By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Mocking-Bird’ is an 1891 short story by the American author Ambrose Bierce, who is also remembered for his witty The Devil’s Dictionary and for his mysterious disappearance in around 1914. ‘The Mocking-Bird’ is a Civil War tale about a soldier who shoots a man while on sentry duty at night, and struggles to find the man’s body – only to make a shocking and grisly discovery the next day.
You can read ‘The Mocking-Bird’ here before reading on for our summary and analysis of Bierce’s story.
‘The Mocking-Bird’: plot summary
The story takes place one Sunday afternoon in the autumn of 1861, in the early months of the American Civil War. In Virginia, a man named Private Grayrock is keeping watch for the Federal army, resting against a tree and looking out for any enemy Confederate soldiers.
It’s a moonless night, and Grayrock loses his sense of direction, walking around the tree to try to get some perspective on the area. However, this only succeeds in causing him to lose all of his remaining bearings, just as a man approaches and Grayrock, panicked, opens fire without knowing if he’s facing the enemy or his own army camp.
This shot leads to a shooting match between the two armies. After the shooting ceases, Grayrock goes in search of the man he shot at. He’s a good marksman and he instinctively knows he hit the man, but cannot find him. Meanwhile, his comrades at the camp praise his courage in acting so promptly against the enemy.
The next day, he asks for permission leave the camp and go in search of the man, claiming he has lost something. However, his search by daylight proves similarly fruitless, and after spending the day searching the area, he ends up back at the tree where he had kept watch the night before.
The episode from the night before preys on his mind. He doesn’t like being considered a hero when, in fact, he was the one who opened fire on an unknown visitor out of confusion and panic rather than plucky resourcefulness or courage. He wishes to discover the man he shot so he can determine whether he did the right thing or not.
Exhausted from his fruitless search, he falls asleep and dreams about his childhood with his twin brother, from whom he was inseparable, and their widowed mother. In a cage in their home was a mockingbird, whose song seemed to hint at the possibilities of the world, of life and love.
When the mother died, the family became divided, and the two brothers, William (the protagonist of ‘The Mocking-Bird’) and his twin brother John went their separate ways. William can still hear the bird’s melodious song in his memory.
When he wakes from his dream, he heads back to the camp, and spies a bird up on a tree (which, it’s implied, is a mockingbird too). Then he comes upon the body of his twin brother, John: the man he had shot and killed the night before. William doesn’t return to the army camp that night, nor ever again, the implication being that he has either deserted the army or taken his own life.
‘The Mocking-Bird’: analysis
‘The Mocking-Bird’, like many of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories, is set during the American Civil War, and like his other stories set during this time, ‘The Mocking-Bird’ shows the human cost of war and the horrible reality of it. But there are a number of details in the story which are ambiguous, and leave us, like William Grayrock himself, in the ‘Realm of Conjecture’.
The best way to analyse ‘The Mocking-Bird’, then, is to view its rather melodramatic and unlikely plot as highly symbolic: not only of war, but of the gulf between our youthful dreams and the rather grim hardships of life, and the chasm between illusion and reality. The mockingbird’s song promises joy, as well as access to the ‘mysteries of life and love’, but this is a false promise. Indeed, the bird which William sees when he wakes from his dream heralds the discovery of his twin’s dead body.
We might draw a parallel with the young boy’s exposure to the horrors of war in ‘Chickamauga’, where he witnesses the aftermath of the battle but only partly understands what is going on. He is filled with fanciful ideas about battle and carries a wooden sword with him when he wanders off in search of adventure, but he, too, will find the Enchanted Land to be anything but. The mockingbird is indeed mocking him.
The Realm of Conjecture, where William remains, might be regarded as a childlike state of innocence, ambiguity, and openness: something akin to what John Keats called ‘Negative Capability’, describing it in a letter of 1817 as ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’.
John, by contrast, heads off into the Enchanted Land – ‘a distant region whose people in their lives and ways were said to be strange and wicked’, and clearly a code for the Real World where people pursue what’s necessary, presumably in pursuit of material gain. One brother grows up and hardens his heart in pursuit of reality; the other brother, William, remains a (literal) dreamer, who can still remember the pure sound of the mockingbird and what it is meant to signify.
‘The Mocking-Bird’ might be analysed as an example of the story of the double, whereby William’s twin brother represents his alter ego or alternative self. Poe has helped to pioneer this kind of story in the 1840s with tales like ‘William Wilson’, and Bierce, in making John William’s identical twin brother, is summoning the idea that John is somehow more than William’s brother, but also a version of himself.
Bierce nudges us towards such an interpretation when William discovers the body of his twin and, we are told, finds himself gazing upon an ‘image of himself’: an ambiguous phrase which means not just ‘the likeness of himself’ but also ‘a reflection of who he really is, or could have been’.