Sunday, June 29, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 233: Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (#233)

Ambrose Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) from Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs:

The LoA introduction for this week's story dwells almost exclusively on the mysterious disappearance of Bierce. Perhaps it's inevitable that the topic would be "mysterious death or disappearance"when the story up for discussion is about a mysterious death/disappearance. I would mark that last sentence with a "spoiler warning," except this is a story that many people read in high school--remember, the one where the guy gets hanged and has this whole fantasy of escaping that seems real until the last line?--and that the story starts off with him about to be hanged.

Re-reading the story as an older person, there's a lot to notice. Not least of all is the way in which memory has changed the story, as it sometimes will: whereas almost all of the story tells about his escape and his sudden death occurs when he arrives home, I remembered it as the story of someone who lives out his whole life in this fantasy realm. (That might have to do with some of the tv/film adaptations, not to mention Robert Sheckley's "Store of the Worlds" story.)

And now that I've taken a course on American Gothic with a Bierce expert, where we emphasized Bierce's interest in psychology, it's interesting how the opening section sounds like the opening to one of Bierce's battle stories, where the main topic is geography and troop placement. There's almost no psychology at all, just "here's the railroad, here's a guy, here's another guy."

It's also curious to me how Bierce structures the story, with a flashback following this action-packed -promising set-up, before returning to the action. Often when I read these LoA stories, I think to myself how writing style has changed, in everything from word choice, to sentence length, to story structure. And yet, while Bierce has that sort of 19th-century slow opening, the structure is one that I see a lot today: start in medias res, with some big action--rewind to show how we got there--and then pick up. (It's also a structure that is getting more common in tv, I think. Or maybe it was always common?)

And once you know the reality of the story (the guy dies), suddenly certain things jump out about the flashback and the action. I mean, I've read this story many times (probably), but most of the times I probably read it quickly, with an "I know, I know" attitude. (Alternative: Everything I think I've just noticed, I've actually noticed ever time I read this and just forgotten. For instance, for the first dozen times I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, I kept figuring out where the Nazis got the medallion copy from--and only on the 13th time did I actually remember what I'd learned last time.) So, if you know that the escape is really just a fantasy (or psychological break), then it makes a certain sort of sense for the hero to be shot at by everyone, including the cannon at the fort. Maybe that really would've happened, but it sure does seem like narcissism--the narcissism of a guy who feels held back from his rightful place winning glory in battle.

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