IN AMBROSE BIERCE'S "CHICKAMAUGA"
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.  This approach
may strike one as dry and technical, but behind it lies the premise
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.  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."  By
closely reading Bierce’s “Chickamauga” (1889),
new insights can be gained into how focalization is marked and
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."  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.
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.  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.  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.  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
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.”  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
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
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.
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.  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,
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."  The
mother, then, has been an accomplice to the boy's militaristic
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.”  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
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.  But as it has been shown,
this surprise is not unexpected. This climax has been anticipated
by the shifts in
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
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
chivalry is nothing but a romantic illusion. Ironically, his
martial education has proved successful and disastrous at the
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,
Bertens, The Idea of the Postmodern: A History (New York: Routledge,
Fictions of Discourse, 94.
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),
Grenander, "Bierce's Turn of the Screw: Tales of Ironical
Essays on Ambrose Bierce,
C.Woodruff, The Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce: A Study
in Polarity (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964),
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.
Vernon Burton, "Motherhood," Encyclopedia of
Southern Culture, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson (Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1989), 1111.
M. Cooper, Adrienne Auslander Munich, and Susan Merrill Squier,
eds., Arms and the Woman (Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press,
E. Reed, "Ambrose Bierce's 'Chickamauga': An Identity
Restored," Revue des Langues Vivantes 28 (1962), 53.
"Bierce's Turn of the Screw," 214.