The ABP Journal
Fall 2006, Vol. 2 No. 1

Martin Griffin teaches in the Cultural
Studies and English departments at
Claremont Graduate University. He has recently completed a book-length study on
post-Civil War writing in the North, entitled
Ashes of the Mind. His scholarly interests
include the literature of memory and
commemoration, and transatlantic
cultural politics.

[journal table of contents]



"The Moonlit Road" is a reminder
of how Bierce's later career crossed the path of a literary modernism that was gradually finding its voice and would, ultimately, alter the language of
fiction.


 
In the spiritual loneliness of the story, language is now also dead: able to be thought but not spoken, or spoken but never heard or understood. 
 
We cannot quite establish whether we, as readers, should grasp the narratives in this story as untruths, delusions, or naturalistic "fact," or whether the problem is in the mind or in the universe.
 
 
 

"THE MOONLIT ROAD"

"THE MOONLIT ROAD" is a ghost story, or perhaps a gothic tale of extreme and morbidly unreliable states of mind. [1]  First published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1907, it is a study of memory and its potential for creating guilt: in this narrative the past is unknowable and, simultaneously, a force that distorts human existence in the present.  "The Moonlit Road" is also a text that plays with the ostensible rationality of the first-person voice, while gradually revealing a non-rational psychic landscape of uncertainty and delusion.  The doubts and implications are not resolved but rather, in an ironic authorial maneuver, bequeathed to the reader, to see if he or she can make any sense of them.  "The Moonlit Road" is a reminder, too, of how Bierce's later career crossed the path of a literary modernism that was gradually finding its voice and would, ultimately, alter the configuration of the language of fiction.  Bierce draws on both American and British gothic traditions, from Charles Brockden Brown and Edgar Allan Poe to Bram Stoker and M.R. James, but presses the implications of that form further into the cognitive realm. [2]  In "The Moonlit Road" he sketches out a story of the failure of communication, the text's de-centered and segmented narration pointing toward a world of silence and isolation. 

The narrative voices of "The Moonlit Road" are embodied in three distinct sections: the first related by Joel Hetman, Jr., the son of Joel and Julia Hetman; the second by a certain Caspar Grattan; and the third told by either Julia Hetman or a medium who goes by the name of Bayrolles.  No hint is given as to whether Bayrolles is male or female.  There is no framing narrative voice in "The Moonlit Road," and thus the reader has no indication as to who, if anyone, is supervising the presentation of the three individual accounts. [3]

In the opening section, entitled "Statement of Joel Hetman, Jr.," the narrator recounts how, as a young student at Yale, he is called back to his home in Tennessee.  Upon arrival, he finds out that his mother has been murdered.  His father explains how he had returned earlier than planned from a trip to Nashville, saw a figure leaving the house, and discovered his wife dead by strangulation upstairs in her room.  Some time after the traumatic event, both Joel and his father are walking home from the city on a moonlit summer's night.  Close to their house, his father sees something on the road that frightens him, and Joel is conscious of a chill feeling enveloping him from head to foot.  Distracted by a light in their house, Joel finally looks around and discovers his father has disappeared.  He never sees him again.  The opening statement of Joel Jr.'s narrative, "I am the most unfortunate of men," suggests a debilitating sadness as much as a tendency to self-pity: emotionally, he seems never to have moved beyond the original loss of both parents, one dead by violence, one vanished inexplicably.

In the second part of the story, "Statement of Caspar Grattan," the narrator has been delivered into the world as an adult, but without any memory of an earlier life.  His began twenty years ago, at the moment of his emergence out of the forest.  He has given himself the name he now bears.  Grattan describes a life of guilt-ridden wandering as a kind of social and psychological outcast.  When he tries to name the source of the guilt, he can only offer a dream that sounds like the life that Joel and Julia Hetman (although Grattan never mentions their names) might have lived.  He describes an attempt to test his wife's sexual fidelity "in a vulgar, commonplace way familiar to everyone who has acquaintanceship with the literature of fact and fiction."
[4]  He returns from a visit to the city and discovers (or believes that he has discovered) a man leaving his house.  Grattan then finds his wife cowering in the corner of her room, and murders her in a fit of jealous rage.  A second dream involves his dead wife confronting him on a moonlit road at night.  He concludes his "Statement" with an ironic reversal of an expected trope:

My penance, constant in degree, is mutable in kind: one of its variants is tranquillity.  After all, it is only a life-sentence.  "To Hell for life"—that is a foolish penalty: the culprit chooses the duration of his punishment.  To-day my term expires.

