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]






Manà¡´tempt to create definitions, limits, and measurements in the attempt to exercise control over time becomes a frequent target of Biercian mockery.















civil war casualty
Confederate casualty in Virginia, 1864









no matter what the actual hour may be

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NO DISCUSSION OF THE PRESENTATION OF TIME in Bierce঩ction would be complete without some examination of the role watches and timepieces play in his work. As early as the 鴴le Isaac橧nette in The Fiendĥlight (1871), Bierce has used watches and clocks to vividly symbolize man੮effective attempts to control such a parahuman verity as time. [50] As Isaac Gobwottle is accidentally smothering his non-existent son, the clock in the room 奭ed to be measuring䨥 progression of time (9). The inclusion of 奭ed襲e offers skepticism as to whether time in fact is being, or even can be, measured.

Manࡴtempt to create artificial definitions, limits, and measurements in the desperate attempt to exercise control, mastery, and agency over time becomes a frequent target of Biercian mockery, and the watch becomes the most common symbol of this futility. [51] There is no shortage of Bierce characters who turn to the hollow comforts of their watches when faced with circumstances in which they are at risk of losing control. In שreless Message,穬liam Holt responds to his bizarre timeless surroundings, the inexplicable reddish glow, and his ceaselessly preceding shadow by consulting his watch: est the intensity of the light whose nature and cause he could not determine, he took out his watch to see if he could make out the figures on the dial豳5). The narrator of 襠Haunted Valley졠href="journal4juhasz8.html#FN52">[52] anticipates the moment of frightful revelation of Jo. Dunfer୵rder of a Chinese immigrant by 襠affectation of winding my watch at that unusual hour, and with needless care and deliberation豲1). John Bartine௢session is not with time, but with time as represented and controlled by his watch. The narrator of of Twinsᮤ John Hardshaw, the central character of 襠Man Out of the Nose,쩫ewise turn to watches for succor in disturbing circumstances. What all of these instances have in common is the desire to meet perplexing, challenging, and terrifying moments with a physical reminder of the power mankind wields that is represented by the timepiece. The other commonality among these scenes is that the comfort is hollow, the solace ephemeral, and whatever calamity or horrifying truth looms comes nonetheless. The watch, then, becomes the vehicle of Bierce୯ckery of mankindॸalted sense of power and of control. As Solomon notes in connection to Bierce෡r stories, characters discover that 魥 cannot be controlled by the individual豸8).

The story in which this disillusioned control of time is most fully developed is of the Missing.༡ href="journal4juhasz8.html#FN53">[53] While most critics regard the story as an exploration of the ability of individual experiences of fear to overwhelm one੮ternal defenses, no matter the level of bravery previously displayed, the story also offers a complex exploration of time equal to those evinced in 郞 Bartineסtch,䨥 Death of Halpin Frayser,ﲠccurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.튠

As Jerome Searing, a private scout in the Federal army, advances past the picket in a dangerous foray into potentially Confederate territory, he notes that the course of his progress 奭s like a long time࡮ observation that floats, as the opening paragraphs of 襠Death of Halpin Frayser䯬 the idea that time is a matter of relative perspective (265).

Time compression is also featured in the tale, most notably in Searingবashback to a childhood memory as he awaits what he thinks is his looming death. As he mentally revisits his childhood haunts at Ghost Rock and Dead Manáve, ﲠthe first time he observed that the opening of the haunted cavern was encircled by a ring of metal買1). The intruding ring is of course the barrel of Searing಩fle currently aimed at his head; this present-tense reality is blended into the past memory.

While of the Missing簾ers additional evidence of various methods of time manipulation already discussed above, the storyୡin contribution to a study of time in Bierce෯rk is the fully developed depiction of the inability of its characters to accurately gauge the true passage of time. As Searing witnesses the Confederate forces retreating and decides to fire a bullet into the mass of men, the narration interrupts itself to present a lengthy discourse on how Searingथcisions and actions are unable to offer any impact on the temporal connection between events. Searingࡣt ﵬd probably not affect the duration and results of the war貶6). The reason is that

