Monday, May 18, 2015

Short Story Month 2015--Ambrose Bierce, "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"

While the main trend of the short story in the late nineteenth century was regionalism moving toward realism, naturalism and ultimately impressionism, another persistent trend was the trend toward the well-made story of Poe, as well as that romantic gothicism typical of Poe.  The primary proponent of the latter was Ambrose Bierce, whereas the best examples of the former are Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Frank Stockton, Fitz-James O'Brien, and, of course, O. Henry.
Critics who have accused Ambrose Bierce of artificiality and lack of depth usually make such claims based on expectations derived from the realistic novel.  Marcus Cunliffe says Bierce manipulates stock characters to demonstrate a theorem (249) and Warner Berthoff that his stories are not usually interesting because they are like mathematical equations.  Of course, since the short story has always been more dependent on pattern than plausibility and plot, such criticisms amount to scorn for the short story because it isn't a novel. 
 By insisting on a faithful adherence to the external world, advocates of realism allow content, often ragged and random, to dictate form.  As a result, the novel, which can expand to better create an illusion of everyday reality, is the favored form of the realists, while the short story, which requires more artifice and patterning, assumes a secondary role.  Poe and Hawthorne knew this difference between the two forms well and consequently by means of a tightly controlled form created a self-sustained moral and aesthetic universe in their stories.  Those writers of the latter part of the nineteenth century who were committed to the short story instead of the novel were also well aware of this fact. 
When Ambrose Bierce entered into the argument raging between the romantics and the realists, he attacked the William Dean Howells school of realistic fiction by arguing that to them, "nothing is probable outside the narrow domain of the commonplace man's most commonplace experience.  It is not known to them that all men and women sometimes, many men and women frequently, and some men and women habitually, act from impenetrable motives and in a way that is consonant with nothing in their lives, characters and conditions."
The short story's focus on mysteriously motivated or seemingly unmotivated behavior is at least as old as Poe's exploration of the perverse in "The Imp of the Perverse" and "The Black Cat" and as recent as Raymond Carver's presentation of characters, who, scolds John W. Aldridge, are "impulsive and arbitrary"; and "contingency," snorts Aldridge, "is an impotent substitute for motive in fiction." While Carver is accused of arbitrariness, Bierce is accused of improbability.  But Bierce says that the capable writer does not give probability a moment's attention, except to make the fiction seem probable or true in the reading process.  Nothing is as improbable as what is true, says Bierce; the unexpected does occur, "but that is not saying enough; it is also the unlikely--one might almost say the impossible." 
Flannery O'Connor, who places herself within the romance tradition that Bierce affirmed, has agreed; echoing Goethe's claim for short fiction at the beginning of the nineteenth century, she says, it is the task of the short story writer to make "alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe everyday or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.."  Bierce's characters, like those of O'Connor's, have an inner coherence rather than a coherence to their social framework.  As O'Connor says, "Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, towards mystery and the unexpected."  As Stuart C. Woodruff notes in his study, Bierce's characters "lack an identity apart from the circumstances they are exposed to."  In other words, Bierce's short stories deal with those moments when people act in such a way that even those closest to them cannot understand what motivated them, when they act in a way that, based on their social context and historical background, may be counter to everything expected of them.  These are the moments Bierce is interested in, and indeed, these are the moments the short story as a form has always been interested in.
More recent critics of have a better understanding of  Bierce's use of typical short story conventions.  Mary Elizabeth Granader, who understands Bierce's reasons for favoring the short story, says that for Bierce, the most critical human actions "are motivated at those junctures when the soul is stripped naked and, for better or worse, stands alone." Such a juncture has frequently been identified as typical of the short story genre. Elizabeth Bowen and Frank O'Connor have suggested that it is generically typically of the short story to emphasize loneliness and to place characters "on that stage which, inwardly, every man is conscious of occupying alone." Joseph R. Brazil is right to point out that for Bierce the culturally-bound external world championed by Howells' realism was accidental and transient, whereas the world of desire and fear, the world always capture by the romance form, is governed by hidden laws and is therefore essential and permanent.
Bierce's most obsessive concern in the short story is not simple macabre horror, but rather the central paradox that underlies the most basic human desire and fear--the desire for a sense of unity and significance and the fear that the realization of such a desire meant death.  In terms of story-telling, Bierce knew that the desire manifested itself as the desire to present life as if it were a fictional construct, that is, as if it had significance and meaning, beauty and order.  Cathy Davidson has come closest of all Bierce critics to understanding this basic quality, although she fails to identify it as a characteristic short story convention. 
