehicle for his outlook, because war abounds in pathological situations. When he tries to impose this vision on civilian reality, however, the imperfections of plot, the implausibilities, and the grotesqueness show up much more glaringly. The trick endings do not come off nearly as successfully. The characters and plots never match those of the war stories. To inject a pathological fear into stories about civilians requires great skill. What Bierce did succeed in doing with the civilian stories was to extend the then relatively new prose genre of the short mystery tale. In this lesser genre, Bierce comes off rather well when compared with later writers working in this vein, and his stories continue to hold their own in the anthologies. Where Bierce is successful in turning his neuroses into fine artistic stories, he has few equals in suspense, evocative power, clarity, and irony.