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The theme of Ambrose Bierce’s short story, “A Horseman in the Sky,” is simple to say yet difficult to follow: Duty supercedes family. Due to the story’s theme, which strikes a personal chord with me, it is difficult for me to decide how to proceed with this criticism. Do I comment on the theme? Do I comment on the story structure? It seems easier to do the latter, so I’ll start there and see if I can work my way around to the former.
Bierce’s structure for “A Horseman in the Sky” is deceptively simple. For example, the plot is simple: a young Union soldier during the Civil War is asleep at his post; he wakes up to see a Confederate officer a few yards away from him; the soldier knows the officer has seen the Union base below, and if the officer gets word back to the Confederate Army, it will be a devastating defeat for the Union Army; so the Union soldier does his duty and kills the Confederate officer. This plot could serve many stories. Here, though, it is the seam running through a rather intricately woven fabric.
Armed with a simple plot, Bierce is able to use more complicated plot techniques, such as flashback. After Bierce shows us the young Union soldier sleeping at his post, he uses flashback to hand us a simple but important plot point. The soldier, Carter Druse, is the son of a plantation owner in Virginia. At dinner one evening, Carter tells his father, “‘[A] Union regiment has arrived in Grafton. I am going to join it’” (Bierce 120). Carter’s father responds wisely.
The father lifted his leonine head, looked at the son a moment in silence, and replied: “Go, Carter, and, whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty. Virginia, to which you are a traitor, must get on without you. Should we both live to the end of the war, we will speak further of the matter. Your mother [is ill]… It would be best not to disturb her.” (Bierce 120)
It is a simple flashback, adorned with little setting detail and hardly any character description (except the father as “leonine,” or lion-like), but it creates a point of tension that becomes the crux of the story, the very thing which carries it off in supreme fashion. A simple plot and minimal flashback thus simultaneously establishes tension, foreshadowing, and the basis of the climax. This flashback, therefore, is a master stroke of story structure.
Bierce’s next trick is creating dynamic yet smooth shifts in points of view. He begins as the omniscient narrator, able to look upon Carter as he sleeps on post. We stick with Carter through the flashback, and when we return to the present we are with him when he wakes up and sees a Confederate officer several yards away. Before we continue with point of view, we should pause and admire another tactic of structure: description. Bierce, as the omniscient narrator, describes the valley, a nearby cliff face, Carter’s own outdoor post atop the ridge, and the road leading up to and down from the ridge, in exquisite detail. We see the blue skies, green trees, and purple mountains. We see the Union Army camp in the small, secluded valley below. Further, when Carter wakes up, we see the Confederate officer as a work of art:
[Carter’s] first feeling was a keen artistic delight. On a colossal pedestal, the cliff, motionless at the extreme edge of the capping rock and sharply outlined against the sky, was an equestrian statue of impressive dignity. The figure of the man sat the figure of the horse, straight and soldierly, but with the repose of a Grecian god carved in the marble which limits the suggestion of activity. The grey costume harmonised with its aerial background; the metal of accoutrement and caparison was softened and subdued by the shadow; the animal’s skin had no points of high light… The face of the rider, turned slightly to the left, showed only an outline of temple and beard; he was looking downward to the bottom of the valley. Magnified by its lift against the sky and by the soldier’s testifying sense of the formidableness of a near enemy, the group appeared of heroic, almost colossal, size.
For an instant [Carter] had a strange, half-defined feeling that he had slept to the end of the war and was looking upon a noble work of art reared upon that commanding eminence to commemorate the deeds of an heroic past of which he had been an inglorious part. (Bierce 121)
This detailed description is nothing short of necessary to the melodrama of the story’s climax, which we’ll return to shortly. As the plot continues—slowly, so that it has time to wield a tension-filled flashback and exquisite description—Carter struggles with his duty: “Is it, then, so terrible to kill an enemy in war—an enemy who has surprised a secret vital to the safety of oneself and comrades—an enemy more formidable for his knowledge than all his army for its numbers?” (Bierce 122). No, he decides, and shoots the officer. Suddenly, we’re snatched from the point of view overlooking Carter to a new, unnamed Union soldier below: “At that moment an officer of the Federal force…saw an astonishing sight—a man on horseback riding down into the valley through the air!” (122-3). Here, Bierce cashes in on his previous exquisite description of the horse and officer: imagine that Grecian statue-like image flying through the air above you! Bierce accomplishes several things with his shifting point of view coupled with setting and character description, namely, when the climax begins—when Carter fires his gun, shoots the officer, and scares the horse so badly that it leaps over the cliff—the shift in point of view is sudden to us, and we’re still dealing with that quick shift when we’re hit with another shock, the image of a horseman in the sky.
