Time Manipulation in the Works of Ambrose Bierce
STEPHEN KERN opens The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918 (1983), with the claim that “from around 1880 to the outbreak of World War One a series of sweeping changes in technology and culture created distinctive new modes of thinking about and experiencing time and space” (1). Portions of his study explore the impact of this cultural milieu on a wide range of literary works, including those of Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Franz Kakfa. While scholars of modernist fiction might be quick to add the names William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, I would like to suggest a further addition: the intermittently celebrated and ignored Ambrose Bierce.
At first glance, the inclusion of Bierce in this company might seem odd. After all, in his mock reference work, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911), there is scant attention to temporal terms. Out of nearly 1,000 definitions, only five deal specifically with the concept of time.  It would present a challenge, however, to find a contemporary writer more deeply interested in issues of time, both as a structuring agent and as a thematic focus of fiction. One might press the point further, noting as F. J. Logan does that in many ways Bierce “invented the drastic fictional distortion of time” (201).
Without question, Bierce prefigures the fixation with time that would become such a significant theme for many modernist writers. As early as 1864, in what is his earliest surviving letter, Bierce frames Time as a “rude gardener” (2).  In one of his last stories, “A Resumed Identity,” written 44 years later, the same characterization appears; as he describes a stone monument honoring Union dead, the narrator observes “in answer to the challenge of this ambitious structure Time had laid his destroying hand upon it” (393). Both depictions, framing as they do his creative output, typify Bierce’s treatment of time as an uncontrollable, occasionally antagonistic, force that defies standard linear human understanding.
The vast majority of Bierce’s short fiction presents some aspect of time manipulation. The distortions range from the mildly non-linear use of prophecy in stories such as “The Eyes of the Panther,” to coincidentally repeating dates in “The Haunted Valley” to more complex time distortions involving dead narrators presenting their tales through a medium (“The Moonlit Road”) or by way of a third person reading a diary (“The Damned Thing”). A complete re-visioning of time schemes is even offered in “The Bubble Reputation.” There the narrator establishes that his story takes place at a time when “electric lights had not at that period been reinvented,” suggesting that time progression is not linear, but circular (emphasis added, 474).
Yet, despite Cathy Davidson’s call for a study of Bierce’s “manipulation of subjective and objective time” in her introduction to the 1982 Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce, there have been few comprehensive treatments of Bierce’s use of temporal manipulation (9). Eric Solomon’s important essay “The Bitterness of Battle: Ambrose Bierce’s War Fiction” (1963) makes promising strides in this direction, but fails to account for the breadth and depth of Bierce’s treatment of time. Solomon connects Bierce’s split between subjective and objective time to “the facts of war, where time is of transcendent importance, yet normally confused, where action may occur incredibly swiftly, or life may consist of tedious waiting—where, in short, time cannot be controlled by the individual” (188).
Bierce’s temporal distortions are not just a feature of his war stories. Some of his earliest satires, “Ashes of the Beacon” and “For the Ahkoond,” offer social and cultural parody from a narrative gaze that originates in the years 4930 and 4591 respectively. Several opening vignettes in The Fiend’s Delight (1873) introduce many of the temporal themes he would develop in later works—war stories and supernatural tales alike. In the sections that follow, I explore some of the most frequently occurring manipulations of standard narrative time. The first section examines Bierce’s use of disjointed chronology to misdirect the reader’s attention. The second section explores the use of paused timelines. The third section offers a discussion of the simultaneous expansion and compression of time. In the fourth section of the paper, I study Bierce’s use of time hubs, nodes in which overlapping temporal moments co-exist. The study concludes with a focus on the symbolic use of watches and timepieces to represent the futility of man’s attempts to control or even understand time.
Essay Table of Contents
> 1. Introduction
2. Disjointed Chronology: Bierce's Temporal Shell Game
3. Lives on Hold: Paused Timelines
4. Time Manipulation: Expansion, Compression, and Irrelevance of Time
5. Time Hubs: Intersections of Time and Space
6. Security in a Second Hand: The False Comforts of Time
7. Final Thoughts: Bierce's Place in Time
9. Works Cited
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The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights