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One Summer Night by Ambrose Bierce: Themes & Setting

Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will provide an overview of the setting and themes of Ambrose Bierce's short story 'One Summer Night' and offer some analysis on the ways these settings develop these themes.

Night of the Living Dead

Ambrose Bierce's short story 'One Summer Night' is a haunting and macabre tale about interactions between the living and the dead. Although exceptionally brief, this story moves from setting to setting, each illustrating a distinct facet of this intersection. This juxtaposition of settings encourages us to think carefully about how Bierce views the states of life and death. Let's take a closer look.

The World Above
Headstones

Settings

The story opens in a casket underground, where a man named Henry Armstrong has been buried alive. He is in 'strict confinement,' 'black darkness,' and 'profound silence.' Bierce describes Armstrong's indifference to his circumstances and his sense of peace before shifting the scene.

The second setting is directly overhead, above ground, where the scene, in conspicuous contrast to the confinement of the casket, is expansive. Bierce describes the sky and the approach of a storm before turning to the ground below where the lightning flickers on the headstones of a cemetery. Here we find three men digging into the grave of Henry Armstrong.

The third and final setting of 'One Summer Night' is a 'medical college,' where two of the gravediggers, medical students, have convened after fleeing the cemetery. They enter the 'dissecting room' in the back to find the third gravedigger, Jess, and the now-dead body of Henry Armstrong, whom Jess has killed with a shovel.

Themes

These settings contribute significantly to some key themes of the story: the peace of the grave versus the chaos of the living world; the unsteady border between the living and the dead; and the 'naturally' malicious acts of the living as more threatening than supernatural forces.

For example, the eerily-lit cemetery in which the headstones appear to be 'dancing' creates a foreboding sense that the dead, or perhaps their ghosts, are not at rest.

Yet, all is tranquil beneath the ground, even in the dark and silent casket of a 'living' dead man, Henry Armstrong. The grave is a peaceful place, unlike the ominously active place overhead. When the casket is opened above ground, the intersection of these two places accentuates their differences. Henry Armstrong, still at peace, sits up 'tranquilly' and the medical students flee in terror.

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