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The Old Lady & the Angry Dog

Short Story: “The Vendetta” by Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant is often considered the French Edgar Allan Poe.

This is unfair to Maupassant, a far superior writer. But the comparisons are inevitable because both writers were fascinated by the macabre.  Poe’s was closer to an obsession, but Maupassant held his own.  After all, this was a man who – ravaged by insanity caused by syphilis – slashed his own throat at the age of 42.

“The Vendetta” is one of Maupassant’s most popular short stories, but it isn’t one of his best.  The story has its strengths, however, and it remains an excellent introduction to Maupassant’s work.  “The Vendetta” features the elements of what every good Maupassant story should have: economy of language, flawed characters, smart plotting, and a dash of the supernatural.

The story is about an old widow who resides in a village with her son and his dog.  One night the son is murdered by a man named Nicolas Ravolati, who flees after the killing.  The old woman swears a vendetta against Ravolati and begins to brood on how she might get her revenge.  Finally, she trains the dog how to attack a straw dummy and then takes the beast across the channel and has the dog kill Ravolati.

The most interesting thing about “The Vendetta” (next to the gruesome spectacle of a man being devoured to death by a dog) is the juxtaposition of the widow and her son’s pet dog – a bitch Semillante.  After the son’s murder, the widow’s reaction is mostly stoic while the dog is wild with sorrow:

“She would have no one stay with her, and shut herself up with the body, together with the howling dog.  The animal howled continuously, standing at the foot of the bed, her head thrust toward her master, her tail held tightly between her legs.  She did not stir, nor did the mother, who crouched over the body with her eye fixed steadily upon it, and wept great silent tears.”

The mother and the dog play off of one another through the entire story.  Widow and dog; dog and widow.  They intertwine and at the end the dog becomes the widow’s instrument of death.

Maupassant, echoing his own troubled psyche, often wrote about characters with mental problems or moral failings.  That theme is evident here as the mother becomes obsessed with murdering her son’s killer.  She spends long hours staring across the water at the opposite coast – plotting her revenge.

The story is so straight forward that the reader sides with the widow, but there is evidence that the widow and her son may be the evil characters here.  Perhaps the son deserved to be murdered by Nicolas Ravolati.  We’re never told why the son was killed; and the widow never thinks about it nor ponders her son’s innocence.

The evidence of her flawed character can be found in her hermit like ways.  She appears to have had no real friends or family – other than her son and his dog.  After he dies “there was no more talk of him” in their village and he also had no close friends.

The old woman even goes to church to pray for vengeance (This is another of Maupassant’s favorite topics – the hypocrisy of organized religion).  And when the widow finally tracks down Nicolas – he is working a steady job as a joiner – so he’s not a criminal.

The story must have been shocking when it was published in the late 19th century because it still packs a wallop.  Here is Nicolas’s death told in graphic detail:

“The maddened beast dashed forward and seized his throat. The man put out his arms, clasped the dog, and rolled upon the ground. For a few minutes he writhed, beating the ground with his feet; then he remained motionless while Semillante nuzzled at his throat and tore it out in ribbons.”

The story ends with the widow returning home. “That night she slept well.”

That about says it all…



The Bible’s Unimpressive Miracles

Do not taunt the Son of Man.


God created everything, according to the Bible.  The first sentence tells us so:

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

Genesis goes on to describe how God created the heavens and the earth.  Water, sunlight and darkness, and then all living creatures, including plants, insects, mammals and human beings.

This is an impressive resume.

So why after creating everything in the universe are the Godly miracles in the Bible so underwhelming?  In fact, many of the miracles are parlor tricks compared to what God is supposedly capable of.  Aren’t we talking about an omnipotent, omnipresent God – a being that has no limits to his power and who is everywhere and in everything?

Yet one of miracles in the Bible is God making a donkey talk. (Numbers 22:28)

And more strangely, the Old Testament miracles outshine the New Testament.  Based on miracles alone, Moses clearly out does Jesus.  After all, Moses brought the wrath of God down on the Egyptians with 10 horrible plagues – turning the Nile into bubbling cauldron of blood and having the Angel of Death murder the first-born male in every Egyptian household.

