Sunday, June 18, 2017

Ambrose Bierce, "Chickamauga"

Once a week, the Library of America sends subscribers to its website a “Story of the Week.”  This week, the story is Ambrose Bierce’s “Chickamauga,” a tightly controlled fiction with a meaningful trick at the end.  I discussed the story with my students many times over the years and included it in my textbook Fiction’s Many Worlds.  Here are some of the discoveries I made about the story with the help of my students.
This is the Library of America’s headnote for the story:
Armed with a toy sword, a little boy treks through the forest and fights off imaginary enemies—not realizing that, nearby, a very real battle was being waged.”

Ambrose Bierce, Chickamauga
The anti-war theme of Bierce's story depends on the basic tensions between child world and adult world and between fantasy and reality.  The boy's fantasy world of playing at war is his only reality; consequently, when he encounters the genuine external reality of war it seems curiously fantastic to him; thus he is able to integrate it effortlessly into his fantasy play world.  Bierce develops the story on the ironic realization that the adult view of war often springs from child-like views in which men glorify battle, only to find out too late that the reality of it is horror and death.   The primary communicators of this fantasy image of war in Bierce's story are books and pictures which glorify war, for the boy has been taught "postures of aggression and defense" by the "engraver's art."  Thus when he encounters the actuality of war, the boy responds to it as if it were merely the fantasy pictures he has seen or the world of play-reality he has known.
As is typical of many Bierce stories, style and technique are practically everything in "Chickamauga."  Although Bierce was writing during a period of American Literature characterized by realistic depictions of external reality, Bierce maintained his allegiance to romanticism.  Often compared with Edgar Allan Poe, Bierce focuses not so much on external reality but rather on the strange dream-like world that lies somewhere in between fantasy and reality.  Thus, the genius of his stories depends not so much on the theme, which is often fairly obvious, but on the delicate and tightly controlled way that Bierce tells the story and creates a nightmarish world that involves the reader emotionally.    
The fact that the boy is a deaf mute emphasizes his childish fantasy world detached from external reality and makes more plausible the primary device of contrasting the child's view of war as a game with the adult's view of it as a horrifying actuality.  It enables Bierce to set up a strange dreamlike effect as we see the events primarily from the boy's point of view.  However, even as the story depends on Bierce's developing the perspective of the child, in which the reader is made to see the maimed and bleeding soldiers as circus clowns and child-like playmates, this point of view is counterpointed by that of an adult teller--sometimes in a developed background exposition, sometimes in a flat declarative statement.  For example, when the boy seems to see some strange animals crawling through the forest, the narrator simply says: "They were men." When the boy sees men lying in the water as if without heads, the narrator simply says: "They were drowned."
This narrator is not named in the story, but is presented as a disembodied presence who not only sees what the boy sees, but also sees the boy and draws conclusions about the boy's responses. The boy's mind is as inaccessible to him as it is to the reader.  This technique enables the reader to respond both to the boy's point of view and to the adult teller. As the narrator says about the scene witnessed by the boy, "not all of this did the child note; it is what would have been noted by an elder observer." And indeed it is the elder observer who establishes the ironic tone at the beginning of the story which mocks the warrior-fire, the heroic race, and the notion of a spirit of battle in the boy which make him born to "war and dominion as a heritage."
It is indeed the subtle tension between this adult point of view and the childish perception of the boy that creates the story's impact and reflects its theme.  At one point in the story when the boy (because of his deafness) sleeps through the battle that rages nearby, the adult narrator says he was as "heedless of the grandeur of the struggle as the dead who had died to make the glory." Because of this structural counterpoint the narrator has no need to make any more explicit comment on the action.  For the juxtaposition of the two perspectives creates a tragic irony of war as something more than an heroic and childish game, even as it makes us see how war depends on just such a childish point of view to persist. 

A film version of this story, part of a trilogy of Bierce stories by French director Robert Enrico, begins with pictures of fighters behind the opening credits. The film is eerily silent, with grotesque images of men crawling across the ground as the camera pans the area disclosing more and more wounded and silent soldiers.  Visual images in the film are not as violent and graphic as those described in Bierce's story; however, the anti-war theme is stronger in the film than in the story because of the stark juxtaposition of images of childlike "playing at war" and adult reality.