‘The Stranger’ by Ambrose Bierce: Short Story Analysis
‘The Stranger’ is a historical fabulist horror story by Ambrose Bierce set in the early nineteenth century in the western USA. Bierce was a well-known American writer and journalist whom we remember today for his ghost stories and stories of the macabre. He disappeared mysteriously at the age of seventy-one or seventy-two and was never seen or heard from again. ‘The Stranger’ is one of his lighter macabre ghost stories set in the period when Americans who were called ‘pioneers’ from the eastern coast were trying to explore the western coast where many Native American camps and territories were situated. These pioneers often clashed with the Native Americans who fought back before they allowed their land to be taken or trespassed upon by the Whiter Pioneers. According to Bierce, four such Pioneers came to the West and killed themselves in a cave because they were outnumbered by a Native American tribe of warriors called the Apaches. These four people are repeatedly roll called by the narrator of this story a ghost or specter. He was one of the four pioneers who committed suicide rather than fall into the Apaches’ hands. Besides being an excellent example of Bierce’s narrative capabilities, the story is a powerful lesson in American history, especially for readers from the international community. For more information on American history, you can read David Rubenstein’s book The American Story. You can read my review of The American Story here.
The Apache are a group of culturally related Native American tribes in the Southwestern United States, including the Chiricahua. The Apache were known for being powerful, brave, and aggressive. They were a large tribe, dating as far back as the early 1500s. In this short story titled ‘The Stranger’, while a group of White American Pioneers campers was resting by firelight, a man or a specter comes forth from the darkness. His name is Berry Davis, but he does not reveal his name while he narrates how thirty years ago, he and three of his comrades had to end their lives with their rifles or guns because they were cornered in a cavern or cave by the Apaches. If these four friends had to fall in the hands of the Apache, they would have had a miserable, painful death. It is already mentioned in the story that even after these four gentlemen had killed themselves when the Apaches found their bodies, the native American tribe scalped and shamefully mutilated their bodies right near the cave. Ramon Gallegos, William Shaw, George W. Kent, and Berry Davis shot and killed themselves to escape this cruel torture and be disgraced. It is their story that the specter of Berry Davis narrates to the campers.
There was a protocol among Pioneers in America during this period. If one met a fellow Pioneer, one had to regard them warily. The story’s setting is the Arizona Desert where the nights and days were hot and other than a good flow of the wild game the land:
- Had hardly any waterholes and ponds where one could quench one’s thirst.
- Anyone could die due to the heat, starvation, or the Native Americans attacking them during this period in history.
- One could mostly find rattlesnakes and horned toads.
- If one were alone, then one could die or go berserk or mentally deranged.
But the group hearing the specter’s story was silent. There was absolute respect among Pioneers, and that is why the Captain of Bierce’s camp admonished the humorist in his group when he tried to crack a joke about the specter’s campmates. The Captain was wary of Berry Davis but wanted to hear his story. And Berry does tell a remarkable story of how thirty years ago, he and his friends perished in the mouth of the cave. The specter Berry was narrating this story to Bierce’s campmates because he was a good storyteller and a good narrator of descriptions of places. Berry describes very well the land of Arizona when they spent their time in the West. It reminded the Pioneers of Bierce’s camp of their lives in the West. When one reads Berry or the specter’s story, we think that probably he allowed his comrades to commit suicide, and then he stayed along in the West, living a solitary life. That was something Pioneers in the West never did; it was against one’s honor to do so. That is why one of Bierce’s campmates, Sam Yountsey, tries to charge the specter and shoot him for dishonoring the name of the Pioneers of the West. The Captain seems to be catching on that Berry, the storyteller, was a ghost and stopped his campmate Yountsey from shooting at him.
Bierce points out to the Captain that the specter had yet not named who he was from the party. They thought that probably since he was alive:
- There were probably five instead of four people in the group.
- The specter was one of the four and allowed the others to kill themselves, and he survived in the West, living alone.
- Living alone, he must have become eccentric and queer and told them this story and risked his life by doing so.
- That there was no such story and that the storyteller had other motives in coming to the camp. He was a liar.
