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The exact positioning of the men and the careful attention to terminology in the description of their postures is part of Bierce’s “reality effect.” He is creating this event as a fact by using the precise language of military drill. These details have a thematic effect as well–one Bierce identifies explicitly. The goal of establishing the reality of the situation is reinforced by the geographic and historical references (e.g. Alabama, Federal).
The arrangement of the troops has thematic significance as well; Bierce makes the meaning of the ordered ranks explicit.
The narrative tone is clearly sarcastic here: the army is liberal only in its distribution of suffering and death..
By now Bierce’s tone is established: dry, ironic, exact, almost pedantic–the voice of a satirist.
The phrase is from Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV, Act 1 scene 3:
Wor. Peace, cousin, say no more.
And now I will uncalsp a secret book,
And to your quick-conceiving discontents
I’ll read you matter deep and dangerous,
As full of peril and adventurous spirit
As to o’erwalk a curren roaring loud
On the unsteadfast footing of a spear.
This speech of Worcester’s sdrew Harry 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.
Time slows down here; the explanation of the phenomenon is both detailed and plausible–and there is a special trick here: he closes his eyes and concentrates on the scene around him and then turns his thoughts resolutely toward his family.
This is the last action presented in sequence; we now retreat into Fahrquhar’s past.
Like Oscar Wilde, Bierce was an avid epigrammist. Many neat aphorisms are worked into the text–a purely literary flourish which works in a manner counter to the heightened subjective realism of the rest of the narrative. Once you are sensitized to the technique, you will find these buried aphorisms everywhere.
The interlude at Fahrquhar’s estate is both poignant and ironic. Fahrquhar imagines himself to be soldier and accepts the brutal and lawless outlook of war–even as he sits behind the lines, even as a Confederate soldier receives a drink from “the white hands” of his wife. That others equally devoted to victory might actually deceive him, never occurs to him.
Note how Fahrquhar’s style of speech–self-consciously urbane and romantic in a bookish way–quickly defines his character.
The end of this curious portrait of a doomed way of life is an abrupt and bluntly ironic line.
We seem to return to the story at the point at which we left it. Warned by the hints that the extreme nature of the situation has changed Fahrquhar’s perception of time, we recognize that his sensations are not wholly reliable. Bierce warns us in any case by such comments as it seemed to him. Note the change in the language at this point in the text: always rather arch and elegant, the narrative voice now becomes increasingly Latinate. This shift in diction makes the description resemble an objective account of a fever or other real experience.
Various elements of this description suggest at once an after death experience and the quite natural if extraoridnary sensations of a body dangling by a broken neck.
Notice the absurd dream logic both in Fahrquhar’s reflections and in his situation: the noose keeps the water from his lungs and so is a kind of protection. This ignores the other effect of strangulation: it constricts the vessels that carry blood to the brain.
The description of his effort to free his wrists should warn us of the unreal nature of this passage. He has ceased to be a participant even in his struggle for life; instead, he is an interested observer.
This surfacing is obviously a birth: note the first breath and first cry!
Clearly, Bierce builds the “Surfacing” section of the story on the experience of fever dreams. The sensation of heightened sensitivity is typical of a fever victim’s awareness, and the fundamental confusion of distortion and amplification is also characteristic.
By the time we reach a million blades of grass we are well beyond the possible!
Hindsight allows us to recognize what the careful reproduction of Fahrquhar’s logic hides: these soldiers behave not as real men would, but as Fahrquhar’s amateur consciousness would imagine them behaving.
Fahrquhar’s vision of the gray eye of the marksman is another event which suggests an experience not of heightened sensitivity but of fantasy.
Notice how fairly Bierce deals with the reader: he tells us explicitly that these events are interpreted in the light of Fahrquhar’s experience–which is close to an admission that they are created from Fahrquhar’s experience.
Note the details of loading and firing; these are touches of realism–and yet the way they are seen (from the water and often from under the water, and from a great distnace, all while swirling about in the current) marks them as impossible fantasy. They are, however, familiar to the reader: they are realistic in that they resemble everyone’s fantasies.
Here again Fahrquhar is aware that he is strangling.
The detailed and specious logic continues.
Here Fahrquhar rationalizes the distorion of the landscape. We recognize that he is spinning (dying) on the end of his rope; he explains it, more optimistically (for our minds are built for life, not death) as the effect of an eddy.
The ordinary landscape is transformed by effects of light and sound: this estrangement continues, deepening as we approach Fahrquhar’s final moment.
This paragraph comes the closest to offering the account as something allegorical. He is indeed entering “that unknown country” of death. The Wood may be Spenser’s Wandering Wood, the home of Error; the straight but untravelled road is the road each person travels only once–and alone.
The heavens here are unfamiliar; their secret is indeed malign.
Here he is clearly dying, his tongue thrusting out from between his teeth as he strangles.
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