The ABP Journal
Fall 2008, Vol. 4 No. 1

ISSN 1939-4578

Paul Juhasz is Instructor of English at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. He has presented scholarship covering a wide range of American and British authors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Conrad, Nathaniel Hawthorne, T.C. Boyle, and Katherine Mansfield. His writing has been published by the CEA Critic.

[journal table of contents]






The opposition between subjective time and objective time is fundamental to much of the work in Bierce’s canon. One way in which it manifests itself is through paused time, in which subjective time is stopped while Time itself continues.















hazen's brigade monument
Hazen's Brigade Monument, Stones River
National Battlefield (TN)









no matter what the actual hour may be

back Previous Section

WHEN RANSOME'S LIEUTENANT REFUSES to confirm hearing Cameron’s order, the artillery captain knows a court martial and a guilty verdict are now unavoidable; his petty vindictiveness has claimed one final victim, himself. [8] At this moment, as Lieutenant Price utters “I know nothing,” Ransome hears in this reply “the murmur of the centuries breaking upon the shore of eternity” (298). The image invoked here is two competing concepts of time, one a human conception (centuries) and one Time itself. This latter sense of time is the firm base, occasionally approached by but always “breaking” the human concept, here illustrated by wave imagery (in contrast to the solid earth—the shore—of the eternal).

Another way to conceive of this division is as the opposition between subjective time, that is, time experienced from a human perspective, and objective time—the actual progression of time independent of human perception. This temporal dichotomy is fundamental to much of the work in Bierce’s canon and one of the ways in which it manifests itself is through paused time, in which subjective time is (usually temporarily) stopped while Time itself continues.

One of his earliest expressions of paused time appears in the opening vignette in The Fiend’s Delight (1873), “One More Unfortunate.” The tale opens with an unequivocal declaration of time, “It was midnight” (2). Yet in the sentence that follows, this definitive assertion is challenged. As the city’s church clocks toll the hour, their tones are “half-smothered by the marching rain” (2). The arbitrary human division of time into minutes and hours is here partially suppressed by the natural world.

Against this backdrop, an officer of the watch spies a would-be suicide rush towards the nearby wharf. The young woman reaches the end of the pier and “raised her white arms heavenward for the final plunge, and the voice of the gale seemed like the dread roaring of the waters in her ears, as down, down, down she went—in imagination—to a black death among the spectral piles” (2-3). The reader is thus presented with her deadly plunge into the water, only to be told post-hoc that it was in actuality a mental rehearsal. The reader’s attention is then re-directed back to the young woman on the pier for her second (in a manner of speaking) attempt: “she backed a few paces to secure an impetus, cast a last look upon the stony officer, with a wild shriek sprang to the awful verge and came near losing her balance” (3). As with the initial imaginary attempt, this one is also aborted—the woman caught in a repeating temporal loop, with the action cyclically repeating itself; in this sense, she seems stuck in time.

The vignette resumes after an indeterminate period of time with the focus now on a suffering “blighted” female; [9] one assumes this to be the same young woman from the vignette’s earlier action. We are told “she never speaks of the past” and that to her neighbors, “nothing [is] known of her past history” (3). Her temporary fixation in a specific repetitious moment in time earlier in the vignette has now left her temporally unrooted, without a past. In a final indication that she is still stuck in time, the closing image of the tale is an expression on the woman’s face “which can only be described as frozen profanity” whenever a certain policeman walks by (3).

Whereas paused time seems at some level permanent in “One More Unfortunate,” in “The Man With Two Lives,” [10] the central character, David William Duck, eventually becomes, to borrow a phrase from Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time. Set in 1866 near Big Horn, Montana, the story recalls Duck’s harrowing experience delivering dispatches to nearby Fort C. F. Smith. To avoid hostile Sioux, Duck travels by night and on his second night, conceals himself in a narrow canyon. He is awakened the next day by a near miss from a Sioux sniper. After a brief exchange of gunfire, Duck retreats into a dead-end gulch. As the Sioux patiently block the only exit, he blacks out; on regaining consciousness, he discovers two interesting facts: 1) he is naked and 2) the Sioux are gone.