Not bad.

In turn, Jesus walks on water (is it too much to expect that the Son of Man would be able to perform miracles that can’t be duplicated by Las Vegas magicians – see video below?).

The miracles of Jesus – the Son of God, no less – are rather meager considering the magnitude of the power at his disposal.  They can be summed up as follows:

  • Healing the sick including those with leprosy. (Matthew 12:9–14)
  • Bringing the dead to life. (Matthew 9:18–26; Luke 7:11–17; John 11:1–45)
  • Feeding a large crowd from a few morsels of food. (Matthew 14:13–21; 15:29–38)
  • Dispersing a storm. (Mark 4:35–41)
  • Walking on water. (Matthew 14:22–33)

In fact, Jesus was no stranger to the parlor trick as one of his miracles was having Peter catch a fish with a coin in its mouth in order to pay-off a tax fee. (Matthew 17:24-27)

But it’s clear that the Bible miracles lack magnitude, never mind creativity.  When Michael Bay clearly out-classes both Jesus and Moses using special effects in the Transformer movies.

What gives?

The reason is simple.  The ancient authors of the Bible had a small perspective – thinking the world was confined to the Middle East.  To these writers – ignorant of science and technology – walking on water was an impressive feat.  Curing the sick – disease being the bane of ancient populations when the life expectancy was about 28 years – was miraculous (and also wishful thinking).

But it also shows that the Bible is a product of its time.  If it was written by God wouldn’t the miracles be a more modern?  Impressive not just to ancient people, but to modern ones as well?


The miracles of Jesus

Criss Angel walks across a hotel swimming pool (video)

Life expectancy via Wikipedia


Obama’s War Crimes

High crimes.

President George W. Bush committed war crimes during his presidency.

How do we know this?  One way is because Bush boasted about violating the Geneva Conventions and sanctioning waterboarding of terrorism suspects it in his memoir “Decision Points.”

(For the record, waterboarding has been a crime under U.S. law for more than 90 years.)

We also have the public record (Bush memos and documents released by the Obama administration, acknowledgement by Bush’s executive team, and even excellent investigative journalism such as Jane Mayer in “The Dark Side.”)

Bush’s actions in kidnapping terrorism suspects, whisking them to secret prisons, and subjecting them to torture are in violation of not only international law, but of U.S. laws (most notably the Convention Against Torture ratified by President Ronald Reagan).

Now we also have Glenn Greenwald’s superb “With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful.”  Greenwald, a former Constitutional lawyer, is now a liberal pundit and columnist for Slate.

Greenwald’s slim, but powerful volume makes a strong case that George W. Bush is a war criminal, albeit one that will never be indicted for his crimes.


Because he’s being protected by President Barack Obama.  Unfortunately for Obama refusing to investigate allegations of torture is a war crime, according to both the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture.  Instead of steering the nation toward the rule of law, Obama has announced “This is a time for reflection, not retribution.”

From Greenwald’s book:

“Rendering Obama’s reluctance to prosecute yet more problematic is that the United States is legally required to investigate allegations of torture and to bring the torturers to justice. Not doing so is itself a criminal act. The Third Geneva Convention, which was enacted in the wake of severe detainee abuse during World War II, obliges each participating country to ‘search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, such grave breaches, and… bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts.'”

The Bush documents released by Obama make it clear that Bush authorized torture, including waterboarding.  In fact, the U.S. government prosecuted Japanese soldiers in World War II for torture because they waterboarded prisoners and the U.S. government even prosecuted U.S. soldiers in Vietnam for doing the same thing.

As Greenwald notes, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, appointed by Obama, made it even clearer when he took office by stating: “Waterboarding is torture.”

Yet Obama has steadfastly refused to investigate the mounting evidence that Bush authorized torture.

Worse yet, the Obama administration has even pressured other countries from investigating cases that involved their own citizens being kidnapped and tortured by the CIA – many of them who were later released without any charges ever being filed.  Greenwald illustrates some of the more egregious cases in his book.

