For Practice in Close Reading
AMBROSE BIERCE'S “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) regularly appears on the reading lists of numerous literature courses. Although I enjoy teaching “Owl Creek Bridge,” all too frequently a considerable portion of the class has already read this story, and often a student provides a “spoiler” that ruins the suspense for the first-time readers. I have found that teaching a somewhat lesser known Bierce story – “The Boarded Window” (1891) – is much more useful, and that this particular story, due to its brevity and style, is well suited for a first-day reading activity.
I have used “The Boarded Window” during the first class meeting for several different kinds of classes, including a general introduction to literature course, an American literature survey course, and a course on the horror story, all with great success. The text is readily available online,  and can fit onto a double-sided handout. I hand copies to students as they arrive in class, and usually we are able to have a fruitful discussion of the text after ten minutes of reading time. What follows are some of my observations about how this story works in a classroom, and some of the useful pedagogical issues it raises at the start of a course. A close reading of “The Boarded Window” provides an excellent model for how students should approach the reading and discussion of assigned texts in a literature course.
“The Boarded Window” was first published in the San Francisco Examiner on April 12th, 1891; Bierce made some revisions before including it in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1892).  To briefly summarize this very brief story, a man named Murlock lives alone in the wilderness in a house with a boarded window. The narrator explains that the window was boarded up sometime after Murlock’s unnamed wife died. The narrator goes on to describe the strange events that happened the night after Murlock prepared his wife’s body for the grave. While Murlock watches over the dead body, a panther enters the cabin. Murlock attempts to shoot the unknown creature in the dark, after which he falls unconscious. Upon awakening the next morning, he discovers a piece of the panther’s ear between the clenched teeth of his dead wife. Although incredibly short, the story raises numerous questions for readers, and students can spend a long time questioning and discussing what happens in the story.
In my opening instructions to students, I ask them to mark up their copy of the text. I suggest that they should underline interesting, confusing, or unknown language, and use marginal notes to keep track of shifts in narration and time. I also like to provide a few tools for students, the most important of which is a dictionary. Instructors working in a wired classroom can use the online Oxford English Dictionary to familiarize students with the concept of looking up a term and considering it in its appropriate context. A map of the United States (or of just Ohio), whether contemporary or historical, may help students orient themselves with regard to the location of the story.  Maps that highlight demographic information from this time period will also convey the relative isolation of the setting of the story during the time it was written.
When I open the floor for discussion, students typically start with the ending; they offer a wide range of opinions about what happened, which provides an excellent model for showing students how close reading works. While some students immediately say, “she was alive the whole time,” others believe the wife died and came back to life. Still others are completely confused about what has happened. We typically spend quite a bit of time reading and re-reading the final passage, where the narrator describes what Murlock finds in his cabin upon awakening: “The clothing was deranged, the long hair in disorder, the limbs lay anyhow. From the throat, dreadfully lacerated, had issued a pool of blood not yet entirely coagulated. The ribbon with which he had bound the wrists was broken; the hands were tightly clenched. Between the teeth was a fragment of the animal’s ear.” Searching the details of this passage, it is not entirely clear whether she was alive or not. Upon a close reading, we learn that the blood from the throat has not coagulated, which lends support to the idea that she was alive when she was attacked. The broken wrist tie (perhaps it was the panther?) and the clenched fists (perhaps rigor mortis?) often lead students to argue that she was dead the whole time. It is the final line – featuring the beast’s ear between the teeth of the dead woman – that finally leaves them no other option: the woman was definitely alive and struggled with the panther. While some students believe she was simply in a coma and that Murlock was premature in his pronouncement of her death, others believe she was in fact dead but was somehow resurrected. The matter of the “dreadfully lacerated” throat leaves some students believing that perhaps Murlock’s random firing of the gun had actually resulted in his wife being shot in the throat. Others resist this reading, insisting that a “lacerated” wound could only be the result of an animal attack, not a gunshot. At least a few students turn to a dictionary to defend their position, but the debate usually remains open; ultimately, the goal is to lead students to understand the importance of each word of the text, and how the meaning of the story can turn on something so small as the choice of one word instead of another.
Students also have a great debate about whether the story involves the supernatural or not. At one point, the narrator explains that he once, as a boy, “ventured near enough to the ruined cabin to throw a stone against it, and ran away to avoid the ghost which every well-informed boy thereabout knew haunted the spot.” Some students take this as proof that there is some sort of haunting, while others see a tone of irony or mocking here, with the narrator pointing out that the “well-informed boy” is, of course, simply foolish to have such beliefs. On the question of the wife’s death and possible resurrection, careful readers point to a key word in the description of the wife’s death: “at the end of the third day she fell into unconsciousness and so passed away, apparently, with never a gleam of returning reason.” As students argue, that “apparently” holds all the importance in the world.
