The Moonlit Road: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

''The Moonlit Road'' is a spooky short story written by American writer Ambrose Bierce. It is essentially a murder mystery told from three different perspectives, including that of the victim.

About the Author

Ambrose Bierce was a Civil War soldier who later became a writer of gothic horror stories. There is a sub-genre of gothic horror called Southern Gothic, and the story ''The Moonlit Road'' is a perfect example of this style. This particular story was first published in 1907 in the magazine Cosmopolitan.

Plot Summary

Southern Gothic stories take place in the southeastern part of the United States, often just before, during, or immediately after the American Civil War. This story is set in a rural area outside of Nashville, Tennessee.

Mystery in the Moonlight

''The Moonlit Road'' tells the story of a small family consisting of a father, mother, and young son. When the murder incident occurs, the son Joel Hetman, Jr. is a student at Yale. It is Joel, Jr. who narrates the first part of the story. He tells of being summoned from school by his father at his mother's sudden and tragic death.

The story that Joel hears from his father is that the elder Hetman came home early from a business trip to Nashville to find his wife dead in her bedroom. Both men assume that some vagrant criminal came in the house and strangled her.

The bereaved husband becomes depressed and anxious: a nervous wreck. One night, as the father and son are out walking on a moonlit night, the elder Hetman appears to see something that is invisible to his son.

Julia in Spirit Form
Ghost of Julia

He backs away from the apparition in a trance and disappears from his home forever.

Second Section

Next, we switch narrators to a homeless desperate man named Caspar Grattan who has been wandering in loneliness for twenty years.

Caspar Grattan or Joel Hetman, Sr.?
Homeless man

Even though he has no clear memory of any time before that, he has a vivid impression that he once strangled his wife out of jealousy. This appears to be the answer to the mystery of Julia Hetman's death.

Final Section

The last three parts are narrated by the dead Julia Hetman, presumably as a spirit called forth by Medium Bayrolles, a psychic. Through the psychic, she tells her story of what happened that night. She was frightened by footsteps on the stairs outside her door. When the unknown creature - human or otherwise - entered her bedroom, all she remembers is the hands on her throat in strangulation.

After that, she has been a part of the numerous sad spirits trapped partway between physical life and the spirit world. Just like the common idea about haunted houses, poor Julia stays around her former home and mourns the life she can no longer be a part of. She tells us, through the psychic, how lonely and dreary this state of existence is for her, and how she misses her husband and son.

The Mystery

Though this story might be called a murder mystery, there is an unusual aspect to the mystery. Think about a typical murder mystery, like one of the Sherlock Holmes stories. There are all sorts of possible theories about what happened to the victim, which turn out to be false. Then, near the end, the master detective solves the case and reveals the true circumstances surrounding the murder.

This is not what happens in ''The Moonlit Road''. Firstly, the reader hears the story from three different first-person narrators: Joel, Jr., Joel, Sr., and Julia Hetman herself. The son believes his father's original story of an intruder killing his mother. Joel, Sr., after he encounters what he says is Julia's ghost on the moonlit road, doesn't even know his own name. He is lost in a limbo state of amnesia, but he retains the vivid memory of strangling his own wife.

Finally, we may expect that the victim herself, though speaking as a spirit, would be able to tell the reader definitively what happened to her. Yet she can't, because she fell into a sort of trance out of fear that night and never actually saw her assailant. Was it Joel, Sr.? Was it a supernatural beast from the night, as she had imagined? Or was it someone else - perhaps a roaming vagabond looking for money or jewelry. Or even a lover, as the husband once suspected? The reader is left to sort out the possibilities.

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