“With Liberty and Justice for Some” is a difficult read – one that has the reader of the verge of outrage at every revelation.  But Greenwald paints a grim, but compelling picture of an executive branch that defies the law and then is protected by a culture that has decided that the rich and powerful should be exempt from the rule of law.



Artful Interview: Dickens at 200

This month – February 8 specifically – beloved novelist and writer Charles Dickens would have celebrated his 200th birthday – if he had not, you know, died back in 1870.  In honor of that distinction, I’m republishing an interview about Old Boz that I conducted with Boston College English Professor Judith Wilt back in 2007.   Judith joined the teaching staff at BC in 1978 and specializes in 19th and 20th century British and Victorian literature. She’s an unabashed admirer of Mr. Dickens.

Artful Hatter: Dickens allegedly burned most of his important letters and correspondence when he was nearing the end of his writing career. What do we really know about the life of the creator of Scrooge and David Copperfield?

Judith Wilt: Whoa! That would have been a conflagration indeed, for this obsessed writer of private and public documents! Dickens did, in one of his periodic attempts to resist his past, burn baskets and baskets of correspondence in the late summer of 1860, mostly letters from others and copies of his own, but the Dickens letters we do have run to twelve volumes in the most recent Oxford UP edition.

Even more important, we have from Dickens’ friend and first biographer John Forster an account of the ‘autobiographical fragment’ Dickens himself wrote about his early years as a neglected and abandoned (by his own lights anyway) child, those months put to work in a London blacking factory while his father was in debtor’s prison, when he feared that he would be sunk forever in menial and unimaginative work – an experience which haunted him with images of his own futility, solitariness and inadequacy even at the height of his success, and which he put directly into “David Copperfield” (1850).

We have a long defensive letter he wrote and showed to friends about the reasons for the breakdown of his marriage to Catherine Hogarth, and a follow-up statement about his formal separation from her that he actually insisted on publishing in the “Times”; and from others’ letters and diaries and from hints in his letters, we know he maintained a clandestine and probably erotic, if not necessarily adulterous, correspondence with the actress Ellen Ternan for some years after that separation.

Artful Hatter: Is Dickens still an important author today? If so, why?

Judith Wilt: I’d certainly take his books with me to a desert island; they’re so filled with life at the extremes of joy and despair, so vividly pictorial, so rhetorically unique and memorable. Then too, the Victorians are unmistakably our contemporaries in the attempt to access the human consequences of everything we think of as “modern” – individualism, industrialism, urbanism, science, and so on. And more even than Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, Dickens wrote into his characterizations those communications of mind and body, those strange and intimate connections between behavior and thought, which Freud later codified as the beginnings of the science of psychology.

Artful Hatter: What are the biggest misconceptions about Dickens?

Judith Wilt: Two, I think: one emotional and one literary. In the early decades of his career what impressed readers was the vitality, comedy, and consoling durability of Dickens’s people and his attitude towards life, and lots of people still think of his work as some sort of “Christmas Carol,” coming round to “cheer” every year. But there’s a darker Dickens right from the start, a haunted consciousness, and in his later novels he explored with great acuity the sorts of human and social obsessions and mistakes which we can diagnose but can’t seem to cure.

Then too, people understand him as a “popular” writer, one who wrote for money by the inch in the magazines and serializations of his first publishing years, one who addressed, and to some degree created, the “mass market.” True enough, but he was also a man of gigantic ambition and that includes artistic ambition – what may seem at first glance the proverbial “loose baggy monster” of swollen narrative in his 800 pagers actually turns out to be unified around images and themes and paced according to both suspense and thought in ways which we associate, on a different scale, with Browning, and which certainly caught the eye and influenced the likes of Henry James and T. S. Eliot.

Artful Hatter: In your opinion, what are Dickens’s three greatest works and why?

Judith Wilt: “Bleak House” (1853): it has the best balance of private and public concerns in the story of a lost little girl and of a national system of government, medicine and law which fails its people. It’s a narrative tour de force through its creation of two written “speaking” voices – an epic sardonic kind of investigative journalist looking over the whole picture and the lost little girl turned hyper-orderly woman; and it’s got at least two scenes which make me tear up even when I’m reading it in the classroom.