However, the reading of this passage is complicated by questions of editing. If we read an earlier published version of “The Boarded Window,” the same sentence reads: “at the end of the third day she passed into a comatose state and so died, with never a gleam of returning reason.”  This variation (as well as others in different versions of the text) further complicates the reading of the story. “The Boarded Window” exists in at least four different published versions: the 1891 Examiner version, the 1892 Soldiers and Civilians version, the 1898 revision of Soldiers and Civilians (retitled In the Midst of Life), and the 1909 revision appearing in Volume II of The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce: In the Midst of Life (Tales of Soldiers and Civilians).  The “apparently” is present in only the 1898 and 1909 versions, not in the earlier versions of 1891 and 1892. So which one is the authoritative text? Donald T. Blume claims that the later revisions are examples of Bierce’s habit of making “problematic emendations”  to his own work. Nonetheless, most published versions of the story include the “apparently” and other revisions Bierce made. Although students sometimes find it unsettling to realize that there might be disagreement over not just the meaning of the text, but also over the text itself, exploring this critical debate presses them to consider the role of editors and readers in the creation and interpretation of texts. Students rarely examine alternate versions of a text, and this story offers an easy way for them to contemplate the possibility of not just alternate readings, but the fact that alternate versions might exist.
Despite the presence or absence of the “apparently” related to the dead wife, many students find other ways to prove that there is something supernatural afoot. Many point to a passage shortly after the “apparently dead” passage where the narrator describes Murlock preparing his wife’s body for the grave: “In performance of this sacred duty he blundered now and again, did certain things incorrectly, and others which he did correctly were done over and over.” Students are eager to know what exactly he is doing here, specifically what he is doing “over and over.” Many of them see this as a signal that he’s involved in some sort of occult practice, and indeed, the vagueness of Bierce’s language here, along with the mystery of what might be done to a dead body, leaves one to wonder what might have happened. The fact that after these unexplained rites Murlock felt “that he should have her again as before” does make it sound as if he was trying some means to reanimate her body. In his study The Weird Tale (1990), S. T. Joshi claims authoritatively that although “The Boarded Window” may “hint of the supernatural,” it does “not actually involve it.”  Nonetheless, students are eager to point to unresolved issues in the story that might suggest something supernatural. It’s rare that students will come to a final agreement on the ending; I like to use this opportunity to stress that multiple readings are possible, but that in writing or talking about a text, they must always provide evidence in the form of quotations to support their position.
The next major point of discussion to address is the narrator, who is a remarkably unreliable one. Many students first (mistakenly) claim that the narrator is a third person, as the tell-tale “I” of first person doesn’t occur until the end of the second paragraph. The nameless first-person narrator immediately undermines his own authority on the matters he is about to describe, saying “I never saw him [Murlock]; these particulars I learned from my grandfather, from whom also I got the man’s story when I was a lad.” The narrator’s distance from the facts of the case is suspicious, as is the way he presents some of the most basic details of the story. For instance, the narrator says, “The man's name was said to be Murlock. He was apparently seventy years old, actually about fifty.” The phrase “was said to be” and the hedging of the “apparently” and the “about” in discussion of Murlock’s age leave us questioning how much the narrator really knows.
The question of who the narrator is and how he learned his information (and how he chooses to pass it on) is a particularly useful first-day exercise. I find that I am constantly working to get students out of the habit of referring to the narrator of a story by the name of the author of the story. It’s useful on the very first day to instill in them the idea that the narrator and the author are two separate entities. I encourage students to find textual evidence about who this narrator is; this strategy helps students to read closely and to develop the skills of making an argument. We know the narrator is male, as he refers to his early life as a boy, but we have little other information about him. Many of my students believe, as Rena Korb has suggested, that “the narrator’s grandfather is in actuality Murlock,”  due to several strange clues about the relationship between Murlock and the narrator. At one point, after explaining that Murlock was found dead in his cabin, the narrator says, “I suppose it was agreed that he had died from natural causes or I should have been told, and should remember.” Again the narrator’s hedging language (“I suppose”) opens up the narrator’s interpretation of information to question. Further, he claims that he “should have been told,” which leads the reader to wonder why he would have been told, and claims that he “should remember,” which prompts the reader to question why he would remember (or forget) this particular detail. At several moments, the narrator seems oddly sure of himself, as when he insists that on the point of Murlock’s reaction to the preparation of his wife’s body, “here we are upon surer ground than that of conjecture.” Yet we have no reason to believe that this particular assertion is more sturdy than the other conjectures the narrator makes about Murlock’s confusing actions and thoughts.
