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.

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