“Our Mutual Friend” (1865): it’s a treasure trove of strange and wonderful character (Mr. Venus, articulator of bones and melancholy artiste!), beautifully turned images (a dull old business house in the gloomy metropolis reflects “a sobbing gaslight in the counting-house window and a burglarious stream of fog creeping in the keyhole”), and a heartbreaking competition for one of the heroines between a languidly handsome dandy and an obsessed upwardly mobile young teacher.

“A Tale of Two Cities” (1859): we know the story in advance, both the male doubles who desire the heroine and the causes and consequences of the French Revolution, and yet this warhorse of a historical novel is still supreme for compulsive pace and quaint Dickensian touches.

Artful Hatter: Which three Dickens characters are your favorites and what do you find most compelling about them?

Judith Wilt: Oh, hard to keep to three. Well then…. Estella in “Great Expectations” (1861): a frightening example of a story Dickens often tells – a parent (figure) who wishes to reconstruct a malleable child into a weapon against the word, in this case, the masculine world which betrayed Miss Havisham is to have its heart eaten out, over and over, by the “femme fatale” she creates Estella to be. The process is so far advanced by the time Estella becomes conscious of this that she can do nothing but warn the innocent men, or try to destroy her guilty self in a car-crash of a marriage to a brute.

Sidney Carton in “A Tale of Two Cities”: “it is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done”… a cliché of a character, and yet Dickens draws us powerfully, and anxiously, into the story of a man of talent and intelligence whose “will” is, for reasons we can only guess at, somehow broken by the conditions of modern professional life, so that he is mysteriously unable to comment cynically on the passing show: he can only take an action when it is for someone else. A male version, in some ways, of Estella’s problem.

And finally, Harold Skimpole of “Bleak House,” the comic figure of a minor artist blithely assuming that the universe, and more specifically his long-suffering friends, will support him. A half conscious Dickensian critique of his own art – and yet, Skimpole makes us all sit up and take notice as he argues that we active and virtuous people would be nowhere without someone of his disabilities and inadequacies to be the object of our charity and our competence. A character worthy of G. B. Shaw.


A Dead Body

Short Story: “A Dead Body” by Anton Chekov

Anton Chekov is considered by many to be the greatest Russian short story writer. His short prose is filled with internal conflict and subtleties of character. His work has had a major influence on the form in the 20th century (Chekov was born in 1860 and did the bulk of his writing in the years leading up to the turn of the century. He died in 1904 from complications from tuberculosis). There is often little action in Chekov’s short stories and “A Dead Body” is no exception.

It may even be a mistake to call “A Dead Body” a short story because it’s more of an atmospheric sketch about three men reacting to the presence of death. The story was written in 1886, about two years before Chekov really discovered his voice and style, and although it has its merits, “A Dead Body” is not considered one of his master works.

The beauty of “A Dead Body” comes from the way it stays with you long after you’ve finished reading it. Chekov expertly paints a picture of a gloomy August night that is previewing the coming autumn. The air is thick with a mist lifting off the fields: “Lighted up by the moon, the mist gives the impression at one moment of being a calm, boundless sea, at the next of an immense white wall.”

Two peasants are guarding a dead body in a glade far from their village. The dead man is wrapped head to foot in white linen and a crucifix is lying on his chest. The villagers are superstitious and believe the man’s soul will stay with his body for three days (a nod to Christ rising from the dead after three days). To make matters worse, the body is that of a stranger who was either murdered or a suicide – the villagers are not sure which.

The first peasant is Syoma, an aging villager who is considered a simpleton, but in reality will turn out to be the most grounded and logical of the three characters Chekov introduces us to. The second is a young man who remains nameless. He does most of the talking in the story, mostly to the silent and somber Syoma. The third character is a pilgrim named Feodosy who stumbles upon the camp while traveling to his uncle’s brickyard.