We realize that the place was haunted by the four Pioneer specters when Berry disappears after narrating his tale, and the guard on duty at Bierce’s camp confirms that the area where they were, was close to the cave where the four men had committed suicide. The Pioneers’ names are repeated several times in this story by Berry the specter, to make sure that the campers never forget their names and that they too were real people and great and noble adventurers. It is the Captain who was wise and a man of steel, who realized that the place was haunted. However, the Captain was a practical man and was neither flummoxed nor afraid of the specters. That is because, being a Pioneer, he was used to worse situations. H, therefore, admonishes his campmates, telling them to get back to bed and that the Yountsey’s obsession with killing the storyteller was baseless because the man was:
- Berry Davis one of the four who was now a specter.
- The other three figures in the moonlight seen by the sentry on guard were the other three specters.
- He was already dead, and Yountsey could not make him more dead than he already was.
Berry Davis’s specter had just come to Bierce’s camp to tell his story and give witness to the others of their tragic end. There is a hint at Christian doctrine where it is illegal and sinful for someone to take their own lives. That is why Ramon Gallegos is reluctant to commit suicide at first. But trapped in the cavern with the other three Pioneers for four days, starvation and thirst had driven him to the brink. He was ready to commit suicide and die honorably rather than fall into the cruel hands of Native Americans. The others follow suit, with Berry committing suicide last. It is thought in Christianity that a soul who has committed suicide never enters heaven and haunts the site of his death for eternity. He is doomed for life, and that subtle religious element is highlighted in this story.
We cannot consider this story racist. It is a part of American history that can be told and analyzed in no other way. The Native Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were mostly subdued by the Western Pioneers and called slur names like ‘Red Indians’, ‘Red Devils’, and ‘Savages’, which today seem terrible to our post-modernist twenty-first-century ears. There was even a sort of etiquette in those days that it was better to die with your camp than desert them and live alone or surrender to the Native American tribes.
There is constant light and dark switching in this story, which adds to the tale’s eeriness. However, the idea of a specter telling his story is not new to us because of our constant exposure to horror fiction but was considered sensational literature during Bierce’s time. You can read my short story analysis of Ambrose Bierce’s stories here. The specter in this story is:
- A good storyteller and good at descriptions.
- He has no particular defining elements to his looks as he is a ghost. Ghosts usually are spirits that don’t have any form but represent entities that have lived before and have not found peace in the other world.
- He is and was the leader of his tiny group of Pioneers, so he was in charge of seeing that the others committed suicide before he pulled the trigger on himself.
- He knew the area very well. That is obvious because he was rooted in the place.
I will now dwell on some takeaway points after which I will end my analysis of Bierce’s short story titled ‘The Stranger’:
- Notice that the specter’s group of Pioneers consisted of men of all races but were predominantly white. For good, though racist, classic book similar to ‘The Stranger’, you can check out the classic fiction book The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. I always recommend my students to read The Last of the Mohicans to learn more about America. If you are an educator and want to encourage your wards to read the classics, you can check out my how-to book titled Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them.
- Bierce gives an odd description of men living in the West during this time in history. Here he indicates that they are like trees. If they grow and live together in a group, then they thrive. However, if they live alone, they become deformed or contorted; in other words, deranged mentally and behaviorally.
- The specter mentioned that his Pioneers group was ‘prospecting’ in the West, which probably means they were looking for gold. In the United States and Canada, prospectors were lured by the promise of gold, silver, and other precious metals. They traveled across the mountains of the American West, carrying picks, shovels, and pans. The majority of early prospectors had no training and relied mainly on luck to discover deposits.
- An outfit in those days meant a group with enough weapons, especially a lot of guns and bullets or enough ammunition.
I always enjoy reading and analyzing works by the American short story writer Ambrose Bierce. I hope to read, review, and analyze more American bookish fiction and non-fiction content until January 2021. I wish to showcase America’s rich literary legacy to celebrate the completion of the most crucial 2020 US Presidential Elections. So, if you are looking for more American bookish content, keep watching this site.
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