As students often do with Poe (another author all too frequently confused with his narrators), students like to focus on whether or not a character is “crazy.” There is certainly ample evidence in Bierce’s tale that brings us to question Murlock’s state of mind. The narrator explains, “There is a point at which terror may turn to madness; and madness incites to action. With no definite intent, from no motive but the wayward impulse of a madman, Murlock sprang to the wall, with a little groping seized his loaded rifle, and without aim discharged it.” The repetition of “madness” and “madman,” combined with “wayward impulse” and “without aim” brings students to question what Murlock actually does in his encounter with the unknown beast. The description of the struggle in the dark room is particularly difficult to follow. To help students visualize what might have happened, I’ve used student volunteers to physically act out what we know from the description, including Murlock sitting at the table and the wife laid out on it. Based on the limited and confusing description, some students come to believe that Murlock, perhaps in fear, or perhaps in madness, actually shot his wife, and that the panther was only in his mind. At one point, the narrator suggests: “Perhaps it was a wild beast; perhaps it was a dream,” and shortly thereafter, Murlock “heard, or fancied that he heard” a sound. The narrator’s refusal to provide definite answers by using “perhaps” and “fancied” here leaves open multiple possibilities for what really happened in the dark room.
Typically by this point in the discussion, students are very focused on finding quotations to support their positions; they begin to question all sorts of phrasing and language, hoping to find the overlooked piece of evidence to support a particular interpretation. In several classes, students have raised the question “wait, a PANTHER? In this part of the United States?” Some see the unlikely panther as a definite clue that it was in fact a dream or fancy on the part of Murlock. After a discussion among the class about whether or not panthers once roamed Ohio, I suggest that we must think about what the term meant to the author and his contemporary audience. A visit to the OED assures them that during Bierce’s time, “panther” was in regular usage to describe a large, wild cat, perhaps a cougar or mountain lion, and that yes, such things could be in the Ohio wilderness.
At the end of the story, we still do not really know why the window of the story’s title has been covered with boards. Notably, the original version of the story that appeared in the Examiner in 1891 was subtitled “An Incident in the Life of an Ohio Pioneer.”  The copy I give students does not include this subtitle, so I tell them about it and ask them how it might change their reading or expectations to have such a title, and whether it should (or should not) be included. Throughout our discussion, we keep questioning specific details and word choices to see what hints the tiny nuances might provide. This kind of close reading shows students just how many questions can be raised in reading even a very short story, and helps them exercise their critical reading and argumentation skills. “The Boarded Window” provides few solid answers, but the many questions it raises can lead to an excellent demonstration of how to do a close reading of a text. Modeling this kind of active, engaged reading for students gets them interested in, and comfortable with, the reading process that will help them in understanding and enjoying the texts we’ll read for class – and any text they will encounter in the world.
1. The full text is available at The Ambrose Bierce Project: http://www.ambrosebierce.org/window.html. Throughout this article I will refer to this version of the text, unless otherwise noted.
2. Donald T. Blume, “The Boarded Window,” in Ambrose Bierce’s Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study. (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2004), 315.
3. There is an excellent selection of historical maps of Ohio, including ones with demographic data, at the University of Alabama Map Archive, found here: http://alabamamaps.ua.edu/historicalmaps/us_states/ohio/index.html
4. Most published versions I have found, both in print and online, seem to follow the later revisions and include the “apparently.” The earlier version, without the “apparently,” appears in Donald T. Blume’s editing of Soldiers and Civilians. See Ambrose Bierce, “The Boarded Window,” in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, ed. Donald T. Blume (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2004), 110.
5. Blume, 327 - 329.
6. Blume, 328.
7. S. T. Joshi, The Weird Tale (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 148.
8. Rena Korb, “Overview of ‘The Boarded Window,’” in Short Stories for Students, ed. Ira Mark Milne. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Literature Resource Center. Gale. University of Massachusetts, Lowell. April 17, 2008. <http://go.galegroup.com.libproxy.uml.edu/ps/start.do?p=LitRC&u=mlin_n_umass>
9. Blume, 315.
Bierce, Ambrose. “The Boarded Window.” The Ambrose Bierce Project.
http://www.ambrosebierce.org/window.html. (Accessed May 26, 2008.)
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Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study, 315 – 328. Kent, OH: The Kent State
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Ira Mark Milne. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Literature Resource Center.
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Goldfarb, Sheldon. “Overview of ‘The Boarded Window.’” In Short Stories for
Students, ed. Ira Mark Milne. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Literature
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Joshi, S. J. The Weird Tale. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.
Korb, Rena. “Overview of ‘The Boarded Window.’” In Short Stories for Students,
ed. Ira Mark Milne. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Literature Resource
Center. Gale. University of Massachusetts, Lowell. <http://go.galegroup.com.libproxy.uml.edu/ps/start.do?p=LitRC&u=mlin_n_umass> (Accessed April 17, 2008.)
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