The story opens with the young man reprimanding Syoma for falling asleep – for shirking his responsibilities. The young man, nervous with death so close, keeps his hands and mind busy carving a spoon out of wood. He tells Syoma: “It would be dreadful to sit here alone, one would be frightened.” The young man wants Syoma to engage in conversation, but after brief apology, Syoma remains quiet. The young man calls him a simpleton and a foolish and claims Syoma has “no sense in his head.” In fact, the young man is describing himself.

It is Syoma who bravely enters the darkness to find more wood for the fire while the young man “puts his hand over his eyes and starts at every sound.” This is when Feodosy wanders in from the night. At first, Feodosy presents himself as a clergy, but, in fact, we are never quite sure what he does – only that he moves between monasteries. Feodosy, despite claiming to be a man of God, is quite disturbed when he finds out there is a dead body among them.

Feodosy wants to leave, but his fear of death holds him back. He is a hypocrite about his faith in God. He continues to engage the peasants in conversation before finally admitting that he is afraid to go on alone. “I am not afraid of wolves, of thieves, or of darkness, but I am afraid of the dead. I am afraid of them, and that is all about it. Good orthodox brothers, I entreat you on my knees, see me to the village.”

Feodosy offers the men money, but it is the young man, not the simpleton, who jumps at the offer. The young man says: “If Syoma here, our simpleton, will stay alone, I will take you. Syoma, will you stay here alone?”

Syoma will. So the young man shirks his duties for greed and leaves a man he believes is a fool behind in a forest he thinks is haunted. This is the same young man who earlier said it would be “dreadful” to be in the wood alone. So the fool and the coward venture together toward the village while the wise Syoma shuts his eyes and sleeps.



First Snow

As tiny pellets fall like fluffy rain and fill my front yard, I can’t help but feel thankful that winter has finally arrived in New England.  Especially after a bizarre start to the winter with a red rose blooming in my front garden in mid-December and my wife spotting a pair of robins searching for worms a few days after Christmas.

So finally – snow.

And snow in New England generally has me thinking about Robert Frost and his beautiful reflection on mortality “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Whose woods this are I think I know.

His house is in the village, though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near.

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask it there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.


Best Books (and Worst) of 2011

I’ve been recording every book I’ve read since 2001.  I’m on my second notebook and have averaged about 45 books annually for the last 12 years.

2011 fell short of my average at 42 books (26 fiction, 16 non-fiction).

My taste is a bit eclectic, but I tend to gravitate toward classics, mystery & suspense and non-fiction – mostly politics and history.  I didn’t deviate from that pattern last year.

Here were my favorite and not-so favorite reads of 2011.


“Travels With Charley: In Search of America” by John Steinbeck

At the age of 58, John Steinbeck, author of “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden,” set out on a cross-country journey in an old pick-up truck with a camper on it.  Steinbeck’s goal was to rediscover the United States in 1962.  Amazingly, as Steinbeck drives from Maine to California, his observations about American character still resonate strongly today (Charley, by the way, was Steinbeck’s pet poodle).

The reason I read this book was because a businessman sitting across the aisle from me in an airplane was.  I asked him about it and he told me it was one of his favorite books and he often reread it.  “Sometimes I just grab it off the shelf and read a few chapters,” he said.  “It’s a great book.”

He’s right.  It is.


“A Good School” by Richard Yates

Yates is one of my favorite authors and I try to read one of his novels every year.  This year I read two (also “Cold Spring Harbor”).  Yates really captures the quiet frustrations of middle class living in a way that’s difficult to forget.  He reminds me of Raymond Carver, but with a more nuanced and tender approach, but with the same jarring outcomes.  “A Good School” takes place at a middle-of-the-road boarding school in New England at the start of World War II and is a mediation of the end of childhood and the delicate and complicated relationships between adults and adolescents.



“1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C. Mann

“The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Mann’s book was a eye-opening pop – basically changing my entire perception of the civilization of native Americans in the United States and Central and South America.  Mounting evidence now points to a thriving and sophisticated civilization of millions of people who may have been more advanced than Europe in many ways.  A fascinating book on how and why civilizations can reach the brink.

