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]






Bartine displays confusion, as his obsessional dread is fixated onto the watch itself: on the apparatus that both represents and attempts to define and control time.

























cemetery statue









no matter what the actual hour may be

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IN "STALEY FLEMING'S HALLUCINATION," [24] the title character, when asked to offer a theory as to the suspicious murder of his rival (a murder he clearly committed), explains that “I left for Europe almost immediately afterward—a considerable time afterward” (176). While this would seem to be the confused statement of a murderer trying to avoid discovery, it also serves as an apt expression for one of the more complex manifestations of time manipulation in Bierce’s canon. A selection of stories, including his most famous “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” offers a satirically exaggerated manipulation of time, as simultaneous compression and expansion would allow for the seemingly mutually exclusive time markers of “immediately afterward” and “a considerable time afterward” to concurrently exist. Such coexistence renders the very concept of narrative time meaningless.

As with paused time, Bierce experimented with this type of time manipulation in a vignette in The Fiend’s Delight before adopting it in his more developed short fiction. The vignette “Little Isaac” opens with the return of Isaac Gobwottle from a temperance meeting “extremely drunk” (9). He promptly falls asleep as his wife sits up darning socks. “About the middle of the night,” he opens a fairly simple dialogue with his wife asking “Say, Jane?” (9). The reader is told about Jane accidentally stabbing her finger, about her continued work on the socks, and about a distant dog barking before, after “a long silence” we are told that Gobwottle once again hails his wife with “Say, Jane?” (9). At this point, Jane assures him his boots are off, assuming that was the looming question. After “another and longer pause,” the conversation resumes. Gobwottle inquires “what’s off?” and Jane explains her assumption. There is an even longer break in the conversation: “again the prostrate gentleman was still. Then when the candle of the waking housewife had burned low down to the socket, and the wasted flame on the hearth was expiring bluely in convulsive leaps, the head of the family resumed” (9).

This fairly modest discussion which would normally take a few seconds to complete, is stretched, encompassing the better part of the evening. To underscore the slowed down nature of time, the ticking of a nearby clock “became painful in the intensity of the silence it seemed to be measuring” (9). Time here has been exaggeratedly slowed down, with seconds expanding into hours.

Time, however, is also compressed in this vignette. The “Say, Jane?” with which Gobwottle tried to get his wife’s attention was a preamble to a confession that he had accidentally smothered their infant son during the night. [25] In the course of his explanation, the chronology of events he relates is compressed: “I saw you put ‘im in bed last week, and I’ve been layin’ right onto ‘im!” (10). For Gobwottle, the past (last week) and the present occupy the same temporal moment; the progression of time in between these two points is negated by the compression.

In both “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” time is similarly manipulated to the point of offering no structural relevance to the narrative. In “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” [26] time is simultaneously compressed and expanded to the point where an intelligible construct of time is negated, which results in the erasure of plot and character. [27] The story really cannot be said to have any plot at all, unless one takes seriously the red herring final sentence, suggesting the tale represents the impressions of a psychic medium in tune with the narrator’s spirit. [28] In the absence of plot, the reader is presented with disjointed temporal clues, none of which lead anywhere nor establish an intelligible setting. When is this story taking place? Is this set in the future or in the past? The answer, ultimately, is in both.

The story opens with a narrator coming to consciousness in the unfamiliar surroundings of a strange graveyard. The strangeness of the place is as striking to the narrator as its isolation. He notes that around the graveyard “no signs of human life were anywhere visible nor audible; no rising smoke, no watchdog’s bark, no lowering of cattle, no shouts of children at play—nothing but that dismal burial place” (52). As a wild lynx passes “within a hand’s breadth of me” without any reaction, it becomes apparent to the reader that the narrator is dead but unaware of his condition (53). As such, he is quite literally outside of objective time.

The narrator’s sense of identity and his attempts to explain his strange surroundings both are grounded in a backward perspective. Pondering his surroundings, he notes:

So old seemed these relics, these vestiges of vanity and memorials of affection and piety, so battered and worn and stained—so neglected, deserted, forgotten the place, that I could not help thinking myself the discoverer of the burial ground of a prehistoric race of men whose very name was long extinct. (52)

His assumption is that the ruins he has discovered represent a culture whose existence lies in the distant past. His sense of self is similarly grounded; he identifies himself as an inhabitant of “the ancient and famous city of Carcosa”: a present-tense existential identification with a city associated with past renown and achievement (52).

Despite his sense of antiquated surroundings, the narrator recognizes that time has progressed forward, not backward, since he lost consciousness. He is aware of a temporal gap, defined only by a vague memory of once being ill and being attended to by family members. His explanation for his current situation, that he must have “eluded the vigilance of my attendants and had wandered hither,” clearly establishes that he understands that time has progressed, not regressed or remained static. The extent of this temporal gap soon becomes clear, as a sudden gust of wind blows leaves off the nearest tombstone and “I saw the low-relief letters of an inscription and bent to read it. God in Heaven! My name in full!—the date of my birth!—the date of my death!” (54).

