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Introduction to Literature. Lesson fifteen: Bierce Life Choices. Margarette Connor. Contents. Ambrose Bierce biography “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” discussion. Introduction.

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introduction to literature

Introduction to Literature

Lesson fifteen: Bierce

Life Choices

Margarette Connor

  • Ambrose Bierce biography
  • “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” discussion
  • Today we continue with the theme of life choices with a very famous story by American writer Ambrose Bierce. Peyton Fahrquhar, the main character, has made a choice, but it doesn’t turn out the way he planned.
ambrose bierce 1842 1914
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)
  • “He has been characterized as great, bitter, idealistic, cynical, morose, frustrated, cheerful, bad, sadistic, obscure, perverted, famous, brutal, kind, a fiend, a God, a misanthrope, a poet, a realist who wrote romances, a fine satirist, and something of a charlatan.”
    • Carey McWilliams, Ambrose Bierce, A Biography
the devil s dictionary
The Devil’s Dictionary
  • One of the most cynical, and funny, dictionaries on earth.
    • marriage “a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two.”
    • “happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.”
stuff of legend
Stuff of legend
  • Movie about Bierce: The Old Gringo with Jimmy Smits and Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck playing Bierce, the titular “Old Gringo”.
  • The movie was a critical flop, but Peck’s performance was a stand-out.
one last adventure
One last adventure
  • In 1913, the real Bierce, then 71 years old, went to Mexico to help Pancho Villa and the Mexican revolutionaries.
  • No one’s quite sure when the end came, but it’s believed that Bierce died in the siege of Ojinega on 11 January 1914.
  • Ambrose Bierce was born in 1842 in Meigs County, Ohio.
  • The tenth of thirteen children of Marcus Aurelius and Laura Bierce.
  • He grew up on a farm in northern Indiana.
  • He attended one year of high school, but then like Whitman, at the age of 15 he became a printer’s apprentice on The Northern Indianan, an antislavery paper.
  • They say once you get newsprint in your blood, you can’t get it out.
american civil war
American Civil War
  • At the beginning of the war, 1861, age 19, enlisted in the army and served as an officer until 1865 in the Union (Northern) Army.
  • Saw quite a bit of action.
    • shot in the head, where a bullet lodged in his skull.
cynical world view
Cynical world view
  • His experiences were important in his career as a writer as well as being important in helping him form his world view.

Tom Redman’s modern portrait of Bierce in his army uniform based on a contemporary photograph.

journalism career
Journalism career
  • After the war Bierce settled in San Francisco.
  • Worked as a watchman and began his journalistic career.
  • Contributed to a number of periodicals, and in 1868 he became the editor of the News Letter.
  • First story, “The Haunted Valley”, appeared in 1871 in the Overland Monthly.
  • In 1871 he married Mary Ellen (“Mollie”) Day, the socialite daughter of a wealthy miner.
  • After their marriage they lived in England for a few years.

Supposedly a photo of the young Bierce, but I suspect its veracity. Looks too modern for 1870s.

productive visit
Productive visit
  • During his time in England, two of his children, Day (1872) and Leigh (1874), were born.
  • He wrote his first three books:
    • Nuggets and Dust (1872),
    • The Fiend's Delight (1873),
    • Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874).
reluctant return
Reluctant return
  • In early 1875, Mollie returned to America with their young family.
  • Bierce reluctantly followed later that year, just before the birth of the couple's third child, Helen.
  • Upon his return to the States, he continued writing and working on newspapers.
important relationship
Important relationship
  • In 1887, Bierce began his famous relationship with publishing baron William Randolph Hearst, joining the staff of the San Francisco Examiner.
  • Hearst was one of the most important men in newspaper publishing, and by extension one of the most important men of America.
the prattler
“The Prattler”
  • At The Examiner that he started writing his famous column “The Prattler”,
    • a mixture of literary gossip, epigrams, and stories.
  • He continued to write it until 1906.
personal life unravels
Personal life unravels
  • In 1888, he separated from Mollie when he found "improper" letters to her from a European admirer.
  • In 1889, Bierce's 17-year-old son, Day, committed suicide after killing his rival in a duel over a “woman” of 16.
but time of best works
But time of best works
  • In the 1890s Bierce published some of his best works, including Tales of Soldiers and Civilians and Can Such Things Be.
personal life declines again
Personal life declines again
  • In 1901, son Leigh died of pneumonia related to alcoholism.
  • In 1904, Mollie finally officially filed for divorce for “abandonment,” but she died the next year before the divorce was final.

Perhaps this cartoon mocks the photo on the earlier slide, but it is still a recurring image for Bierce.

the good kind darkness
“the good, kind darkness”
  • Late in 1913, at the age of 71, Bierce retired from writing and went to Mexico, to seek "the good, kind darkness,” as he wrote in a farewell letter to his only remaining child, Helen.
occurrence at owl creek bridge
“Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
  • Masterfully uses irony and flashback to give the reader a “surprise” ending.
  • To be fair to Bierce, there are clues for the attentive reader that what we are reading is fantasy.

A photo taken with Civil War-era equipment for the new movie based on the story.

popular film topic
Popular film topic
  • Made into a film three times:
  • a silent movie in 1928,
  • the 1962 version, which is available on-line (pictured),
  • a short feature in 2001 by Susan Odom and Brian James Egen.
emotional rollercoaster
Emotional rollercoaster
  • The story itself is also justly famous for giving readers an emotional thrill
    • the joy of Farhquhar’s escape,
    • our fear as he runs through the woods,
    • the thrill of seeing his wife again,
    • then the final, cruel blow that leaves readers pining for poor Farhquhar
allusion to shakespeare
Allusion to Shakespeare

“Peace, cousin, say no more:

And now I will unclasp a secret book,

And to your quick-conceiving discontent

I’ll read you matter deep and dangerous;

As full of peril and adventurous spirit

As to o'er-walk a current roaring loud

On the unsteadfast footing of a spear.”

(Henry IV, Pt 1, 1:3, 194-200)

Worcester's draws Hotspur to join the rebellion against King Henry IV;

like Fahrquhar, Hotspur dies the victim of his own romanticism--and of the treachery of others less passionate and more calculating.

  • The controlling irony of the story
    • Farhquhar’s hallucination that draws the reader in.
  • What is the stance of the narrator?
  • How does he convey to the reader his feeling about what is happening?
  • Look at the detail of part one.
  • Compared with part three, we can see a difference if we look.
  • What is the purpose of the realism?
  • Bierce said that he hated realism in fiction, and often attacked it in his reviews.
  • Look closely at Parts 1,2,3.
  • Two is short, but very important, because it explains what’s happening in part 1.
  • We can see how Bierce uses language to tell us about his character, Farhquhar.
  • How his use of language change in part three.

Another modern photo made in the old style for the 2001 movie version of the story. The Farhquhars in historically accurate period clothing.

  • How can we tell Bierce’s attitude?
    • Towards war, towards slavery
  • What clues can we use?
look at the use of time
Look at the use of time:
  • Playing with time:
  • It slows down, it speeds up.
  • Adds to the realism and the irony.