Skip to content

Ambrose Bierce Chickamauga Analysis Essays


THE DIFFERENTIATION BETWEEN focalizer and narrator that was first developed by Gérard Genette has proved to be very useful. In short, the focalizer is the one who "is presented as seeing," while the narrator, the one who tells the story, may either be part of the text or be located outside of it. [1] This approach may strike one as dry and technical, but behind it lies the premise that narratological knowledge is ultimately empowering because it sharpens one's critical abilities and enables the reader to discern structures which otherwise remain hidden. And these structures ultimately make meaning possible. [2] Thus, meaning is constituted by what a character perceives. But perception is not stable in texts. Shifts in perception thus may also prove important to the construction of meaning. Such a change, however, is not always evident or unequivocal: "the more ambiguous the focalization, of course, the more scope there is for interpretation." [3] By closely reading Bierce’s “Chickamauga” (1889), new insights can be gained into how focalization is marked and how shifts or uncertainties of focalization contribute to the meaning of the narrative. It will be shown that the protagonist’s own limitations, his handicap, actually prefigure the reader’s limitations and our inability to make sense of the world.

In “Chickamauga” the protagonist is a boy; the narrator remains outside the narrated events. The tension between these narrative positions and the shifts of focalization account for the tensions in the story. The boy is simply called a “child” throughout the text, emphasizing his lack of maturity. But this child is not innocent. Already at the beginning of the story, the boy is placed within a genealogy of ancestors "born to war and dominion as a heritage." [4] By placing him in this lineage of war and oppression, the boy, even though he is too young to be personally guilty himself, is far from the romantic concept of "innocent" youth who is close to nature and as yet uncorrupted by society. Rather, the boy is presented as heir to a romanticized chivalric and heroic past, qualities which form an essential part of the southern myth. (Emblematic of this inherited martial spirit is the boy's wooden sword.) By virtue of evaluative comments about the child and his family history, therefore, the perspective in the initial paragraphs belongs to the narrator.

When the action begins, however, a shift occurs. As the boy enters the forest on his own, events are perceived from his perspective. While the center of consciousness is now the boy, the narrator remains present. An interesting distribution of functions becomes apparent. The boy is the one through whose perception events are disclosed, yet he remains speechless throughout the text. But while the boy is silent, a learned, obviously adult, narrator eloquently tells the tale. This narrator is but a disembodied voice relying solely on the perception of a boy, one whose disability as a deaf-mute is revealed only at the very end of the story. Thus, narrator and protagonist complement one another. While the boy needs to rely on the narrator to have his story told, the narrator relies on the boy's vision to tell the story in the first place. Clearly, vision precedes telling, and thus one may argue that eventually the narrator’s role is secondary.

In the first scene when the focus is entirely the boy's, he, with his childlike imagination, imitates the heroic behavior of a male adult: he looks out for enemies to conquer. The first object he includes as a prop in his war fantasy is a rabbit: "he suddenly found himself confronted with a new and formidable enemy: in the path that he was following, sat, bolt upright, with ears erect and paws suspended before it, a rabbit!" (19). The construction of the sentence mirrors his slowly focusing gaze and gradual comprehension of the situation. The exclamation mark concludes his process of recognition and surprise. At first, the animal appears as a stumbling block in the path. Its unusual vertical posture makes the rabbit appear alien. It is bigger and hence more threatening than if it were sitting on all fours. The contrast between "the least frightening of beasts" and its horrifying effect serves as an ironic comment on the heroic dreams of the protagonist. [5] Psychologically, it also makes sense that the boy reacts by panicking. To a six-year-old child, a grown and erect rabbit may justly appear as terrifying. Furthermore, the boy's gaze focuses on the animal's ears. To someone who lacks the sense of hearing, the ears may appear especially incomprehensible and frightening.

Contrary to any heroic behavior, the boy runs away in blind panic and becomes lost in the woods. Utterly exhausted, he “sobbed himself to sleep. The wood birds sang merrily” (19). Here a new change in focalization, from boy to narrator, takes place. With the loss of the child's consciousness, the focus returns to the narrator, for only the narrator would be capable of hearing the birds. Whereas the boy has interpreted a perfectly harmless encounter as frightening, he then mistakes an actually dangerous situation for a safe game. [6] In a grotesque scene, he meets with an exhausted and badly-wounded group of soldiers. In an ironic inversion of the rabbit scene, the soldiers are degraded to crawling on their hands and knees. At first he is "reminded . . . of the painted clown whom he had seen last summer in the circus" (21). He does not recognize the men's agony but considers their behavior a pantomime performed for his entertainment. As in earlier riding games, he wants to play piggyback with one of the men: "To him it was a merry spectacle. He had seen his father's Negroes creep upon their hands and knees for his amusement -- had ridden them so 'making believe' they were his horses" (21). Just as the child is used to slaves gratifying his fancy, he regards these men as part of his game. Like the slaves, the soldiers are dehumanized. [7] But it is not out of malice that the child strips the men of their human dignity. Reflecting his slave-holding society, the boy simply draws an analogy from a familiar situation. His upbringing prevents him from recognizing suffering human beings in need.

