I love short stories. The challenge of the short story writer is to be concise without being shallow. As such, the form requires that settings be suggested, characters be sketched and complexities be implied. A story I stumbled upon this month — An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Pierce – does all of that but also, in a succinct way, illuminates and ties together the themes of two classic novels: The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and Johnny Got His Gun (1939).
All three have war themes. Each exposes the inner thoughts of the main characters as they grapple with their fates. The authors provide the reader with realistic portrayals of the horrors of war. I’m not suggesting that it’s necessary to read the two classic novels first but my familiarity with those books both deepened and expanded my understanding of that era as well as what war does to people.
In The Red Badge of Courage, author Stephen Crane, takes the reader on a transformational journey through the mindset of the protagonist as he’s immersed in battle. We watch Henry Fleming, the main character go through three stages: an innocent young man; a soldier surviving a battle by running away; and ultimately, a hero charging his foes. Henry is moved from cowardly to heroic after he witnesses the injuries war inflicts on human bodies. “He wished that he too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.” Crane’s rendering of Henry’s self-reflection is what enables us to understand his change of heart.
In Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, the reader is drawn into the inner life of a critically wounded and comatose World War I veteran, Joe Bonham. Joe, who is bedridden, blind, deaf and dumb, shows us that when suspended at the edge of death, men do not dwell on abstract ideals, such as democracy and freedom. Dying men think of their families, their friends, and, their wish to be alive. It’s Trumbo’s vivid realism that persuades us that the pain, injury, and deaths caused by war are not made nobler by abstract causes. They are still horrific and to be avoided at all cost. In the end, Joe Bonham merely wants happiness.
“A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below.”
This is the opening sentence of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Peyton Farquhar, the man standing at the bridge, is about to be executed but we don’t know why. As with the other two stories, we see the protagonist’s inner struggle as he confronts his fate. Peyton considers trying to free his hands and “‘throw off the noose and spring into the stream'” so that he can swim to shore and try to make his way home.
It’s clear from the narrative that Peyton does not want to die and his thoughts turn to his wife and children who are, at that point, safe, because their home is outside enemy lines. As we learn about Peyton’s life, we start to care about him; when he evades his captors we’re invested in his survival. With the backdrop of imminent death, the author’s focus on Peyton’s last thoughts in real time creates an emotional roller coaster. Peyton thinks his way out of the inevitable by shifting his thoughts to his wife and children. Clearly the process was all- consuming: “By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famishing.”
Guns and cannons surround Peyton. His hands are tied behind his back and a noose is around his neck. Instead of succumbing to fear, he draws on hope. Hope lifts the human spirit in the most unusual and severe circumstances — something incarcerated readers can relate to. People can change their destinies with thoughts about themselves and those around them.
I won’t divulge the ending, but the stunning, final revelation would be far less dramatic without the realistic details that precede it. In fact, all three stories derive their power, in part, through the authors’ skilled rendering of realism.
I will say, however, that along with the realistic portrayal of the tragedy of war, the ending is a testament to the human spirit and to what’s positive in our nature.