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.

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“Studied exactness” also serves as an accurate descriptor of Bierce’s temporal structuring of his short stories. Many of his stories fail to follow linear chronology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

marcus woodcock
Fog on the Antietam Battlefield (MD)

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

no matter what the actual hour may be

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IN AN OPENING VIGNETTE in one of Bierce’s earliest published works, [3] a man is visited by his newly-departed father. During this spectral interview, the Dutch clock in the room “swung its pendulum with studied exactnesss” (emphasis added, 5). This “studied exactness” also serves as an accurate descriptor of Bierce’s temporal structuring of his short stories. Many of his stories fail to follow linear chronology. The stylized crafting of time sequences which he substitutes for the traditional narrative structure can be loosely categorized according to type. The simplest involves chronological jumping, in which a linear story is broken up into sections relayed to the reader out of sequence. The Protean narrative that results allows for key plot details to be obscured, hidden, or in some cases completely withheld.

One of the best examples of this narrative convention is “The Suitable Surroundings,” first published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1889. The story, if reassembled chronologically, presents a chance meeting on a streetcar of a locally famous writer of fiction, James R. Colston, with a reviewer for the Cincinnati Messenger, Willard Marsh. Marsh is reading one of Colston’s most recently published pieces, a ghost story. Asserting that “an author has rights which the reader is bound to respect,” Colston insists that a streetcar is not the appropriate environment in which to read his story (223). The proper place to read such a tale, Colston continues, is in “solitude—at night—by the light of a candle” (223). He ends his harangue with a challenge; claiming to “have a manuscript in my pocket that would kill you,” he dares Marsh to read it that midnight in an isolated, deserted, reputably haunted house ten miles from town (224).

Marsh accepts the dare and is reading the manuscript—a suicide note from Colston with a postscript indicating his plans to visit Marsh at the house after midnight (the time chosen for his suicide)—when a young boy happens upon the house, sees the candlelight, and spooks a screech owl. Marsh dies of fright, is discovered the next afternoon, and the manuscript is read and then destroyed by one of the discoverers. The final section of the story is a piece from “The Times” which details the commitment of Colston before he was able to carry out his suicidal intentions.

The opening section of the story, subtitled “The Night,” operates as a barrier moment. The narrative begins not with the meeting between Marsh and Colston, but with the journey of the young boy through the woods towards the haunted Breede house. It ends with the boy seeing Marsh (the reader does not yet know his identity) and accidentally scaring him to death. (It is not until the third section that the reader knows he is dead.) The narrative then jumps, in the second section (subtitled “The Day Before”) to the meeting between Colston and Marsh that ends in the challenge, belatedly explaining Marsh’s presence in the house that midnight. The third section, subtitled “The Day After,” presents the dual discovery of Marsh’s body and of Colston’s manuscript. The section that follows, “The Manuscript,” continues linear narration, picking up where “The Day After” ends. The story concludes with the section “From ‘The Times’” as discussed above.

This structural framework is not merely a crafty gimmick; the idea of non-traditional narrative structure is reinforced by several other elements in the story. For example, the boy is used as a vehicle to introduce the concept of arbitrary associations with time. As he stands outside the Breede house, he recalls that “the window once contained glass, but that and its supporting frame had long ago yielded to missiles flung by hands of venturesome boys” (221). He was one of the venturesome boys and alone at midnight, he “half expected to be set upon by all the unworldly and bodiless malevolences whom he had outraged by assisting to break alike their windows and their peace” (221). While he fears punishment for a past act, we are also told his courage is generational, for he “was but two removes from the generation that had subdued the Indian” (221). Thus, both his fear and the courage to face it derive from the past, underscoring the ambivalence of time which the chaotic chronology of the story foregrounds.

That the narrative structure of the story is not merely a clever device, but is intricately connected to the content of the tale, is further emphasized by the foiling of Colston’s plan. [4] Colston intended to commit suicide at midnight of July 15 and then visit Marsh, as a damned spirit. However, as “The Times” piece that closes the story indicates, “one of his fellow-lodgers in the Baine House . . . observed him acting very suspiciously, baring his throat and whetting a razor—occasionally trying its edge by actually cutting through the skin of his arm” (227). Colston is promptly handed over to the police, bound in a strait-jacket, and committed by the Commissioners of Lunacy to an asylum. When one recalls that Colston is an author, the ending reinforces the idea that a writer’s work does not always coincide with intention, rule, or—in this case—tradition. [5]

