"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and Other Civil War Stories

Perspective and Ambiguity: A Close Reading of "The Coup de Grace" College

Ambrose Bierce’s “The Coup de Grâce” is a work of Civil War fiction that, along with his other short stories on war, thematically opposes those texts of his time whose patriotism seemed “aimed at popularizing the “martial spirit” of the age” (Mariani, 221). Indeed, Bierce shows no sentimentality toward glory or honor in war, instead leveling his focus on martial conflict as a brutal irrationality. The “situation” of “The Coup de Grâce,” as defined by Vivian Gornick, involves Captain Downing Madwell searching for his friend and comrade Sergeant Caffal Halcrow among the fallen in the aftermath of a battle. However, the story as the “thing that [Bierce] has come to say” offers an investigation not only of war, but also the responsibilities of friendship and the ethics of obeying those obligations. In a world where “logic and normal causality are constantly subverted,” Bierce encourages the reader to reexamine preconceptions of right and wrong chiefly through the use of ambiguity, but also by refusing any counsel as to how the final scene of the piece should be interpreted (Mariani, 225).

Ambiguity plays a significant role at the start of “The Coup de Grâce,” especially in the characterization of Captain Madwell and his...

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