Bierce's strategy of focalization, of presenting core scenes through a child focalizer, subtly achieves a fundamental criticism of slavery. He thereby also “debunk[s] a wide range of clichés about . . . the Civil War.” [8] A society that denies the humanity of slaves distorts everyone's perceptions, even those of a child. In this way, the boy is both a victim of the illusions of his society and a perpetuator of the cruel and cynical values it endorses.

The keywords "circus" and "spectacle" entail an element of public performance. In this theater of war, the boy steps from the role of spectator to the one of actor when he decides to lead this spectre of an army. The comment, “[s]urely such a leader never before had such a following” derives its ironic tension from the fact that the sentence can be read in two ways (21). If the narrator is considered the primary focalizer, it is a sarcastic comment on the misapprehension of the situation by the child. But if the boy is regarded as the primary focalizer, the sentence may be taken at face value. It then reflects the boy's pride at having finally grasped the opportunity to become an heroic leader. Unlike the indifferent rabbit, the men appear to accept their role as props in his war games. In his fantasy, the boy has metamorphosed into a leader of mythical dimensions: “He waved his cap for their encouragement and smilingly pointed with his weapon in the direction of the guiding light -- a pillar of fire to this strange exodus” (23). Again, the phrasing is the narrator's, who evokes the Biblical image of Moses leading the Israelites. But even in this literary image the focalizer is still the child. Even though he himself may be unaware of Moses, the boy's longing for adventure, and for heroism in its mythical dimensions, finds a suitable expression in this metaphor.

The boy’s dreams of fame and glory are finally shattered when he discovers his mother dead by the burning ruins of his home, killed by a shell. Only when he finds the source of his safety dead is he forced to quit playing and confront reality. The mother is central at this point, not only in psychological terms for the boy but also in symbolic terms -- she represents the collapse of a southern society in which the southern lady stood center stage. [9] It was a central task in the southern code to protect a lady’s honor, which was largely defined in sexual terms. That the mother's sexual integrity may have been compromised is at least suggested in this passage: “There . . . lay the dead body of a woman -- the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged” (23). The combination of the upward position of her face, her hands holding onto the grass, and the deranged clothing results in a posture that suggests rape. Horribly mutilated, another myth of romanticized warfare is exposed, namely that civilians, women and children, are to be spared in war. Yet it would be mistaken to regard the mother as a pacifist counter to her son’s violent games. Nothing in the text suggests a critical stance toward her son's militaristic inclinations. It may be rather argued that she creates the space for him to live out his fantasies. Warring man and life-affirming woman, chivalric gentleman and genteel lady, form a unit in which each one strengthens and reinforces the other. By complementing each other in their different gender roles, the social order, and with it the ideals of heroism and war, is reinforced. "Love . . . is the feminine counterpart to, not the opposite of war." [10] The mother, then, has been an accomplice to the boy's militaristic upbringing. Thus both boy and mother are victims and perpetuators of injustice at the same time.

Utterly shocked at the sight of his mother, an unarticulated cry escapes the mute boy. This time it is the child himself whose scream is described in non-human terms, "the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey" (23). As was the case with the soldiers, he is reduced to an animalistic state. The boy's reaction is the “inevitable revulsion that the answer to idiot tragedy is an idiot cry.” [11] His speechlessness is therefore not so much a physical disability as a symbol of an all-pervasive incomprehension. Contrary to the learned eloquence of the narrator, a scream is deemed the only appropriate answer to pain and suffering. No words, no thoughts, no interpretation; certainly no sense of heroism is left in the end.

