Concept of Fantasy in Ambrose Bierce’s Chickamauga


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Ambrose Bierce incorporates ideas of fantasy into his short story “Chickamauga” by blurring the line between what is truly fiction or reality. As the protagonist of the tale pursues his own adventure, he comes upon aspects of nature, which initially allow him to escape from the real world. However, as the story progresses, Bierce uses the landscape to represent the cruelness of reality; instead of finding serenity in nature, the young boy is forced to come to terms with the harsh outcome of the outside world.

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“Chickamauga” portrays the lonesome experience of a young boy as he travels through a forest looking for adventure. Although he willingly ventures from the safety of his home to pursue an exciting experience, he can’t help but feel afraid without the protective presence of his mother. In the woods, as the boy’s “tender skin [is] cruelly torn by brambles, his little heart beating hard with terror,” he is unable to escape the towering trees due to his fear as an innocent youth. Even though he appears to be physically trapped in the forest, he is also psychologically trapped, as he is incapable of leaving behind the terrifying scenery made worse by his imagination. When he comes upon the soldiers lying by the brook, he finds that many men “were streaked and gouted in red,” contrasting with the serenity of such a landscape. Ironically, Bierce uses the creek to symbolize death, even though water is known as a fluid that composes the majority of the human body. I think this is an instance where Bierce hints at the ferocity of nature, as it does not truly appear to be as calm and tranquil as it seems. Even though the soldiers are dying, the brook is unable to revive them, instead passively looking down on them in order to grant them a quick death.

When the boy arrives at the plantation, he sees that the entirety of the area is encompassed in a blazing fire. Rather than showing his readers that the home of the boy was physically torn down by soldiers, Bierce uses light and fire, as natural occurrences, in order to display the destruction. Although the creek symbolized death by having an inability to save the people surrounding it, the light and fire represent an unpredictability of reality, as the boy is met with unexpected darkness in the presence of luminosity. Bierce mentions that “instead of darkening, the haunted landscape began to brighten,” which once again takes an ironic twist. When most authors foreshadow terrible events, they use darkness to set the tone before the occurrence happens; however, as Bierce uses light, it shows that his form of nature is both unpredictable and unforgiving. Similarly, the image of fire in “Chickamauga” shows how quickly the destruction spread, from the time the boy awakened to the point where he discovered his own burning home.

I think that Bierce’s overall message by using the concept of brightness to display the cruel reality of the young boy’s world was to show his readers that comfort could not easily be found in a time of war. Battle wasn’t simply a time of destruction just for the soldiers, but it also bled onto the natural landscape of the world and resulted in a similar massacre. Although the young boy initially finds an escape by discovering the forest, he is quickly overwhelmed by thoughts of fear, just as many civilians in the real world were devastated by the circumstances of going to war. By relating these fictional ideas to the unpredictability and detrimental effect of battle, Bierce allows his current readers to understand the state of the country in the past.

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