It was decreed from the beginning of time that Private Searing was not to murder anybody that bright summer morning, nor was the Confederate retreat to be announced by him. For countless ages events had been so matching themselves together in that wondrous mosaic to some parts of which, dimly discernable, we give the name of history, that the acts which he had in will would have harmed the pattern. Some twenty-five years previously the Power charged with the execution of the work according to the design had provided against that mischance by causing the birth of a certain male child in a little village at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, had carefully reared it, supervised its education, directed its desires into a military channel, and in due time made it an officer of artillery. . . . Nothing had been neglected䠥very step in the progress of both these men଩ves, and in the lives of their contemporaries and ancestors, and in the lives of the contemporaries of their ancestors, the right thing had been done to bring about the desired result. (266-7) [54]

Thus, the seemingly random act of a bored Confederate captain of artillery firing off one of his guns, hitting Searing਩ding-place and trapping him under the debris, is in fact part of a carefully ordered chain of events designed and controlled by 襠Power charged with the execution of the work according to the design.鮠other words, Searing, and by extension all mankind, does not have the ability to either control or understand the workings of time; history is merely a 魬y discernableࡲt of the ﳡic裂time; chronology is beyond us.

Set against the backdrop of a higher ordering of Time beyond human comprehension or manipulation, both Searing and later his brother erroneously interpret temporal events around them. [55] The first instance occurs as Searing regains consciousness after the collapse of the building. He assumes he is dead and recalls portions of his burial service. Yet his 岭 of unconsciousness, including the period of recovery, during which he had had the strange fancies, had probably not exceeded a few seconds貶8). The actual duration of his unconsciousness is contrasted with his expectation that a stoppage in perceived time equals death. So strong is this association that he is able to mentally recreate events that never actually happened.

The second instance occurs at the story࣯nclusion. Searingࢲother, a lieutenant in command of the picket line Jerome passed earlier, discovers (but does recognize) his brotherࢯdy. Lieutenant Searing had glanced at his watch at the sound of the random Confederate cannon fire, noting the time as 6:18. He glances at the watch again after seeing the body; it reads 6:40. Despite the fact that only twenty-two minutes have passed, he declares the body has been 塤 a week買4). Once again, the human construct of time has failed to accurately explain events. [56]

A final way in which Bierce adopts the timepiece as a preferred symbol for the folly of manࡳsumption of control over time can be found in the stories ccurrence at Owl Creek Bridgeᮤ ͡n Out of the Nose.鮠both stories, the central characters are ultimately reduced to pieces of human clockwork as Bierce sardonically mirrors elements of Greek mythology, particularly the morbidly ironic punishments enforced onto characters such as Sisyphus and Tantalus.

In ͡n Out of the Nose,졠href="journal4juhasz8.html#FN57">[57] the reader is confronted with a house noteworthy ﲠits rude resemblance to the human face, or rather to such a simulacrum of it as a boy might cut out of a hollowed pumpkin, meaning no offense to his race. The eyes are two circular windows, the nose is a door, the mouth an aperture caused by removal of a board below貰6). Out of the ﳥ裂this grotesque caricature of a human face, John Hardshaw advances in a mechanical way along a set track of sidewalks; his journey never varies nor does he speak or in any way alter the fixed pattern.

Time is a fundamental component of his automatic wanderings. We are told that 襠time of day is an important element in the man୯vements, for it is at precisely two o쯣k in the afternoon that he comes forth 365 times a year貰6). [58] As a result of the complications stemming from an extramarital affair (which include a three year stay in San Quentin following a conviction for burglary, witnessing the death of the woman with whom he had the affair, and a stay in an insane asylum), Hardshaw is no longer human; he has become an automaton in a life-sized, morbidly elaborate clock. [59]

An equally grotesque end awaits Peyton Farquhar in ccurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.ᴠthe split between objective and subjective time that drives the third section of the story, the sergeant releases the board holding Farquhar up. Farquhar is soon ﮳cious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum賰9). The imagined escape notwithstanding, this is the last image of Peyton Farquhar with which the reader is left; he is subsumed into the very invention meant to offer him control. In a story so heavily focused on experiences of time, it seems fitting that the final image is that of the central figure metamorphosed into a component piece of the invention that offers such hollow comforts to those who seek its self-delusional solace.

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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.