Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 120: Ambrose Bierce, The Eyes of the Panther (#80)

Ambrose Bierce, "The Eyes of the Panther" (1897) from Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs:

Posited: the ghost/horror story is often a story of the past coming to haunt--and so derail--the future. That's at least the case with Bierce's "The Eyes of the Panther": a young woman (Irene Marlowe), haunted by her mother's experience with a panther, refuses to marry a very eligible bachelor. We can draw some strong distinctions between this woman's pioneer heritage and the city-bred lawyer bachelor; and the story itself sometimes reminds us of the steady march of "progress":
For more than a hundred years these men pushed ever westward, generation after generation, with rifle and ax, reclaiming from Nature and her savage children here and there an isolated acreage for the plow, no sooner reclaimed than surrendered to their less venturesome but more thrifty successors.
"Surrendered" is a curious word to use here; why not "sold" or "given" or "prepared." There's an undercurrent of violence here in the relations of humans. Did I say "undercurrent"? In a story where a jilted bachelor shoots and kills a woman because he thought she was (or mistook her for) a panther, I think we can drop the "under."

The story is told in that great way that Bierce has of mixing tones and giving the account from an elevated but not distant position. Which means that in the second section--the story of the girl's mother's experience with the panther--we get a POV that couldn't really be occupied by anyone, a mix of the mother's dreams and feelings and the father's discovery of his dead child. This POV is very carefully structured to give us all of the information, but none of the real answers. So, yes, a man shot someone--but is this a case of convenient murder, accidental manslaughter, or unwilling lycanthropy?

With that question unanswered, the final lines become uncomfortably haunting:
But it was no panther. What it was is told, even to this day, upon a weather-worn headstone in the village churchyard, and for many years was attested daily at the graveside by the bent figure and sorrow-seamed face of Old Man Marlowe, to whose soul, and to the soul of his strange, unhappy child, peace. Peace and reparation.
The bolding is mine, but the short sentence that punches you with its implications is Bierce's.

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