This choice of temporal structure does more than simply provide novelty or heighten the dramatic effect; it actively directs attention away from the absence of key plot elements. The completion of the Colston story is prevented on two levels. The manuscript which he gives Marsh to read, and which is discovered the following afternoon, is full of gaps. The significance of both the Breede house as the location at which he will spectrally appear to Marsh, and the selection of the time and date, is only vaguely hinted at:

I shall die at twelve o’clock on the night of the 15th of July—a significant anniversary to me, for it was on that day, and at that hour, that my friend in time and eternity, Charles Breede, performed his vow to me by the same act which his fidelity to our pledge now entails upon me. He took his life in his little house in the Copeton woods. There was the customary verdict of “temporary insanity.” Had I testified at that inquest—had I told all I knew, they would have called me mad. (226)

Beyond the vagueness of this explanation, the reader knows nothing of the nature of the vow, why this house, why this day, nor anything of the nature of the “imperative obligation” Colston feels to kill himself (226).

A further obstacle to knowledge is the reader of the manuscript, “a son-in-law of the late Charles Breede” (226). After the above-quoted passage in which Colston suggests he withheld shocking information from the inquest, “followed an evidently long passage which the man reading read to himself only” (226). Immediately after reading the entire manuscript, the son-in-law burns it, destroying the possibility for full revelation to the other witnesses or to the reader of the story. The intentional withholding of information is additionally presented by Colston’s reference to his “mental career . . . lurid with experiences such as kill and damn,” of which he states he “shall not recount them here—some of them are written and ready for publication elsewhere” (226). In other words, we are told that explanations exist, but we are not told where to find them; in the process of breaking up a traditional linear story and reassembling it in its final form, pieces have been lost, or, more likely considering the textual clues, intentionally withheld.

The withholding of seemingly essential plot through the use of disjointed chronology is also a feature of “One Kind of Officer.” [6] Here, however, the structural device is not used to distract, but to prevent distraction. In both cases, plot elements that 1) would seem essential to the story but could not be withheld in a linear telling and 2) are not relevant to the direction Bierce wishes to focus the reader’s attention, are removed without reducing the effectiveness of the story.

For the most part, “One Kind of Officer” follows a linear timeline, with sections one and three through six all occurring on a single day, a day in which a Union division fights a battle against Confederate forces in a thick fog. Although there is this linear progression, there are still gaps and overlaps within the sections. For example, there is an indeterminate passing of time between the conversation between Captain Ransome and General Cameron that opens the story and Ransome surveying his artillery battery in section three. This section ends with Ransome ordering his battery to open fire on what appears to be nearby movement of Confederate forces. This opening salvo of the battle interrupts the conversation between Generals Cameron and Masterson recorded in section four. The fifth section occurs during the battle and the final section transpires sometime after the fighting has ceased.

Section two interrupts this linear progression, as the timeline shifts to the day before the events chronicled in the rest of the story take place. The section offers an expository exploration of the impact of environmental conditions on the morale of an army, as well as the collective personality a division of soldiers assumes. As such it is only tangentially related to the story narrated in the other sections. Yet while this section certainly offers interesting commentary on elements of warfare that only someone with direct experience as Bierce had could impart, the main use of this section is to break up the chronology of the other sections, to create a distraction.

“One Kind of Officer,” like most of Bierce’s war fiction, challenges traditional associations of glory and heroism with battle. The problem with war is not war, but the fact that human beings, with all their limitations and failings, wage it. We see the arrogance of General Cameron when he informs Ransome that “it is not permitted to you to know anything. It is sufficient that you obey my order—which permit me to repeat. If you perceive any movement of troops in your front you are to open fire.” And we see the petty vengeance exemplified by Ransome’s literal application of this order, as he fires knowingly on Union soldiers. These issues are the focus of the story; yet a traditional narrative structure would seem to require either a full disclosure of the conversation between Cameron and Ransome or some explanation of the nature of the personal animosity between them. Since Cameron and Ransome are meant to be types rather than characters, a full evaluation of their personalities is not required, nor is the nature of their discussion specifically relevant; it is the effects of that disagreement that matter. The disjointed timeline Bierce adopts allows these otherwise expected plot elements to be left out without undermining the tale itself. [7]

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Essay Table of Contents

1. Introduction

> 2. Disjointed Chronology: Bierce's Temporal Shell Game

3. Lives on Hold: Paused Timelies

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.