This extract is written by Ambrose Bierce and is taken from “Killed at Resaca” that was published in 1891. This extract mainly salutes the bravery of the martyrs and their families. The extract’s opening line is not only very out of the ordinary but also very interestingly captures the reader’s attention, to explore further to comprehend a sensitive topic – death.
The first setting of the extract is set on the battlefield of Resaca, where the brave Lieutenant Herman Brayle embraces death. The second setting of the extract is set in San Francisco, where the narrator informs the martyr’s lover about his death. The narrator of this extract is a soldier or a member of the army. This is evident in the quote, ” In the distribution of mementos of our friend, which the general, as administrator, decreed, this fell to me”. The fact that the narrator is the martyr’s friend he must be a member of the Lieutenant’s troop.
The entire extract is written in the first person narrative. “One evening I called on Miss Mendenhall to return the letter to her.” The use of the first person pronoun, I, in the above quote substantiates the extract to be a first person narrative. The tone of the narrator is filled with sorrow and deep sadness for his fellow men. During the first two paragraphs the narrator is giving a brief description and is casually inspecting the situation with not much interest, but when he realizes the truth behind Brayle’s death on discovering the mysterious letter, he is moved and taken aback by the gravity of the situation.
One of the several themes of this extract is the role of women in the lives of soldiers. Brayle’s lover, Marian Mendenhall writes to him, “I could bear to hear of my soldier lover’s death, but not of his cowardice”. This gives Brayle the courage to die on the battlefield. Clearly, Brayle’s strength on the battlefield is evident when, “He could not go forward, he would not turn back; he stood awaiting death.” Consequently, Brayle sacrificed his life in order to meet Marian’s expectations.
Had she not encouraged him to fight bravely, there could have been a possibility that Brayle would return back to save his life! The letter’s importance to Brayle can be judged from the fact that he carried the letter even to the battlefield as it left a huge impact on his mind as Marian questioned his credibility as a brave soldier, also implying his lover’s significance in his life. The extract starts with the beginning of one soldier’s death but ends in a mayhem of internal emotions as Marian was to be faced with a burden of her lover’s death, which was perhaps never hers to begin with.
After Brayle’s death, his lover was sad that he died but yet was proud that he laid down his life to protect the nation. Even after being informed about Brayle’s death, his lover looked at the narrator “with a smile” and she looked very composed showing the level of intimacy between the two lovers. Initially, she was attempting to hide her grief but finally, her sadness was revealed in the quote, “The light of the burning letter was reflected in her eyes and touched her cheek with a tinge of crimson like the stain upon its page.”
The presence of the narrator helps the readers to give an insight into Marian’s mind and states that her tears were as precious as Brayle’s blood showing that she had indeed been more deeply affected than she showed. Here the readers can empathize with Marian as her feelings on Brayle’s death are of distress and grief and probably of resentment and regret had she been told the truth.
As soon as Marian asked the narrator how Brayle died, the narrator could not gather the courage to tell her that it was her letter that inspired Brayle to sacrifice his life for the nation. The fact that Marian started crying on seeing Brayle’s blood bothered the narrator as he was unsure whether she would be able to handle truth. The readers feel a sense of tension and stress as the narrator struggles to strike a balance with a just answer yet not letting out the whole truth. Therefore he had to imprudently declare, “He was bitten from a snake”. This would evidently give Marian the satisfaction that her lover died on a battlefield and would not be weighed down by the remorse of being responsible for the death in any which way. The last sentence also adds to a surprise element in the extract because the reader’s expect the narrator to tell the truth but only in the end are the reasons understood.
The complete extract is divided into sixteen small paragraphs. Each paragraph focuses on a particular action of event and takes the plot ahead. Starting with the mention of Brayle’s death to unveiling the reasons of the sacrifice and finally dropping the veil by promoting a lie to prevent Marian from falling apart. The flow of these events is logical and the extract gradually moves from past to the present. This transition of the setting from the battlefield to San Francisco is so smooth that it almost goes unnoticed. The narrator has used long sentences throughout the extract to allow the readers to understand the solemnity of death. Also, the long sentences in the later half of the extract display Marian’s maturity and equanimity in dealing with her lover’s death.
Ambrose Bierce has used synecdoche in the quote, “that is the blood of the truest and the bravest heart that ever beat.” Here, the word “heart” symbolizes Brayle. This enables the reader to improve Brayle’s characterization in their mind after the shallow description of him “crouching behind a tree”. The tone throughout the extract is respectful and salutes the martyrs who lay down their lives. The emotive tone is evident in the quote; “It was an ordinary love letter, if a love letter can be ordinary”. This is the narrator’s first reaction on reading the letter. The complexity of Marian’s character and her feelings are highlighted through the employment of vivid color imagery in the quote, “The light of the burning letter was reflected in her eyes and touched her cheek with a tinge of crimson like the stain upon its page.”
Here, crimson symbolizes Marian’s tears on seeing Brayle’s blood. With the last sentence the narrator makes a brilliant emotional connect with the readers, as they see the craze and passion between the two lovers who were longing to be in each others company but instead are separated by a love letter which leads to Brayle’s death. It is indeed ironic as love letters are usually portrayed as getting two hearts closer and aiding the growing relationship but here it directs to a death. When one puts themselves in Marian’s shoes, a feeling of remorse is felt because what she goes through is probably nothing compared to the grief family members would have to face after the martyr’s death.
Language plays a very important role in arousing the readers’ sentiments in this extract. The selection of a variety of words indicates the importance of various situations. For instance, the narrator is initially unaware of the content of the letter and hence he read it “idly”. The choice of the word shows that the letter was not that important to him. But after reading the letter, the narrator found the letter “sacred” knowing the difficulty he would later face in reveling the truth. This yet again reinforces the importance of the letter throughout the extract. The narrator has also used words like “profitless crime” to describe wars. Such descriptions make the readers question the necessity of wars. It seems like the answer to the question “Is woman weak?” is almost apparent as throughout the extract Marian’s character is depicted strongly and hence the obvious intention of asking the question is to show her strength which develops the reader’s interest in the extract. The use of the adjectives “detestable” to describe Marian enable readers to gauge her helplessness and sorrow thus conveying her feelings effectively.
On the whole, the content and the style of the extract complement each other. The style used in this extract arouses the emotions necessary for understanding the serious content discussed in this extract, that of the ill effects of wars, death and role of women. It allows the readers to experience the same emotions as those experienced by the families of the martyrs through Marian’s feelings of loss for Brayle. This piece has moved me emotionally. It has allowed me to look at war in a manner I have not done before. Thus, the extract gains full attention of the readers as he captivates them not only with simple narrative, but also with an intensity of emotion, which leaves the readers pondering and hence engaging their minds long after the extract has ended to find out the reactions of Marian after hearing the lie.