To each and all, the peace that was not mine. [5]

Suicide appears to be his intention, but whether or not his "term" will expire, is a question that remains open at the end of the story.

The third and final section of "The Moonlit Road" bears the title "Statement of the Late Julia Hetman, through the Medium Bayrolles."  The narrator of this section describes Julia's experience on the night she was murdered.  She senses an oppressive force, and hears a creature of some kind invading the house.  It eventually leaves, and she goes to open the bedroom door; suddenly, she hears the sound returning and cowers on the floor in fear.  She is then killed (as she thinks) but cannot say any more about it, as her knowledge cannot be more than "what we knew at death [which] is the measure of what we know afterward of all that went before." [6]
 She knows only that she is in a world of night and incorporeality.  She recounts trying to make herself known to her family, finally seeing her husband on a moonlit road, and hoping that she could make him realize that she was present.  She is happy to have made some kind of contact, and exults that "Love had conquered Law!" [7]  Her husband is terrified, however, by whatever he sees, and vanishes into the night.  Julia realizes that her son too must pass into the Life Invisible, as she calls it, and be lost to her forever, as the dead have no contact with each other in the other world.

With "The Moonlit Road" the reader is invited to compose a sequential plot from the narrative segments.  One variant might proceed as follows:  Julia Hetman is at home while her husband is away on business.  She becomes conscious of an invasive presence of some kind in the house.  Simultaneously, her husband returns early from Nashville, driven by a desire to check on whether or not his wife is being faithful to him in his absence.  He observes, he thinks, a man leaving the house.  He walks up the stairs to confront his wife.  She, however, paralyzed by fear of the original intruder, is cowering in a corner of the room.  Convinced that Julia has been having sex with another man, Hetman strangles her, but has no conscious memory of the act.  Joel Jr. returns from college to learn the grim news of his mother's violent death, which disturbs him more than he realizes.  He is with his father one night when his father sees some apparition and disappears into the forest, possibly getting lost and injuring himself in an accident.  He could have even died, but no body has ever been found.  In his self-absorbed way, the son tries, over many years, to deal with his traumatic memories.

The narrative of Caspar Grattan can be taken, therefore, as either the account of Joel Hetman, Sr. who has, over twenty years, lost his memory and taken on another identity, although he is still haunted by the specific memory of his crime, or as the disturbed fantasy of a social outsider who may have picked up a few facts about the Hetman case from somewhere and started to identify with it.  Finally, the report of Julia Hetman can be read either as the pathetic revelations of a wandering soul, who has discovered to her dismay that the next world is like a supremely alienated version of this one, or as the clever manipulations of Bayrolles, who may have some covert agenda that leads him (or her) to the scripting and performing of the confessions of the murdered Julia.

Caspar Grattan's narrative is clearly the statement of someone who is either mentally unstable or who has suffered a traumatic experience; in either case, he is haunted by a corrosive sense of guilt.  Indeed, Grattan embraces guilt with a melancholic enthusiasm, if that is not a contradiction in terms.  At one point, however, Grattan describes an odd encounter with "two men in uniform" who pass him in the street, one of them remarking to the other that he, Grattan, "looks like 767." [8]  It is not clear who the two men are, but their overheard comments suggest a well-organized military hierarchy or an institution such as a prison.  The number fills Grattan with dread, but he cannot say why.  The reader might be inclined to wonder if the "767" designation is in fact a clue that Grattan is an escaped inmate from a mental institution: perhaps the men who saw him on the street were wardens who noted his likeness to a former patient who bore the number 767, not realizing that he was in fact that very man. [9]