Claiming Bierce as "an impressionistic, surrealistic, philosophic, postmodernist fictionalizer," Davidson says his stories turn on a crisis that tests the protagonist's perceptual processes, consequently, blurring  distinctions between such categories as "knowledge, emotion, language, and behavio.r  Comparing him with Cortazar, Akutagawa, and Borges, Davidson claims that by confounding such categories as reason and superstition, reality and art, and reader and writer, Bierce's fiction "is a mirror held up to consciousness" rather than to nature.
Bierce's characteristic short story dynamics is to distance his characters from the ordinary world of everyday reality--by presenting them in a static formal posture or picture, by putting them in a dream-like autistic state, by putting them on a formal stage.  In order to achieve this, time is distorted, for time is the most obvious sense of things happening in the real world; and time, which is the crucial necessity of the novel, is not necessary for the short story.  As E. M. Forster and C.S. Lewis have reminded us, narrative cannot do without time, but it certainly can more easily do without it in the short story than in the novel, a form that focuses more on moments than on lives.  When this formal picture or frozen sense of reality is broken, the result is often the shock of entering another country, another realm of reality; the result is disillusion, despair, or death. 
 Bierce's most famous narrative play with the frozen moment of time and the power of imaginative reality is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."  Purely a story of technique; the "content" of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a pretext for a game Bierce plays with the conventions of narrative endings.  The story explicitly and sardonically exploits the idea of the reader (and the protagonist) being pulled up short as Peyton Farquhar comes to the end of his rope and faces the ultimate and only genuine "natural end" possible--death.  However, in this story death is forestalled in the only way it can be forestalled--through an act of the imagination and an elaborate bit of fiction-making which the reader initially takes to be actuality. 
The story is made up of three sections which correspond to three fictional elements--static scene, exposition, and action.  But all of these elements are self-consciously ironic in presentation and thus undermine themselves.  The first part of the story, the only part in which the realistic convention suggests that something is "actually happening," seems quite dead and static, almost a still picture, highly formalized and stiff.  At the end of Part I, the teller tips the reader off to the play with time that the story, because it is discourse rather than mere event, must inevitably make:  "As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant.  The sergeant stepped aside."  The self-reflexive reference here is to the most notorious characteristic of fiction --the impossibility of escaping time. In spite of the fact that the author wishes to communicate that which is instantaneous or timeless he is trapped by the time-bound nature of words that can only be told one after another.  It is this purely rhetorical acceptance of the nature of discourse that justifies or motivates the final fantastic section of the story.
The second play with the convention of time in the story is the insertion at the end of Part I, purely and perversely by the demand of discourse rather than by the demand of existential event, of a bit of exposition which tells the reader who the protagonist is and what he is doing in such a predicament.  The reader sits patiently through this background formality while the protagonist plummets into Part III of the story--which itself is of course a depiction of that which does not happen at all except in the flash (which can only be recounted in words) that takes place in the protagonist's mind. It is thus only because of discourse that Farquhar's invention of his escape from hanging, drowning, and death by guns and cannons makes the reader believe that the escape is taking place in reality.  At the conclusion, when the protagonist reaches the end of the fall, the verb tense of the story abruptly shifts from present to the ultimate past tense:  "Peyton Farquhar was dead."  At this point, the reader is forced to double back to look at the tone and details of the story which created this forestalling of the end--a forestalling which is indeed the story itself, for without it there would have been no story.  Postponing the end until the ultimate and inescapable end of death is the subject of Bierce's self-conscious and self-reflexive discourse. 
Thus rather than being a cheap trick dependent on a shocking ending, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a complex narrative reflecting both in its theme and its technique the essential truth that in discourse there is no ending but an imaginative, that is, an artificial, one.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I first heard this story many years ago, read aloud on an NPR program which would start after the alarm on my clock radio in the early a.m. It took several days for the reader to work his way through the story, and I listened in a liminal state, slowly waking up. I was so relieved that the captured man had escaped (as my sleepy consciousness informed me) and the shock at the end was stunning. I've never forgotten that story or the effect of the ending. I enjoyed your analysis, particularly your last couple of setences.