Finally, Bierce brings together all of his structural elements—plot, flashback, tension, setting, description, and point of view—to carry out the height of the climax. We’re with the surprised soldier for a few more brief moments, then we see a sergeant running up to Carter’s position to ignite the climax and the end of the story:
“Did you fire?” the sergeant whispered.
“See here, Druse,” he said, after a moment’s silence, “it’s no use making a mystery. I order you to report. Was there anybody on the horse?”
“My father.” (Bierce 124)
Getting full use out of his shifting point of view, Bierce ends the scene and story from the sergeant’s point of view, which mimics our own as shocked readers: “The sergeant rose to his feet and walked away. ‘Good God!’ he said” (Bierce 124).
Now, perhaps I’ll touch on the theme. Carter saw his father on top of the horse. Carter, a Union soldier, deemed his father an enemy, an officer in the Confederate Army. His father had told him, “‘[W]hatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty’” (Bierce 120). Carter’s duty as a Union soldier is to help win the war for the Union. However, he can’t shoot his father. So he shoots his father’s horse, knowing the horse will leap off the cliff with Carter’s father astride, killing his father. Setting aside considerations of animal cruelty due to war’s collateral damage, the theme comes into light: Duty supercedes family. Because it is easier to say than to do, Carter, in a way, does not do it: he shoots the horse, not his father. But he also does perform his duty: he knows his father will die. Was Carter right or wrong?
At present, I am no fan of my own father. It would not surprise me if, during the Civil War, I should find myself on the side of the Union while he finds himself on the side of the Confederacy (literally that). Our personal matters are not so dramatic as that right now, but we have drawn lines. Well, I have drawn lines, as Carter did in the story. So, to the question of, “Was Carter right or wrong to kill his father?” my answer is, “Right.” Duty is a choice, a voluntary decision to pursue and defend a certain cause based on one’s own judgment. Family, however, is an accidental quality: a son does not choose his father (though a father chooses his son in the sense that he chooses to have a child). The logic and ethic are simple: what we choose supercedes what we cannot control.
To the man who says, “Carter should not have killed his own father; family comes first,” I say, “To hell with you.”
I admire Carter’s father’s wisdom. He knew, and made it clear to Carter, that they might very well find themselves in such a position as occurs in this story. Carter’s father accepted that. Though he may have felt disappointment, even disgust, with his son’s decision, he nevertheless did his fatherly duty—the duty he owes to his son, whom he chose to have—to make Carter aware of what could happen. Carter accepts it. Once said and accepted, both men are clear: we have placed duty above family, and it’s right that we did. In a sense, too, Carter honored his father by following his advice: “Whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty.” Carter conceived his duty to be that of a soldier defending the Union, and even though he may have felt turmoil over that conception, he was nevertheless right. Family is accidental; duty is chosen. We are creatures of free will; that’s our nature. As such, our first loyalty is to ourselves and our own judgment. If a man judges that members of his family are unworthy of his loyalty, then his only moral course of action is to obey his own judgment and accept its consequences.
I think it’s time I stop writing this now…
My review: This is an excellently crafted story that shows how simple structure elements can yield a complex overall effect. Bierce’s theme is top-notch: the son versus his father as tied to the soldier versus the enemy. It’s a story I’ll read many times in the years to come. It’s a story I’ll share with my son when he reaches the right age. For him and me, I hope it will only be a lesson, instead of a reality.
- “He was asleep at his post of duty. But if detected he would be dead shortly afterward, that being the just and legal penalty of his crime.” (119)
- “No country is so wild and difficult but men will make it a theatre of war.” (120)
- “‘Go, Carter, and, whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty.’” (120)
- “[H]is hands resumed their places on the rifle, his forefinger sought the trigger; mind, heart, and eyes were clear, conscience and reason sound.” (122)
- “Duty had conquered; the spirit had said to the body: ‘Peace, be still.’ He fired.” (122)
Bierce, Ambrose. “A Horseman in the Sky.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 119-24. Print.
Post written by Christopher Chinchilla; edited by Cyndi Sabo.
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