‘The Boarded Window’ by Ambrose Bierce: Short Story Analysis
‘The Boarded Window’ is a Gothic psychological horror story published in 1891 by prolific multi-talented American writer Ambrose Bierce. This story is similar to American writer Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story titled ‘The Black Cat’ because it deals with premature death or burial as a sub-plot. You can check out my short story analysis of ‘The Black Cat’ on my blog. ‘The Boarded Window’ is a popular choice in horror anthologies about the supernatural. Bierce tells the sad yet mysterious tale of Murlock, a hermit who lived a life of seclusion in his log cabin. He lived in the wilderness in Ohio, where Bierce’s family lived until the year 1846. The story has several layers of sub-plots, symbolism, and a lot of psychological themes. You would think it was merely a simple horror story about the dead coming back to life, but you’d be incorrect. The unnamed wife of Murlock did not die in this story but was merely unconscious. Murlock’s relationship with his wife is also something full of murkiness, which well becomes most of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories of the macabre.
The story starts by giving a proper setting to it, which is Ohio’s wilderness near Cincinnati. Cincinnati is a city in Ohio, on the Ohio River. It is here that a vast population of people had settled down from the East, who later in the story get up one fine day and go West. They craved the luxuries of the city and towns and so made their way to the West. However, one of the original settlers remains behind. This person is the reclusive, introverted hermit called Murlock. He has no intention of leaving. He stays in his log cabin crudely made of sticks. The forest or woodland area where he resides is symbolic of a man’s psychological mind and the inner working of the mind and the unconscious. Everyone had upscaled to a higher form of living and thinking but not Murlock. The natural presumption would be that he was faithful to his wife remaining close to her burial place near his cabin. This presumption is improbable because:
- Murlock was subject to the dictates of his mind, which was not exactly favorable to his wife. That is why he doesn’t even let her name be known to the people of that wilderness, nor does the narrator’s grandfather or narrator know the woman’s name and true identity.
- Murlock was not close to his wife at all but was in a psychotic state of denial. He was frozen to the place where a strange and bizarre incident took place that made him believe his wife was dead when she was merely unconscious.
- Murlock is afraid of his wife’s spirit and is stuck in a sort of magnetic force to his logwood cabin. The cabin made of logwood is understood in psychology as being the symbol of man’s semblance of sanity or a stress reducer amid the darkness of his ‘wilderness’, that was his mind.
- Murlock himself and the people of the area had already forgotten where the wife was buried. Murlock did not make the place prominent and identifiable even though she died very early.
- If Murlock stuck to the cabin, it was because he was feeling guilty about what he had almost done to a living wife by burying her. Since that time, his psychological state has been unbalanced to such a form of irrationality that he no longer mingles in society. We see this case of accidental burial or premature burial in short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and the guilt complex of protagonists. The workings of a psychotic patient’s dark unconscious mind are seen in another short story by Edgar Allan Poe titled ‘The Tell-tale Heart’ which I have reviewed on my blog. Do check it out for your reference.
- When Murlock thought his wife was dead after three days of the fever, he didn’t even cry. He was distraught but was making preparations for her funeral and burial.
- When he felt and surmised in the middle of his nightmare that his wife was not in the casket, he instead of trying to find here picks up a gun to shoot. Why would he want to do that if he was in love with his wife? She could have got hurt.
- We are aware that the wife was somehow killed in a sordid manner, which made Murlock guilty. Therefore, he was stuck to the spot out of guilt rather than faithfulness to his wife’s memory.
Therefore, we are aware that there is something murky in this story, something hidden or something not pleasant to contemplate. Several hints suggest that there was too much urgency on Murlock part to bury his wife. That is why the writer Ambrose Bierce writes as a narrator that he will only report what he has learned. The sifting of fact from fiction is left to the reader of this macabre but highly symbolic story. So too, the wife’s origins were something to be debated upon, left to conjecture, and so equally frightful to contemplate. It is told that she came from the East, indicative that it was the region lying to the East of the Mississippi River. Why did the writer Bierce draw our attention to this aspect? Was he suggesting that the wife was not a white American? That point is left to conjecture, but the fact that Murlock’s devotion to his wife is only seen through the fact that he remained rooted in the log cabin years after her death till he passed away is intriguing. There is no other proof in the text that indicates that Murlock showed his affections for his wife in any other way. It is thus an indication that, probably, he and his wife did not get along.
Coming to Murlock as a character, he is a victim of his guilt and other psychotic thoughts, which he had successfully kept in check after the death and the accident in the night when the panther tried to steal the dead body of his wife. He dies mysteriously, and he is buried in an area where his wife was buried, or roundabout the same location, for the author Bierce mentions that the place was not exactly known. Murlock’s outfit was like that of the typical hermit. He had a long white beard, long white hair, grey eyes, and a sunken face. He was tall but walked with a stoop leading the narrator to mention that he was a burden bearer. In other words, Murlock was hiding a secret, something so sinister and unimaginable that even the narrator is afraid to dwell upon this aspect. Murlock did not like his wife, and he certainly was a bit relieved when she passed away. Still, the three days he tried to nurse her back to health showed a semblance of duty towards his spouse. We even see it in the preparations he made for her burial. He was not afraid of her when she was alive nor before the accident with the panther. However, after the accident with the panther, his nerves were greatly shaken, making him a loner for life.
Now, coming to the boarded window, facts remain that that was from where the panther had come smelling the body of a half-dead person and came to feast on it. In the dark, the unconscious wife was woken and killed by the panther who lacerated her throat. The last part of the story mentions that the wound in her throat was not entirely coagulated, which only means that the woman was alive when the panther grabbed her. We know through Biology that the blood generally clots slowly after death and remains clotted for several days. However, in some cases, fibrin and fibrinogen disappear from blood in a comparatively short time, and the blood is found to be fluid and incoagulable soon after death. She was, therefore, alive but killed by the panther. The panther had left from the window after the wife bit his ear off. Murlock was so aghast by the terrible scene of his wife’s dead body with the lacerated throat wound, the unbound wrists, the deranged look on her face as well as the ear of the panther in her mouth that he tries to block it all out. He blocks the terrible scene from his consciousness by boarding the window from where the trouble started. He also heard a sort of child crying or a wild beast making a sound from the same window. Notice during this whole scenario, Murlock seems to be flitting from consciousness to unconsciousness to subconsciousness. This change of states makes the story murkier and all the more terrifying. The boarded window is the symbol of two things:
- Keeping the outside evil from coming within.
- Keeping the evil that is within from going out.
- Locking away the guilt in the subconscious.
- A defense mechanism or even a pacifier towards something unresolved in a person’s mind.
The brutal and savageness of the wife tearing off the panther’s ear is graphically unnerving. She is ultimately buried, but this was when no coroner or physician could have come to certify when and how the woman died. Murlock joins his wife in death several years afterward, the secret of the window only known to a few like the narrator and the narrator’s grandfather.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by American writer Ambrose Bierce. I have reviewed another short story by him titled ‘The Suitable Surroundings’, which you can check out on my blog. In keeping with the ongoing 2020 American Elections, I have been celebrating the books, short stories, essays, and non-fiction books of American writers. This celebration of America’s best fiction and non-fiction will continue till the inauguration of the new President of the USA. If you are interested in more American bookish content, this is the site you should keep in mind. I have many of Ambrose Bierce’s short story collection in my possession and will be re-reading these stories to analyze them here for you on my blog.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out my blog’s products page or my author’s page on Amazon. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
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