“The Spirit Level” is one of those books that articulates what you feel in your bones is true.  In a masterful and scholarly opus, Wilkinson and Pickett show why societies that are more equal in income are better places to live and how unequal societies have more crime, more violence and are unhealthy.  A true must-read.

I found “1491” while browsing the public library stacks and heard about “The Spirit Level” on the NPR radio program “On Point.”


“A Stranger Like You” by Elizabeth Brundage

Hands down the winner in this category. A quirky, literary thriller that reads like a back-handed slap at modern Hollywood.  A screenwriter having a mid-life crisis (and possibly a psychotic meltdown) decides to prove to a producer who rejects his serial killer screenplay that his “improbable” ending could actually work.

This one was recommended by my friends at Brighton (Maine) Books.


“Moonlight Mile” by Dennis Lehane

I’ve been a huge Lehane fan since his first Kenzie and Gennaro private eye novel.  When I read that “Moonlight Mile” was a sequel to “Gone, Baby, Gone” I was ready to go.  What a letdown.

Kenzie and Gennaro are middle-aged now and, unfortunately, they are one of those middle-aged couples that got really boring.  Lots of clichés, strained dialogue and pathetic middle-aged angst. Painful stuff.


“War” by Sebastian Junger

In the course of 15-month, Junger followed a platoon of soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.  His goal was to get an inside look at combat and what it does to soldiers.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t capture the fear, honor, trust or excitement of combat.  It’s a rare miss at storytelling for Junger, who I respect as a journalist and a writer.  The book simply doesn’t hold together as a compelling narrative and instead feels like a series of essays.  And, even worse, he fails to humanize the soldiers.  Here’s my full review.


“The Frightened Man” by Kenneth Cameron

I was expecting a lot from this mystery that promised a new take on the Jack the Ripper murders.  No such luck.  In fact, the Ripper – which is teased on the back cover blurb – has nothing to do with the plot.  The concept was intriguing – a former Civil War soldier living in England with a perchance for violence gets involved in a murder mystery.  Unfortunately, the writing is stiff and the plot meanders.



Of Swings and Missile Attacks

Innocence at war.

I’m finally sinking my teeth into Jane Mayer’s powerful tome “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals.”

Mayer is an excellent journalist (who writes for the New Yorker) and the book was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2008.  The paperback I’m reading was updated in 2009.  The story of the Bush administration’s overreaction and violent response to the 9/11 attacks comes to life once again.

I found this passage on the Clinton’s administration’s hesitation to assassinate Osama bin Laden chilling:

“The United States had the military might to destroy Bin Laden and his followers literally at the flick of a switch. Steve Coll, in his brilliant history of the pre-September 11 U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Ghost Wars, describes how with the aid of the real-time video imagery transmitted by the Predator, the most powerful and technically advanced military force in the history of the world was able to stare from halfway around the globe at a tall, white-robed sheikh believed to be Bin Laden.  The terrorist leader who had declared war against the United States could be watched as he walked through the primitive, undefended, mud-walled compound he and his terrorist associates and their families inhabited in the bleak, sage-brush-strewn plains outside of Kandahar, Afghanistan.

The video imagery was so exquisitely detailed, U.S. officials viewing the videotapes at the CIA and White House could make out a lone child’s swing hanging in the compound, known as Tarnak Farms.  The robed man seemed to present an irresistible target for missile attack.  But the swing haunted Clinton.  It was in a sense, the perfect symbol of the cultural, political, and strategic standoff described in Washington think tanks as “asymmetrical warfare.”  The swing suggested innocent children lived there.  The United States, for all of its military prowess, was a hamstrung Gulliver in the face of Lilliputian terrorists willing to sacrifice innocent lives in a way no civilized nation could.”

In hindsight, Clinton likely wishes he had pulled the trigger, but hindsight is always 20/20.  That passage gave me renewed respect for Clinton, who weighed the consequences of war and murder carefully through a moral filter of right and wrong.

As Mayer outlines in her book, these filters were, unfortunately, not present in the Bush administration.