When Duck reaches Fort C. F. Smith, he meets William Briscoe, a sergeant “whom I knew very well” (394) and is told that Dave Duck’s body, “full of bullet-holes and newly scalped—somewhat mutilated otherwise, too” was discovered and buried two months ago (395). Duck is imprisoned as an imposter, escapes a week later and we are told is living in Aurora, Illinois, “where he is universally respected” (393). While the story is told linearly, there are several gaps in the timeline.

The first occurs following his second night of travel. Duck falls asleep and it “seemed as if I had hardly closed my eyes, though in fact it was near midday, when I was awakened” (394). While this seems at first glance an innocuous repetition of a common cliché, it is the first instance where subjective time seems to have been paused while objective time advances; what seems like a few moments to Duck is in fact several hours.

A second pause occurs after two days and nights of being trapped in the gulch. Duck recalls the third morning “rather indistinctly,” and likens his perceptions that morning to “delirium” (394). [11] He recalls hazy memories of rushing out from behind his cover, firing repeatedly “without seeing anybody to fire at” (395). Another chronological gap occurs, and the next thing Duck can “recollect was my pulling myself out of a river just at nightfall” (394). When Briscoe fills in the gaps in Duck’s story, it is clear that while from Duck’s perspective a brief period of time has elapsed, in fact objective time, during which the Sioux kill and mutilate him, continued to progress.

The one sticking point is that despite being killed, scalped, and buried for two months, Duck appears very much alive. While the easy explanation would be to assign Duck’s reappearance to the supernatural, a close reading of the text seems to rule this out. The introductory paragraph affirms Duck’s literal physical existence with the use of the present tense of the verb “to be” three separate times. Duck “is an old man living comfortably in Aurora, Illinois, where he is universally respected. He is commonly known, however, as ‘Dead Duck’” (emphases added, 393). His naked re-emergence in the river, post death, challenges traditional associations of the occult (how many naked ghosts feature in American supernatural tales?) as does the fact that he continues to age. It is also important to note that after being jailed in the guardhouse, he escapes “a week later”; one assumes a spectral Duck would have enacted his liberation from the jail walls in a much shorter period of time. [12] Duck is not a ghost, but rather what the title indicates, a man with two lives, one in subjective time, preserved while paused, and the other violently ended in objective time. [13]

A similar example of paused subjective time is illustrated in “A Resumed Identity.” [14] The story begins in medias res, with an unnamed twenty-three year old man, later identified as a lieutenant on the staff of General Hazen, standing on a hill near the site of the battle at Stones River, Tennessee. [15] The man seems to have regained consciousness after receiving a minor head wound. Near dawn, he witnesses a slow moving column of soldiers and artillery heading north. Unable to see the color of their uniforms, he fears their progression north identifies them as Confederates. As he surreptitiously makes his way east, he encounters a doctor traveling home from an all-night house call. He inquires after the identity of the army he saw marching north, and asks for guidance in relocating Hazen’s command. After being told that the doctor had witnessed no column of troops, the man terminates the interview abruptly with “It is plain . . . that you do not care to assist me. Sir, you may go to the devil!” (392). As the man storms away, he comes upon a monument in a field inscribed:



The Memory of Its Soldiers

who fell at

Stone River, Dec. 31, 1862 (393)

Stumbling in shock, the man falls near a puddle of rainwater. His reflection is one belonging to a sixty-three year old man. Overcome by the shock, he falls down dead.

As with “A Man With Two Lives,” this is not a supernatural tale. [16] There are several textual indications that the man is not a ghost. Like William Duck, he continues to age. He is capable of feeling basic physical sensations like “a sudden breeze upon the back of his neck” (390). Despite being wounded during the battle, the doctor observes that he is “not wearing the uniform of your rank and service” (391). His “civilian attire” begs the question, do ghosts change clothes? (391) The final piece of evidence is the last line of the story: “His arms gave way; he fell, face downward into the pool and yielded up the life that had spanned another life” (393). One cannot die if one is already dead.