Horror and the grotesque, the story's most impressive effects, are accomplished by shifts between child-focalizer and narrator-focalizer. The contrasts between their different worldviews evoke a tension that intrigues the reader. Bierce's use of these two modes of focalization is consistent throughout the story. Some critics complain about unfair cheating, that it is "the narrator's manipulation of point of view" [emphasis mine] that only at the very end of the story is the child's disability revealed. [12] But as it has been shown, this surprise is not unexpected. This climax has been anticipated by the shifts in focalization. Throughout the text, the perception of sound is granted only to the narrator, while the boy's world is an utterly quiet one. The lack of dialogue and the strange aura of silence which envelops the boy account for the uncanny atmosphere of the narrative. It cannot be verified whether Bierce intentionally arranged for these shifts in focalization or whether he intuitively organized them in this manner. Whatever his intentions, these shifts have implications for the interpretation. There is no objective truth, only the subjective perception of events. As the boy has erred in his interpretation, so too has the reader, who feels surprised and cheated. Human perception, on which we rely in order to interpret the world, is prone to error and fatal mistakes.

The boy's misperceptions grow out of his interpretative blindness more than from his inability to hear and speak. And so the more readily we rely on the validity of the boy's vision, the more surprised we are at the end. However, a reading that differentiates between narrator and focalizer, and pays heed to the changing focalization, will enable us to notice the carefully-provided hints along the way. We will then realize that the boy's distorted perception has been determined by the brutal society he has grown up in, where chivalry is nothing but a romantic illusion. Ironically, his martial education has proved successful and disastrous at the same time.


1. Patrick O'Neill, Fictions of Discourse: Reading Narrative Theory (Toronto: University of Tressoronto Press, 1994), 106. See also Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980.)

2. Hans Bertens, The Idea of the Postmodern: A History (New York: Routledge, 1995), 71.

3. O'Neill, Fictions of Discourse, 94.

4. Ambrose Bierce, "Chickamauga," In the Midst of Life: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (New York: Citadel, 1974), 18. All citations hereafter cited parenthetically within the text.

5. Eric Solomon, "The Bitterness of Battle: Ambrose Bierce's War Fiction," Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce, ed. Cathy N. Davidson (Boston; G.K. Hall, 1982), 193.

6. M.E. Grenander, "Bierce's Turn of the Screw: Tales of Ironical Terror," Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce, 213.

7. Stuart C.Woodruff, The Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce: A Study in Polarity (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964), 43.

8. Ansgar Nünning,"Historical Revisionism in Ambrose Bierce’s Short Stories," Re-Visioning the Past: Historical Self-Reflexivity in American Short Fiction, eds. Bernd Engler and Oliver Scheidin (Trier: WVT, 1998), 194.

9. Orville Vernon Burton, "Motherhood," Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 1111.

10. Helen M. Cooper, Adrienne Auslander Munich, and Susan Merrill Squier, eds., Arms and the Woman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 11.

11. Eugene E. Reed, "Ambrose Bierce's 'Chickamauga': An Identity Restored," Revue des Langues Vivantes 28 (1962), 53.

12. Grenander, "Bierce's Turn of the Screw," 214.

Ambrose Bierce’s Chickamauga is a disillusioned child’s awakening. Literally, a six year old deaf boy is thrown into a most horrifically traumatic series of events. His story is relayed in the third person omniscient perspective through the eyes of the child as well as an elder. It takes place during the Civil War in a southern town. Chickamauga begins with the boy’s entrance into the forest where he goes to play solitarily. With him he carries a toy wooden sword with which he battles imaginary enemies to their deaths. Lost in his adventure the boy grows tired and falls asleep between two rocks deep in the woods. While he is a sleep a battle occurs unbeknownst to him. Several hours later the child wakes up and notices alien figures crawling towards him. Without knowing the gravity of the situation occurring before his oblivious eyes, he makes a game of it all.

The child assumes a leader position for what he has finally determined to be men, and guides them towards a red light. The red light turns out to be his house on fire. When the child finally reaches the fire he is particularly amused by the raging spectacle. He searches desperately for fuel and finally commits his toy sword to the fire. Suddenly the boy realizes that fire is his own home. Horrified he studies the ghastly scene. He then stumbles upon his brutally murdered mother. The small child gets extremely upset, and at this point the reader learns that child is a deaf-mute. The story can be divided into three essential stages, representational of the boy’s progression from innocence to forced maturity. The boy advances through innocence, progression to familiarity with reality, and awakening. The small child enters the forest joyfully and carelessly, he leaves with tremendous fear, depression, and realization. The forest is symbolic of middle ground between innocence and horrible reality.