Photo courtesy of Flickr (by LJU Photo)


The Powerful Will to Live

Short Story: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce

The usual complaint about Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is that it’s too melodramatic. To that I say: “Hogwash! Poppycock!”

Melodrama? Hardly.

On the surface “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is an adventure tale – the improbable escape from the noose by the Southern planter Peyton Farquhar from Union soldiers during the Civil War. Here we have the hanging itself, the snapping of the rope and the plunge into the slow-moving stream. We have the rifle shots and the cannon fire as Peyton swims to the shore and barrels into the wilderness to escape.

This is all make-believe, however.  Farquhar’s imagination at work in the last final seconds of his life.

At its heart, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is about the savage, mad instinct that each human being has to survive; to hope and dream – to live against all the odds. How Peyton’s entire life becomes a few precious seconds:

“And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality.

He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by–it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience and–he knew not why–apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer, the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek.

What he heard was the ticking of his watch.”

This is the last part of the story that is set in reality – until the grim last sentence. The rest of the story takes place in a fantasy world that Peyton has created in the last seconds of his life. The reader is given hints that we aren’t in the real world – primarily through Peyton’s supernaturally heightened perceptions.

For example, when he surfaces from the water he can see “grey spiders stretching from their webs from twig to twig” and the “dewdrops upon a million blades of grass.” He even sees the gray eyes of a Union sharpshooter looking at him through his rifle sights.

Despite the fact that Peyton in many ways is an unlikable character (there are hints he is a racist), Bierce manages to make the reader root for him. These flaws in Peyton’s character are, in fact, why we want him to live. Keep in mind that the story was written in 1886 – when the wounds of the Civil War were still healing. Simply making Peyton a confederate was a character flaw.

However, the real problem with Peyton’s character is that he has romanticized the war. Forced to sit out of the struggle for unknown reasons, Peyton – a rich slave owner in Alabama – considers himself a “civilian soldier.” So when a Union spy dressed as a confederate soldier alerts him to the advancing enemy army, Peyton suggests to the man that he would be willing to burn down Owl Creek Bridge.

Peyton has foolishly – like a child – fallen into a trap. Another one of his flaws is the way he recklessly doesn’t think about the risk – the consequences to his wife and his children. In fact, he takes them for granted until he stands on the bridge with a noose wrapped around his neck.

But this moment is also his redemption. Peyton Farquhar will die on this day. Quickly and painfully, but his last thoughts will be of escaping – of trying to forge his way home to his wife and his children. His last thought is of reaching out to his beautiful wife – witnessing the joy in her expression.

And that’s it. Lights out. Game over.

Bierce was a magnificent writer. His prose is simple and precise, but he conveys his message with a savage irony and light sarcasm (you have to read the story carefully to fully appreciate it). This is why Kurt Vonnegut called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” one of the greatest works in American literature.

Because it is.

Vonnegut also noted that anyone who hadn’t read it was a “twerp.” So if you haven’t – get to it.

Photo courtesy of Flickr by Scott Clark


If You Want Blood…

The bust of Greek hero Diomedes.

…”The Iliad” has it.

From Robert Fagles superb 1990 translation of the epic poem by Homer (Book 5: Diomedes Fights the Gods):

“Shaft poised, he hurled and its long shadow flew

and struck Tydides’ shield, the brazen spearhead

winging, drilling right on through to his breastplate,

Pandarus yelling over him wildly now, “You’re hit–

clean through the side!  You won’t last long, I’d say–

now the glory’s mine!”

But never shaken,

staunch Diomedes shot back, “No hit– you missed!

But the two of you will never quit this fight, I’d say,

till one of you drops and dies and gluts with blood

Ares who hacks at men behind this rawhide shield!”

With that he hurled and Athena drove the shaft

and it split the archer’s nose between the eyes–

it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze

cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw

and the point came ripping out beneath his chin.

He pitched from his car, armor clanged against him,

a glimmering blaze of metal dazzling round his back–

the purebreds reared aside, hoofs pawing the air

and his life and power slipped away on the wind.”

Hard to find a bloodier or more action packed battle scene anywhere in literature or in Hollywood for that matter…