Are Ambrose Bierce Stories Stories?

It is very difficult to figure out what makes a narrative, which is the telling of a sequence of events, into a story, which is a narrative shaped well enough to have a development and a point. Chronicles or lists of successive kings is a narrative that can become a story when filled out with anecdotes and contrasts. The best description of what a story is remains the one provided by Aristotle, who said that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end, but that is unsatisfactory as a definition because it doesn’t tell what are the minimum criteria for any of those three elements. Try to construct a minimal story and you wind up nowhere. Is the following sentence a story: “A robin fell out of a tree and died”? The robin in the tree was the beginning, otherwise known as the setting; falling out of the tree was the middle or the event of the story; and the robin’s death was the outcome caused by or juxtaposed with the event, and so the end of the story. But it is not much of a story. There is no point to it, no conflict, no twist whereby the middle and the end play off against the setting and one another. “Hamlet” is a story because a prince undertakes to overthrow a king and is foiled in his attempt perhaps because of circumstances and perhaps because of his own misgivings about himself, his setting, and his antagonists, about who is a friend and who is a foe. Now that is quite a story. Perhaps one way to deal with the question of what a story is is to look at a well respected writer who barely if at all writes stories that qualify as stories. Ambrose Bierce was a very popular writer during the Nineteenth Century, though little read now, except for his not quite story “Incident at Owl Creek” of which I will not give away the punchline because that is all there is to making it a story. Bierce was very good at sentences and had wit, and that is what carries him through, but are his stories stories or are they merely sketches, descriptions, that don’t add up to being any more than that? Let’s see.

One of Bierce’s supposed stories is “The Stranger”. A mysterious figure wanders into the camp of some properly outfitted outdoorsmen in nineteenth century New Mexico. He tells a story of being part of a similar group of four who had been chased by Indians and wound up in a cave without their horses or food and bound to be killed by the Indians. They make a suicide pact to put off additional suffering and this last person, who keeps repeating the names of the four members of the group tells how the other three died and is criticized by the group he has encountered until they realize that he is also dead, that the suicide pact was fully carried out,and so what they have seen is a ghost. Bierce gives no reason for why the ghost remained around, for what he signifies. Rather, the story is an evocation of the sorry plight of the four and of the shocking fact that they might indeed have thought suicide the only way out of their predicament. The punch line of the story, if it is a story, is that the living group comes to understand this, though that is no reason for there to be a ghost, and so the story is better understood as a sketch of just how dangerous is the life of someone in the New Mexico hinterlands, rather than the development of a theme. The fact that the man who tells his tale is a ghost does nothing more than shock the reader rather than follow up as an ironic twist on the tale, such as was provided on any number of occasions by O. Henry, where his endings are surprises but always appropriate, as when the two young and poor lovers present one another with a watch fob and a comb when he had sold his watch to buy her a comb and she had sold her hair to buy him a watch fob. And this, so O. Henry concludes, is true love. That story, “The Gift of the Magi”, may be sentimental, but it is a story, while “The Stranger” is a sketch posing as a story.

Here is another of Ambrose Bierce’s stories that would seem closer to being one but not really. In “John Bartime’s Watch”, Bartime is the dinner guest of a physician and becomes very agitated when he is asked to consult his old-fashioned looking watch for the time. Asked why the agitation, he replies that it had belonged to his great grandfather who had been taken off in the night by George Washington’s men and that he gets agitated if he looks at the watch before eleven o’clock p.m. The physician resets the watch for an hour earlier and then inquires after the time when eleven would seem to have passed. But the descendant of the Tory falls down dead, and by the next morning shows the signs of being hanged, which is what supposedly had happened to his ancestor at eleven p. M. so long before. This is not an ending because it does not explain why the watch had such magical power, only refers to or discovers it, and that discovery stands as its ending, even though there had been so many promising elements of the story that had earlier been introduced that would have constituted the development, or middle, from which an ending could have been drawn. There was the fact of the Toryism and hatred of George Washington, by Bierce’s time a very honorable figure, and whether there might be reverberations from that other than that someone who was a spirit of a Tory might think poorly of Washington. There is the rain pelting on the outside of the house, which is just dressing the setting for a ghost story. There is the idea that the physician is a man of science who performs an inhumane experiment, and maybe that says something about the nature of science. But all that comes after is the announcement that this is indeed a ghost story, rather than a story in which ghostly things happen or the laws of the world of ghosts apply. So there are clues to meaning, but all the reader is left with is the announcement of having been at a ghost story, which is not a proper ending because it does not grow or somehow unfold from the events of the story. It is a story that fails to be a story. Jane Austen had told a ghost story in “Northanger Abbey” so as to show them up and display real life as more dreadful than any ghost story. What is Bierce’s point other than to display a ghost?

The distinction between sketches and stories holds up, I think, for authors far superior to Bierce. Ernest Hemingway wrote a remarkable set of stories early in his career, the Nick Adams stories, that were very elegant in being full bodied descriptions of a situation with little attention to plot, although there was enough plot to make them seem to be stories. Hemingway went even a step further in his minimalism in  “A Moveable Feast”, which were a set of sketches he wrote in his early Paris years but were not published until after his death, perhaps because what they were was so difficult to characterize. And even his late and overblown “The Old Man and the Sea”, a parody of the Hemingwayesque, is far less than a novel or a short story. It is a sketch that describes a man catching a big fish which gets nibbled away until there is not much left, and that is all there is, the irony imported by the reader that fishing, like life, is fruitless, merely a way of giving the story a moral so that it feels like a story.

A good example of Hemingway at his best as a sketch writer is “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”. Two waiters sit an comment on a drunk finishing a brandy in their cafe who had unsuccessfully tried to kill himself. One waiter goes home, the other closes up this spot of light in the night and then goes home himself, hopeless and alone, just like the drunk who had captured the attention of the two waiters earlier on. There is no development here, only an opening where the waiters observe and then a section where they are observed. There is no significant event, only a mood of existential despair for their placement in the universe. The mood rather than the outcome is what is important, and so one can generalize and suggest that a sketch is different from a story in that a story has an ending while a sketch doesn’t, that Bierce is a limited writer because he tries to fashion an ending which is not earned by what came before. It matters if the guy left standing at the end of a story is the guy in the white hat or the one in the black hat. That changes the meaning and is not just an irrelevance-- at least if the reader is to regard what has been read as a story rather than a sketch.

So to get back to my little story. Maybe if I add to “A bird fell out of a tree and died” the phrase “with a smile on his face”, that makes it a story because there is an outcome, something created from the death, and there is also a meaning, an ironic one, in that birds can’t smile, and so we are indulging in considering a bird as if it had a soul and so its death means something in the way in which the death of a person does, except that can’t be true because birds can’t smile. It is difficult to avoid telling stories, providing some outcome, and Hemingway is very good at being pure enough a writer to do that, while Bierce is not a good enough writer to recognize that what he is doing is writing what are not stories, even if, many of these short pieces, read in rapid succession, give you a sense of an author preoccupied with death and the supernatural, not an unusual preoccupation of the last half of the Nineteenth Century.