The six year old enters the forest as an innocent child with no experience in reality. All of his days until this one have been a candy coated fantasy. He’s spent numerous hours reading and learning about the glories and fairy tale aspects of war with his father. This little boy was born into warrior-blood. All of his predecessors were soldiers including his father. He enjoyed learning about war. However, the fatal mistake of this six year old little boy’s life was his active interest in combat. It was his interest which led him deep into the forest playing, battling fantasy foes. His fight, his game, his reality until this point in his life was fabricated.

The reader gets a real sense of his naivety when he encounters a rabbit and is terrified. Maybe the child has never seen a rabbit before, or maybe he has seen one viewed in a dark light. All facts of this boy’s life until this fateful journey into the woods have been given to him. The knowledge he possessed was second hand; it seems as though he’d never experienced anything himself. His father had delivered all of the information the boy held through books, which ironically glorified war. This child’s tragic encounter with war was so foreign and inconceivable to him that when it so brutally hit him he doesn’t even realize it.

The woods in Chickamauga symbolize the cruelty of reality. At his entrance into the forest, this completely innocent six year old begins his journey towards the horrors that await him. When the boy is in the forest he cries himself asleep, terrified of the new and unfamiliar paths he’s traveled. While he’s asleep a battle occurs and his house is set on fire. However the child is deaf so he does not hear what is going on. Finally he wakes up to see what look like animals, which in actuality are the soldiers retreating from the battle that has just occurred, and becomes innately curious. He did not understand what they were, he didn’t know whether they were dogs, horses, bears, he had no idea. As they got closer he “saw little but that these were men, yet crept like babies.” This fact intrigued him. As he inspected the men he laughed at their unfamiliar state, and related them to clowns he’d seen in a circus.

Their bloody faces reminded him of the paint on the clowns’ faces. This optimistic association reveals his ignorance of what actually happened. He then recalled that at his home the Negroes had crawled on their hands and knees for his entertainment. He thought it to be a good, fun idea to attempt to “ride” one of the soldiers. The child gets a thrust into reality when he is thrown off the man and subsequently forced to see his mangled face. When the boy looks at the man he sees “a face that lacked a lower jaw–from the upper teeth to the throat was a great red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splinters of bone.” The reader gets a real sense of the child’s naivety when the child is only slightly disturbed, as he had been with the rabbit. This forces the child to take a slightly more somber view of the situation.

However even after this horrific encounter the boy is still fairly oblivious to what is happening. He witnesses death all around him. When the child sees the soldiers lying dead in the water, “his eyes expanded with wonder; even his hospitable understanding could not accept a phenomenon implying such vitality as that.” It was not in the child’s range of conception to even take in such horror. It is after this encounter with the garbled soldier that the boy catches sight of the red light which guides him to his miserable fate.

After obtaining a more serious perception of the state of affairs, the boy positions himself as leader of the soldiers. It seems at this point that the child has gained some insight into reality from the grotesqueness of the bloody soldiers, but still significantly less than a more aware, less naive person would have acquired. This becomes apparent when the boy is at the fire and enjoys its flaring spectacle to no end. The boy is ecstatic and dances with the flames devouring his house. He even tries to fuel it. The boy searches around the yard for objects to throw in, all are too heavy. He is finally forced to surrender his sword. With his sword the child surrenders his innocence. Suddenly with no warning or cause the boy’s disillusion detonates and reality afflicts him. He realizes that the fire is his own house.

Horrified at his abrupt realization the boy runs “with stumbling feet,” frightened at what he is witnessing. At this point he encounters his mother. He sees her with “the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles.” This is his final jolt that forces him to the rock-bottom, ultimate darkness of reality. This sight of his mother, probably raped, brutally murdered jerks him into shock. Traumatized, the young boy “moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures. He uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries.” This is his horrible awakening.

Chickamauga is representational not only of the boy’s awakening, but of human awakening as well. The child’s initial entry into the forest is symbolic of every journey we take as humans into the unknown. In the forest he acquired immense amounts of insight into what reality could be, but had trouble comprehending the severity of what he was witnessing. It was not until the trauma personally affected him that the small child was struck with what actually happened. This is parallel for most humans in their experiences with trauma.

Trauma is real and depressing when it is witnessed personally by someone, but when it is inflicted upon someone we know or love it becomes so intensely real that it is impossible to grasp. This impossible conception is analogous to the small boy’s incoherent cries and gestures at the end. The theft of this child’s innocence was slow and unperceivable in the forest, but most definitely contributed to the final jolt the child felt at the end. The boy slowly progressed towards reality, and when it finally clicked it was appalling.