Ultimately, the breadth of the gap in his memory transcends beyond his lifetime. Following soon after the revelation of his death and the identification of his grave, the narrator recognizes (after an inspection of the horizon) that the ruins he originally thought were the remains of an ancient race are in fact the “ruins of the ancient and famous city of Carcosa” (54).

However, there is one final twist. While the narrator is trying to account for his condition, he encounters a prehistoric man, “half-naked, half clad in skins. His hair was unkempt, his beard long and ragged.” The man breaks into “barbarous chants in an unknown tongue” (53). The appearance of this primitive man completes the temporal dysfunction. The narrator seems to exist in a moment where the distant future and the primitive past occupy the same space. Past, present, and future become identical temporal definitions and thus meaningless; time has become timeless.

A similar coincident compression and expansion of time operates in Bierce’s most anthologized story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” [29] A significant portion of extant criticism of this story focuses on what is styled as its “surprise ending,” and Lawrence Berkove goes as far as advancing “An Occurrence at Owl Creek” as “one of the most accomplished literary hoaxes ever written” (4). Such views can only be held if one ignores the many clear indications of the story’s ending; the “surprise ending” is not a surprise at all. The title itself establishes that this is to be the recounting of an event that has already occurred. Moreover, Peyton Farquhar is introduced as a “student of hanging” (312). As Berkove accurately notes, there are limited ways to acquire a knowledge of hanging:

A hangman, perhaps, might be called a student of hanging, but it is secondhand study. The only real student of hanging that is possible is someone who is being hanged. Only he can study it firsthand, and only he knows exactly, what it is. (11)

There is only one way that Farquhar can acquire firsthand knowledge of hanging, and thus we should not be surprised when the story concludes with the information that “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge” (313). The manipulation of time many critics note is thus not a vehicle to set up a surprise ending but is the thematic essence of the story itself.

Like “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” temporal distinctions in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” have little definitive value. During Farquhar’s “escape,” individual experiences happen both “inconceivably rapid[ly]” and “ages later” (308). The narrative spans a time period of at minimum two days: time for Farquhar to form the plot to fire the bridge, to be apprehended, fortuitously escape his execution and successfully flee home. In another sense, it spans a period of a few seconds: time for Farquhar to fall from the bridge, for his neck to snap, and for him to die.

While Farquhar awaits the order for the plank holding him up to be withdrawn, he becomes aware of

a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil . . . The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater frequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness . . . What he heard was the ticking of his watch. (306-7)

This instance of exaggeratedly slowed time is mirrored by the story itself. The basic plot is repeated twice, with contrasting degrees of detail and duration. Just before he drops, Farquhar muses “If I could free my hands . . . I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods, and get away home”(307). In many ways, this is a two sentence abstract of the action that takes place in the final, and by far the longest, section of the story. The narrative itself, in its repetition, is stretched, becoming more time consuming.

Further complicating matters is an overlap of two distinct narrative events occupying the same space and time in the latter pages of the story. While Farquhar is rushing through the Alabama countryside heading for his plantation and family, he is also hanging from Owl Creek bridge. Objective time events, represented here by clichés of passing into the afterlife such as “great, golden” light, a path narrowing toward a point on the horizon, and voices of other spirits whispering around him, intrude upon the subjective time events that make up his fantasy of flight: two separate events happening to the same person at the same moment in time (312).

While both “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” prominently feature aggressively manipulated timelines, the Bierce piece that offers the most complex treatment of time is “John Bartine’s Watch.” [30] The story combines an obsession with time, embodied by the title character, with a cynically scientific manipulation of time by the story’s nameless physician narrator. The interplay of these two characters is set against a backdrop where time is simultaneously compressed and expanded to the point where an intelligible construct of time is negated. Ultimately the very concept of time becomes both unknowable and meaningless.

The story opens with the title character seemingly overreacting to the narrator’s inquiry as to the time:

The exact time? Good God! My friend, why do you insist? One would think—but what does it matter, it is easily bedtime—isn’t that near enough? But, here, if you must set your watch, take mine and see for yourself. (201)

His insistence that the relative time (“nearly bedtime”) should be sufficient, coupled with his refusal to glance at the face of his watch, introduce Bartine’s obsession with time. This obsession is reinforced in the paragraphs that follow. The watch is attached to him by a chain and is “tremendously heavy,” suggesting that whatever the nature of his obsession, it is both unavoidable and a burden (201). The narrator expresses surprise by Bartine’s “agitation and evident distress” after handing his friend the watch (201). Bartine’s hands are also “unsteady” as he take it back (201).

The narrator leaves little doubt that Bartine’s behavior seems dysfunctional. His reaction to the question of the time “break[s] upon the natural and established order of things,” “appeared reasonless,” and represents a “spectacular . . . display of emotion” (201). The narrator asserts that he “cannot concede your right to go all to pieces when asked the time of night” (201). At various times throughout the narrative, Bartine’s fixation with time is labeled “dementia,” “monomania,” and “delusion” (204), his behavior likened to that of “an opium-eater” (203).

