Ambrose Bierce’s short story “Chickamauga” Essay
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Ambrose Bierce’s Chickamauga is a disillusioned child’s awakening. Literally, a six year old deaf boy is thrown into a most horrifically traumatic series of events. His story is relayed in the third person omniscient perspective through the eyes of the child as well as an elder. It takes place during the Civil War in a southern town. Chickamauga begins with the boy’s entrance into the forest where he goes to play solitarily. With him he carries a toy wooden sword with which he battles imaginary enemies to their deaths.
Lost in his adventure the boy grows tired and falls asleep between two rocks deep in the woods. While he is a sleep a battle occurs unbeknownst to him. Several hours later the child wakes up and notices alien figures crawling towards him. Without knowing the gravity of the situation occurring before his oblivious eyes, he makes a game of it all.
The child assumes a leader position for what he has finally determined to be men, and guides them towards a red light. The red light turns out to be his house on fire. When the child finally reaches the fire he is particularly amused by the raging spectacle. He searches desperately for fuel and finally commits his toy sword to the fire. Suddenly the boy realizes that fire is his own home. Horrified he studies the ghastly scene. He then stumbles upon his brutally murdered mother. The small child gets extremely upset, and at this point the reader learns that child is a deaf-mute. The story can be divided into three essential stages, representational of the boy’s progression from innocence to forced maturity. The boy advances through innocence, progression to familiarity with reality, and awakening. The small child enters the forest joyfully and carelessly, he leaves with tremendous fear, depression, and realization. The forest is symbolic of middle ground between innocence and horrible reality.
The six year old enters the forest as an innocent child with no experience in reality. All of his days until this one have been a candy coated fantasy. He’s spent numerous hours reading and learning about the glories and fairy tale aspects of war with his father. This little boy was born into warrior-blood. All of his predecessors were soldiers including his father. He enjoyed learning about war. However, the fatal mistake of this six year old little boy’s life was his active interest in combat. It was his interest which led him deep into the forest playing, battling fantasy foes. His fight, his game, his reality until this point in his life was fabricated.
The reader gets a real sense of his naivety when he encounters a rabbit and is terrified. Maybe the child has never seen a rabbit before, or maybe he has seen one viewed in a dark light. All facts of this boy’s life until this fateful journey into the woods have been given to him. The knowledge he possessed was second hand; it seems as though he’d never experienced anything himself. His father had delivered all of the information the boy held through books, which ironically glorified war. This child’s tragic encounter with war was so foreign and inconceivable to him that when it so brutally hit him he doesn’t even realize it.
The woods in Chickamauga symbolize the cruelty of reality. At his entrance into the forest, this completely innocent six year old begins his journey towards the horrors that await him. When the boy is in the forest he cries himself asleep, terrified of the new and unfamiliar paths he’s traveled. While he’s asleep a battle occurs and his house is set on fire. However the child is deaf so he does not hear what is going on. Finally he wakes up to see what look like animals, which in actuality are the soldiers retreating from the battle that has just occurred, and becomes innately curious. He did not understand what they were, he didn’t know whether they were dogs, horses, bears, he had no idea. As they got closer he “saw little but that these were men, yet crept like babies.” This fact intrigued him. As he inspected the men he laughed at their unfamiliar state, and related them to clowns he’d seen in a circus.
Their bloody faces reminded him of the paint on the clowns’ faces. This optimistic association reveals his ignorance of what actually happened. He then recalled that at his home the Negroes had crawled on their hands and knees for his entertainment. He thought it to be a good, fun idea to attempt to “ride” one of the soldiers. The child gets a thrust into reality when he is thrown off the man and subsequently forced to see his mangled face. When the boy looks at the man he sees “a face that lacked a lower jaw–from the upper teeth to the throat was a great red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splinters of bone.” The reader gets a real sense of the child’s naivety when the child is only slightly disturbed, as he had been with the rabbit. This forces the child to take a slightly more somber view of the situation.
However even after this horrific encounter the boy is still fairly oblivious to what is happening. He witnesses death all around him. When the child sees the soldiers lying dead in the water, “his eyes expanded with wonder; even his hospitable understanding could not accept a phenomenon implying such vitality as that.” It was not in the child’s range of conception to even take in such horror. It is after this encounter with the garbled soldier that the boy catches sight of the red light which guides him to his miserable fate.
After obtaining a more serious perception of the state of affairs, the boy positions himself as leader of the soldiers. It seems at this point that the child has gained some insight into reality from the grotesqueness of the bloody soldiers, but still significantly less than a more aware, less naive person would have acquired. This becomes apparent when the boy is at the fire and enjoys its flaring spectacle to no end. The boy is ecstatic and dances with the flames devouring his house. He even tries to fuel it. The boy searches around the yard for objects to throw in, all are too heavy. He is finally forced to surrender his sword. With his sword the child surrenders his innocence. Suddenly with no warning or cause the boy’s disillusion detonates and reality afflicts him. He realizes that the fire is his own house.
Horrified at his abrupt realization the boy runs “with stumbling feet,” frightened at what he is witnessing. At this point he encounters his mother. He sees her with “the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles.” This is his final jolt that forces him to the rock-bottom, ultimate darkness of reality. This sight of his mother, probably raped, brutally murdered jerks him into shock. Traumatized, the young boy “moved his little hands, making wild, uncertain gestures. He uttered a series of inarticulate and indescribable cries.” This is his horrible awakening.
Chickamauga is representational not only of the boy’s awakening, but of human awakening as well. The child’s initial entry into the forest is symbolic of every journey we take as humans into the unknown. In the forest he acquired immense amounts of insight into what reality could be, but had trouble comprehending the severity of what he was witnessing. It was not until the trauma personally affected him that the small child was struck with what actually happened. This is parallel for most humans in their experiences with trauma.
Trauma is real and depressing when it is witnessed personally by someone, but when it is inflicted upon someone we know or love it becomes so intensely real that it is impossible to grasp. This impossible conception is analogous to the small boy’s incoherent cries and gestures at the end. The theft of this child’s innocence was slow and unperceivable in the forest, but most definitely contributed to the final jolt the child felt at the end. The boy slowly progressed towards reality, and when it finally clicked it was appalling.