Text Analysis Is it always easy to make the right choice? What is more important – personal values or performing one’s duty? This theme reverberates in the text with an intriguing plot of “A Horseman in the Sky” by Ambrose Bierce.
The main character of the story Carter Druse makes a decision to join a Union regiment. One day Carter commits a serious crime – on the ground of feeling too tired, even exhausted, he falls asleep at his post of duty. When he awakens he sees an enemy soldier on horseback at the edge of the cliff observing the troop movement below. The main character is struck by the beauty of the motionless figure silhouetted against the sky. For some time Carter hesitates but finally he makes a decision to fulfill his obligation – to kill the enemy. The character fires at the horse. His duty is conquered. But when a Federal sergeant asks the soldier for more details it turns out that the horseman was Carter’s father.
Why does the character act in this cruel way? The author’s use of a flashback device helps to clear out the whole situation. Carter is “the son of wealthy parents, an only child, and had known such ease and cultivation and high living as wealth and taste…”- these lines prove the fact that he is well-bred, well-educated and has progressive views. And when Carter tells his father that he is going to join the union the father replies: “Well, go, sir and whatever may occur do what you conceive to be your duty”. The author uses positive diction describing the dialogue between the son and his father to point to a friendly, loving atmosphere in their family. Through A. Bierce’s use of foreshadowing and inversion in the next line: “Should we both live to the end of the end of the war, we will speak further of the matter” he lets the reader anticipate the sad ending of the story.
Could the horseman survive? No, possibly not. From the very first paragraphs Bierce uses foreshadowing – the word “death”, which is repeated throughout the whole text and creates a sinister, gloomy atmosphere. The main character lies in the clump of laurel and this detail is also very important. What does laurel symbolize? It serves as a symbol of victory, glory and adds tragedy to the whole situation. The action takes place in 1861 in western Virginia, in the area that is officially called “the mountain state”. The author’s masterful use of detail is very useful for the reader to understand how huge and dangerous the rock where the action takes place is: “The rock capped a high cliff; a stone dropped from its outer edge would have fallen sheer downward one thousand feet to the tops of the pines.” Though the reader doesn’t know yet who the horseman is (the author names him just “horseman” to keep the reader in suspense to the end), he/she cannot help noticing a change in the character’s mood conveyed through gradation – “he grows pale and shakes in every limb” when the soldier suddenly turns his head and looks in the direction of the concealed foeman, “into his very face, into his eyes, into his brave, compassionate heart”. If the horseman hadn’t turned his head, everything would have been different. But now he must perform his duty in spite of all his hesitations that are very obvious from the following lines: “the man must be shot dead from ambush – without warning, without a moment’s spiritual participation… But no – there is a hope; he may have discovered nothing – perhaps he is but admiring the sublimity of the landscape”. The author lets the reader see the situation through Carter’s eyes. The character is puzzled, he doesn’t know what he should do: on the one hand, his duty must be performed, on the other hand, he is a usual person with love and respect for his father. But in this particular situation the father is his enemy. He has no choice, no way out. He must save the lives of his army that finds itself “at the bottom of that military rat-trap”. Carter pulls himself together, pulls the trigger and fires at the horse.
Then the point of view shifts: the story is observed through the eyes of an officer of the federal force to let the reader take a detached view of the situation. The officer makes his way near the foot of the cliff and sees an astonishing sight – “a man on horseback riding down into the valley through the air”; and this line contributes to the title of the story. The horseman seems to him a strange, mysterious figure – “His hands were concealed in the cloud of the horse’s lifted mane…Its motions were those of wild gallop…” – the man, as well as his horse, seems unreal, the horse’s mane is compared to a cloud, its speed (wild gallop) points to the intensity of the action. The author’s detailed description of the rock helps the reader to understand that a person falling from it cannot possibly survive: the rock has “a gigantic face, towering to so great a height above him,” it makes the officer giddy “to look where its edge cut a sharp, rugged line against the sky”.
It is also important to mention that in this text Carter’s will moves the action of the plot, he is the protagonist who struggles against his antagonist, the feeling of love for his father. And so, through Carter’s thoughts and actions, the author conveys the message and shows that sometimes it is not so easy to make the right choice. Loving his father with all his heart, he still kills him. By the protagonist’s example the reader can see that worthy people always do what they conceive to be their duty.