In an attempt to justify his refusal to even glance at the face of his own watch, Bartine explains that it is a family heirloom, belonging originally to his great-grandfather, Bramlett Olcott Bartine. A Tory saboteur during the Revolutionary War, the great-grandfather was arrested by “a party of Mr. Washington’s rebels” one night and disappeared (202). A few weeks after this disappearance, the watch mysteriously returned to his doorstep. Three generations later, Bartine explains

Every evening when I have it with me I feel an unaccountable desire to open and consult it, even if I can think of no reason for wishing to know the time. But if I yield to it, the moment my eyes rest upon the dial I am filled with a mysterious apprehension—a sense of imminent calamity. And this is the more insupportable the nearer it is to eleven o’clock—by this watch, no matter what the actual hour may be. After the hands have registered eleven the desire to look is gone. (203)

Of key importance here is that Bartine displays sign/signifier confusion, as his obsessional dread is fixated onto the watch itself: that is, on the apparatus that both symbolically represents time and is the means by which man attempts to define and control time.

Intrigued by the tale, the narrator conducts an impromptu experiment. Unobserved by Bartine, the physician resets the watch to read 10:58 and once again asks Bartine the time. Assuming it is almost midnight, and thus well past the dreaded eleven o’clock hour, Bartine obliges his friend, sees that it is two minutes to eleven, and promptly dies of shock. The physician’s experiment on a quite literal level manipulates time by expanding it. The few seconds it takes the narrator to reset the watch are artificially expanded into an hour. As a result of this expansion, two mirror narratives are created. Bartine and the narrator exist in the actual time space of 11:58 as well as in the created time space of 10:58.

Yet time is not only expanded in the tale, it is also compressed, as past and present inhabit the same space. The watch is an heirloom; as such it has a dual temporal significance as Bramwell Olcott Bartine’s watch in the past and as John Bartine’s watch in the present. Speaking of the decision to share the story with the narrator, Bartine claims “I had already decided to tell you what you wish to know” before the narrator asked (202). In other words, the response to a question was formed (in the past) before the question was framed (in the present). As Bartine is prepared for burial, “a faint dark circle was seen to have developed around the neck” (205). We later learn that in all probability Bartine’s great-grandfather was hanged at eleven o’clock at night. The two deaths now occupy the same moment in time, which of course, due to the narrator’s manipulation, is not the actual moment in time.

To further confuse temporal matters, there are at least four distinct narrative timelines that throughout the story occasionally overlap. The history of Bramwell Olcott Bartine intersects the story at the points already discussed. [31] However, the conversation between the narrator and John Bartine is framed as two distinct timelines that only occasionally merge. After the outburst that begins the story, Bartine resumes normal social conversation with the narrator, while the narrator continues to ponder his friend’s bizarre reaction:

[W]hy John Bartine should break in upon the natural and established order of things to make himself spectacular with a display of emotion, apparently for his own entertainment, I could nowise understand. The more I thought of it, while his brilliant conversational gifts were commending themselves to my inattention, the more curious I grew. (emphasis added, 201)

The narrator seems to have literally left Bartine’s temporal present, focusing his attention and thoughts on his previous outburst, which exists in Bartine’s temporal past. Although the two men inhabit the same room, they occupy different temporal moments. It is only after he decides to interrupt Bartine and ruin “one of the finest sentences of his disregarded monologue” that they once again occupy the same space in time (emphasis added, 201).

A second dislocation occurs in the middle of Bartine’s story of the watch’s history, although this time it is Bartine who becomes fixated while the narrator’s chronology advances: “Bartine paused. His usually restless black eyes were staring fixedly into the grate, a point of red light in each, reflected from the glowing coals. He seemed to have forgotten me” (203). Bartine has not forgotten his friend; he has become subjectively stuck in time. It is almost as if Bartine’s progression through time has been paused, while the narrator’s continues to advance. An unknown interval passes as Bartine stays fixed in the past while the narrator’s timeline progresses. When the two characters resume occupation of the same timespace, a thunderstorm, the start of which the narrator cannot recall, has been raging for some time, suggesting that the narrator’s time progression has also been paused at some juncture (which would create three separate timelines).

The idea of multiple events occurring simultaneously within different timespaces is further indicated by the various footfalls of passer-bys. “There were,” the narrator recalls, “occasional hurried footfalls on the sidewalks; and once a heavier, slower tread seemed to cease at my door—a policeman, I thought, seeking shelter in the doorway” (204). The narrator’s interpretation is rendered dubious by the fact that the footsteps never resume, suggesting that either the policeman has taken up permanent residence within his doorway or there is something else afoot. Viewed within the context of the events in the sitting room, the footsteps outside, with their differing frequencies, suggest something more akin to a record playing at 45 and 66 rpms respectively. Thus, the footsteps outside echo the overlapping sped up and slowed down chronologies within the sitting room itself.

There is of course another chronology superimposed onto the ones contained in the story, namely the narrative present. Adopting a Poe-like story-telling convention, the narrator is telling the reader this story in retrospect. Thus, the narrator, John Bartine, Bramwell Olcott Bartine, and the reader all occasionally occupy the same temporal moment as their respective chronologies overlap, rendering typical distinctions such as past, present, and future virtually indistinguishable.

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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.