Julia Hetman's narrative is the least abstractly self-absorbed of the three.  As she is dead, and exists in some nocturnal shadow-land of psychic alienation, that fact alone provides a certain ironic charge.  The shade of Julia Hetman is haunted too by memory and its absence.  She describes her murder, but cannot say anything about the perpetrator as she did not see him, and no extra knowledge is vouchsafed her in the afterlife.  The emotional crisis comes when Julia tries to manifest herself to her husband and son, whom she meets on the moonlit road.  For a moment, she believes that a miracle is possible, but realizes that her husband regards her apparition with terror and that her son cannot see her.  No contact or reunion is possible.  "Much that we know," claims Julia via Bayrolles, "and could impart in our speech is meaningless in yours." [10]  Whether she is a genuine dead soul or some morbid invention of Bayrolles, the message is clear: communication is either impossible or lacks purpose, and in the spiritual loneliness of "The Moonlit Road" the language that might be used for that purpose is now also dead, able to be thought but not spoken, or spoken but never heard or understood.  As Ihab Hassan has commented, the great achievement of modern literature is the subversive expressiveness of silence. [11]  In the composition of "The Moonlit Road," Bierce conducts an early experiment with the "negative silence" that emerges from a recognition of the fate of language: it becomes the soliloquy of a consciousness that cannot communicate.  

In many ways a text that points beyond the modernist to a postmodernist aesthetic, with its battery of unreliable narrative perspectives and its ontological uncertainty, "The Moonlit Road" became the inspiration for the story by the Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa entitled "Yabu no naka" ("In the Grove"), which in turn provided the key structure for Akira Kurosawa's memorable film Rashomon, made in 1950. [12]  The connecting element is that the absence of an objectively verifiable truth – the rational thesis of the narrative, one might say – is a kind of suffering, as human beings want to believe that satisfactory explanations exist, even if non-rational or supernatural intervention is appealed to when human logic reaches its boundaries.  The supernatural thesis of "The Moonlit Road," however, is equally compelling as an assertion of cosmic silence, an absence of explanation that undercuts religious convictions of the afterlife and a benevolent (or even punitive) divinity of any kind.  From another perspective, if writing is a way of mounting a defense against suffering, by offering a linguistic structure in its place, more extreme forms of writing attempt to replicate suffering in the psyche of the audience as a way of passing on some part of the burden. [13]  We cannot quite establish whether we, as readers, should grasp the narratives in this story as untruths, delusions, or naturalistic "fact," or whether the problem is in the mind or in the universe; uneasily, all we know is that the narrators wish to recount their suffering.  "The Moonlit Road," and especially Julia Hetman's narrative (whose very existence depends on our attitude to the legitimacy of the medium Bayrolles), is something like a psychiatric case file handed to the reader without any indication as to whether the working diagnosis should be genuine or fraudulent.

NOTES

1. Ambrose Bierce, "The Moonlit Road," The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, ed. Ernest J. Hopkins (1970; Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 136-44; hereinafter Bierce, CSS.  See also The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Vol. III:  Can Such Things Be? (New York and Washington: The Neale Publishing Company, 1910), 62-80.

2. One important aspect of the definitive gothic-horror fiction of the period, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), is the balance and complexity of its web of narrative voices.  Questions of perception and authority remain active throughout the novel, despite the rudimentary structure of the plot.  Examples such as Dracula and Bierce's story suggest that the popular forms of the day could stake a larger claim in the genesis of modern fiction than they are often granted.

3. "The Moonlit Road" appeared shortly after the death of Bierce's wife Mollie, but the narrative has echoes of another item of family history from fifteen years earlier.  Day Bierce, Ambrose's son, was a volatile young man who committed suicide in July 1889 after a violent altercation with a friend over a woman; this event occurred a few months after Bierce and his wife had separated permanently, Bierce having accused her of carrying on an illicit love affair.  Although one should avoid crude parallels, it would be reasonable to regard the emptiness and emotional numbness that make "The Moonlit Road" such a remarkable piece of writing as somewhat reflective of Bierce's state of mind at the time.  Moreover, the father-wife-son paradigm of the Hetman family is also suggestive.  See Roy Morris, Jr., Ambrose Bierce:  Alone in Bad Company (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 206-8; 238.

4. Bierce, CSS, 139-40.

5. Ibid., 141.

6. Ibid., 142.

7. Ibid., 143.

8. Ibid., 138.

9. In her study The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable (Lincoln and London: The University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 88-94, Cathy N. Davidson offers a thorough and persuasive reading of "The Moonlit Road."  She does not mention the "767" motif, however; the result is that my conclusions diverge a little from hers.

10. Bierce, CSS, 142.

11. Ihab Hassan, The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 12-14.

12. Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce, 131.

13. See Harold Schweizer, Suffering and the Remedy of Art (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), esp. 16-20, 48-53.


Copyright © 2006 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.