As the story opens, the man “looked curiously about him on all sides, as one who among familiar surroundings is unable to determine his exact place and part in the scheme of things” (389). Later he endeavors “to orient himself” (389). While most readers connect this confusion to place, the word choice “scheme,” with its original connotation of temporal signification, provides for a sense of chronological confusion as well. [17] The temporal dissonance the man experiences is the result of paused subjective time. He himself recognizes that “he had lost his sense of time” (390). What appears to the man as a gap of at most a few days in fact spanned forty years of objective time.

In a slight variation from “The Man With Two Lives,” the central character in “A Resumed Identity” is not continually oblivious to the progression of objective time. After the initial blacked-out period (which ends when the story begins), the lieutenant becomes gradually “un-paused.” This measured reconnection to objective time explains the seemingly spectral character of the troop column. The army is described as an “interminable procession [that] came out of the obscurity to south and passed into the obscurity to north, with never a sound of voice, nor hoof, nor wheel” (389). As the man begins his movement away from the army, it disappears, adding to his confusion: “Puzzled before, he was now inexpressibly astonished. So swift a passing of so slow an army—he could not comprehend it” (390). His confusion stems from the fact that there are two distinct timelines in play here: his own (paused) and that of the troop column, which he witnesses, but is not a part of. When his subjective time is fully un-paused (for the story title promises a resumed life), the troop column has moved on, his wound has healed, and the battlefield has changed into “cultivated fields showing no sign of war and war’s ravages” (390). His life, having been paused and then resumed, has indeed “spanned another life.”

Even a casual reading of The Devil’s Dictionary reveals the disregard, if not outright contempt, with which Bierce held modern advances and human institutions. A brief list of definitions bears this out. Regarding spiritual matters, Bierce offers the following two satiric definitions:

Religion: A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable. (196)
Pray: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy. (185)

Regarding scientific discoveries, Bierce offers the following definition: “Inventor: A person who makes an ingenious arrangement of wheels, levers, and springs, and believes it civilization” (137). The possibility of human knowledge and understanding are undercut by definitions such as “Learning: The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious . . . as distinguished from ignorance, the sort of learning incurred by savages” (148), and “Philosophy: A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing” (181). What these definitions have in common is a mockery, sometimes bemused, sometimes acerbic, of a generalized human sense of self-importance. [18] In “A Jug of Sirup,” Bierce uses paused time to satirize man’s self-important construct of subjective time. [19]

That traditional notions of time will be challenged in this story is made clear with the opening line: “This narrative begins with the death of its hero” (145). This statement reverses traditional narrative chronology. [20] Rather than beginning with the birth of (or at least offering biographical information on) the hero, “A Jug of Sirup” begins at a traditional ending and seems to offer to move backwards. However, it is difficult to characterize how time actually operates in the story, primarily because unlike “The Man With Two Lives” or “A Resumed Identity,” there is more than a single subjective perspective of time being paused; rather than a central character’s non-consecutive progression through linear objective time, there are several characters who have their sense of time temporarily frozen.

The hero referenced in the opening line is Silas Deemer, a merchant in the village of Hillbrook famous for the constancy with which he operates his store. “Nobody,” we are told, “could recollect a single day, Sundays excepted, that he had not passed in his ‘store,’ since he had opened it more than a quarter-century before” (146). His constancy has become such a local institution that when he did not answer a court summons to appear as a witness, the judge not only rebuked the lawyer who suggested he be admonished, but “the motion was hastily withdrawn and an agreement with the other side effected as to what Mr. Deemer would have said if he had been there” (146). The villagers in Hillbrook take it for granted that on any day, at any time, Silas Deemer will be found behind the counter of his shop; the friendly sobriquet “Old Ibidem,” given him by the local humorist, establishes that from the community’s perspective Deemer is stuck in the same place and for all intents and purposes in the same time.

