One Summer Night by Ambrose Bierce
In One Summer Night by Ambrose Bierce we have the theme of acceptance, mortality, determination, experience and fear. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator it becomes clear to the reader from the beginning of the story that Bierce may be exploring the theme of acceptance. Though buried alive and it would seem without any ability to free himself, Henry Armstrong appears to accept the position he finds himself in. He is remarkably calm for a person who has been buried alive and whose options are limited. In fact Henry is so calm that he decides the best option for him is to fall asleep. In Henry’s eyes there is nothing else in that he can do. Though it is clear as the story continues that Henry will not have a peaceful night. Above his grave is Jess and two medical students who are determined to dig his grave and remove his body, believing Henry to be dead.
What is also interesting is the lack of fear that Jess shows. He is not afraid of the dead, and the reader learns the living. This is in contrast to the two medical students who though productive run away when they discover that Henry is alive. They are very much afraid. It may also be significant that the narrator mentions that the graveyard is not as populated as others may think. This suggests that Henry’s grave is not the first that Jess has dug up. If anything Jess may be making extra money by allowing medical students take bodies from the graveyard. Though some readers might suggest that Jess is immoral or greedy it may be case that he has no other option but to sell bodies to the medical students. He is lowly paid worker who would not have the same rights as those who are white. At the time the story was written black people were treated as inferior to white people.
There may also be some symbolism in the story that is important. Bierce seems to be using the setting as foreshadowing. It is dark (night time) which may suggest that something sinister is going to happen. There is lightning and thunder which further suggests that something bad might be about to happen. The setting also suggests that there will be no witnesses to what is occurring. Something which leaves the reader to believe that Jess and the medical students will get away with their actions. Which they do. Henry’s world of silence around him also suggests that Henry not only accepts the position he finds himself in but that he may not have anyone to rescue him. A point that is lost on Henry who falls asleep rather than panic. The reaction of the students compared to Jess not only suggests that they are afraid but that they are inexperienced.
The end of the story is interesting as Bierce highlights just how determined Jess is to get his money. He has killed Henry with his spade and brought the body to the college in order for the two students to pay him. When seeing the body lying on the table the students appear to be shocked. Unlike Jess who has remained calm throughout the story. Again this suggests that Henry’s body may not be the first that Jess has dug up. Though it is not mentioned how the two students came to hire Jess it is possible that he is known locally or in the appropriate circles as someone who can get a body from the graveyard. He does after all say he knows every soul that is buried in the cemetery. It is also possible that Bierce throughout the story is shining a spotlight on the medical profession. Who at the time the story was published were known to take bodies of the recently dead from graveyards. It may be a case that Bierce is suggesting that the medical profession know how to deal with the dead, something that both students appear to be able to do when they think Henry is dead, but are ironically unable to deal with the living. Something one would expect a doctor to be able to do.