Yet to the reader it remains unclear whether Deemer is in fact stuck in a paused, endlessly repeated moment in time or whether that simply is the perception of the people of Hillbrook. It is stated that “Silas had never been known to sleep elsewhere than on a cot behind the counter of the store” (146). While this seems to reinforce the idea of his constancy, it is in fact rather ambiguous evidence. Simply because no one in Hillbrook knows him to sleep elsewhere does not preclude the possibility that he does.

What we do know, however, is that Deemer is “indubitably dead” (145). His funeral was attended by virtually the entire community, and since the narration emphasizes that “none could have pointed out any ritual delinquency that would have justified him in coming back from the grave,” when he reappears in his store near the end of the story, supernatural causes seem to have been ruled out. [21]

Yet when local lawyer Alvan Creede returns from work one day with a jug of syrup purchased from Silas Deemer three weeks after his death, the inhabitants of Hillbrook get caught in a dazzling retroactively paused moment in time. [22] After word of the possible reappearance of Deemer moves through the town, the villagers gather outside his shop. At first, everything seems normal; the shop remains dark and abandoned as it has been for the last three weeks. Eventually, though, a light inside is noticed and soon after “Silas Deemer was distinctly visible” (150). Three men, soon followed by a large crowd of spectators (including children and dogs), enter the shop and become locked into this paused moment.

The first indication that time has been paused is offered when the light is first noticed from across the street: “How long a time had passed since the first faint glow had been observed none could have guessed” (150). The mass lack of awareness of objective time is the result of a pause in subjective time. What happens to those who enter Deemer’s store reinforces this notion. From the outside, the store is lighted, Deemer stands behind the counter, and the curious “shoppers” are witnessed by Creede trapped in a temporal moment from which they cannot escape:

They thrust out their hands before them, pursued devious courses, came into violent collision with the counter, with boxes and barrels on the floor, and with one another. They turned awkwardly hither and thither and seemed trying to escape, but unable to retrace their steps. (150)

For those inside the store, “all was black darkness. It was as if each person as he was thrust in at the door had been stricken blind, and was maddened by the mischance” (150). From both perspectives, those in the shop seem stuck in a moment in time in which Deemer is not dead and reassuringly stands behind his counter.

Unlike in “A Resumed Identity” or “The Man With Two Lives,” subjective time is not paused by some unknown agency but by the villagers themselves. After asserting that Deemer is “indubitably dead,” the narrator cites the testimony of the citizens of Hillbrook that Deemer “came back” (146). Human testimony, the narrator continues, is reliable because “certainly it once put an end to witchcraft in and about Salem” (146). The invocation of the Salem witch trials introduces the idea of mass hysteria, an idea reinforced elsewhere in the text. As “the one immobile verity of Hillbrook,” Deemer’s “translation in space would precipitate some dismal public ill or strenuous calamity” (146). So traumatic would acknowledgement of Deemer’s death be that the local newspaper frames his death as taking “a day off” (147). Deemer’s reappearance, then, is merely a mass illusion transferring onto Deemer the villagers’ fears that subjective time is both impermanent and insignificant relative to Time itself. [23] As Alvan Creede himself concludes, “doubtless the phenomenon was subjective” (149).

next Next Section

Essay Table of Contents

1. "No Matter What the Actual Hour May Be:" Time Manipulation in the Works of Ambrose Bierce

2. Disjointed Chronology: Bierce's Temporal Shell Game

> 3. Lives on Hold: Paused Timelines

4. Time Manipulation: Expansion, Compression, and Irrelevance of Time

5. Time Hubs: Intersections of Time and Space

6. Security in a Second Hand: The False Comforts of Time

7. Final Thoughts: Bierce's Place in Time

8. Notes

9. Works Cited

Copyright © 2008 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.