Ambrose Bierce's The Boarded Window: A Two-Minute Summary and a Literary Analysis
Perhaps Bierce’s most anthologized horror story, “The Boarded Window” has remained a staple of American Gothicism since its publication, though with little commentary. As with so many of his stories, the payoff comes from a twist ending and a moment of dramatic irony, yet little has been said about it other than to say that it merits the attention of high school students because it has a great ending. I have always felt that the story held a certain archetypal potency – that it spoke to readers silently about something unwholesome and unspeakable – since there is an electric energy about its woeful narrative.
Like so many of his stories it involves the death of a wife, and explores the psychology of grief in a surprisingly sophisticated way (coming as it does from a 19th century man). But there is something deeper to it than a gruesome mistake, something more powerful than the frightening results of a premature diagnosis of death. Of all the spousal deaths in Bierce’s opus, this one is perhaps the most disturbing, because it results not from malice or rage or jealousy, nor is it an assertive act of murder or an impulsive assault or willful drive to suicide. Its origins are in the dark, surrounding forests of the unconscious mind.
An exemplary Ambrose Bierce tale, this one involves an ill-fated marriage and an act of shocking violence taking place in the dark and wild American woodlands. It starts years after the event in question, when a miserable old hermit named Murlock is found dead in his cabin. The building is unique because its window had been inexplicably boarded up many years ago after his wife’s death, and the story behind it is the cause of controversy. After he is buried in the woods next to his wife, most people agree that the truth will never be discovered, but the narrator volunteers the whispered rumors about why Murlock boarded up his cabin window.
When he was a young newlywed, he brought his pretty wife with him to settle the wilds just outside of the then-frontier river town of Cincinnati, and built a cabin surrounded by rich forestland filled with game to be hunted and predators to be feared, alike. While they seemed to have a generally healthy marriage, the woods does strange things to couples.
One day he returned from a hunting trip to find her struck down with a raging fever, and although he tried to nurse her back to health, she wasted and sweated away on her death bed in their woodland cabin. Finally, she died in a fit, and – wishing her to have a dignified funeral – he bound her hands, feet, and jaws to prevent her from contorting with rigor mortis.
Murlock loved his wife, though perhaps not ardently or expressively, and processes his sorrow with a quiet weariness that, as Bierce notes, can be read with ambiguity as all grief is different: "Grief is an artist of powers as various as the instruments upon which he plays his dirges for the dead, evoking from some the sharpest, shrillest notes, from others the low, grave chords that throb recurrent like the slow beating of a distant drum. Some natures it startles; some it stupefies. To one it comes like the stroke of an arrow, stinging all the sensibilities to a keener life; to another as the blow of a bludgeon, which in crushing benumbs."
"We may conceive Murlock to have been that way affected, for (and here we are upon surer ground than that of conjecture) no sooner had he finished his pious work than, sinking into a chair by the side of the table upon which the body lay, and noting how white the profile showed in the deepening gloom, he laid his arms upon the table’s edge, and dropped his face into them, tearless yet and unutterably weary."
Sitting there, beside the cold body, as night falls and the forest swells with the brittle music of insects and creeping animals, he falls asleep. However, “at that moment,” Bierce writes, there “came in through the open window a long, wailing sound like the cry of a lost child in the far deeps of the darkening wood! But the man did not move. Again, and nearer than before, sounded that unearthly cry upon his failing sense. Perhaps it was a wild beast; perhaps it was a dream. For Murlock was asleep.”
Murlock is jolted out of his primeval dreamland by a sudden crash and rattle. He stares at the window before him, but can see hardly anything out of the dusky pane. What he does know is that the table his wife’s corpse was on has been knocked over by some struggling Thing, and that this silent, animalistic presence is moving around in the room. Murlock – it is implied – fears that his wife has returned from the dead and is creeping towards him. Desperate for light, he grabs his nearby flintlock rifle and discharges it in the vicinity of the rustling.
The flashing powder briefly illuminates the scene: to his horror, he sees his wife’s body being viciously throttled by a panther (or mountain lion) which had grabbed her by the throat and is in the process of tearing it out. At this sight, Murlock loses consciousness. In the morning he is awoken by bird songs and fearfully looks up to find his wife’s corpse:
“The body lay near the window, where the beast had left it when frightened away by the flash and report of the rifle. The clothing was deranged, the long hair in disorder, the limbs lay anyhow. From the throat, dreadfully lacerated, had issued a pool of blood not yet entirely coagulated. The ribbon with which he had bound the wrists was broken; the hands were tightly clenched. Between the teeth was a fragment of the animal’s ear…”
Before we delve into the subtext of “The Boarded Window,” we should discuss the influences that so obviously shaped this story. Hawthorne and Poe, two of America’s leading horror writers, had a substantial hand in its plot about a rural hermit whose mistaken interment of his wife leads to her unnecessary death.
Hawthorne provides the setting and the philosophy, while Poe offers us the characters and the psychology. In many of Hawthorne’s most famous stories he critiques the American drive to depart society and fashion a unique paradise in the wilderness – an urge that drove his Puritan forefathers to New England’s brutal forests. “The Scarlet Letter,” “The Burial of Roger Malvin,” “Young Goodman Brown,” and many others use the forest as a symbol of the unconscious mind, and equate settlement of the wilderness to a dangerous practice of self-absorption. Those who abandon the security and company of mankind for the freedom of the forest in Hawthorne’s stories are likely to find themselves confronted with monsters of their own minds, and are made to regret their individualism. Hawthorne’s basic philosophy distrusts the optimism of individuals as misguided, and favors the stability and support of human communities.
Poe’s tales naturally provided the motif of the premature burial: stories like “The House of Usher,” “Berenice,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Black Cat,” and – of course – “The Premature Burial” involve the conscious or unconscious interment of a living person or animal, either as an act of murder or due to the disguise of epilepsy (or in Roderick Usher’s case, both). These stories use premature burial as a metaphor for repression and denial. Mrs. Murlock’s seeming resurrection –which is heard but not seen – recalls the telltale sounds of Madeline Usher’s progress from her coffin, vault, and crypt, up the stairs to kill her brother, while the horrifying discovery of a violated grave and a mutilated woman call to mind the dental horror story “Berenice.”
So what is going on in “The Boarded Window”? For one thing, the story’s title underscores the importance of this opening as a motif. It represents the channel between the conscious and unconscious minds, through which the monsters of the forest (the dark thoughts of the unconscious) can access the physical world of the conscious. Murlock’s boarding over of it may at first seem like a simple defense against further panthers. But this is too simple for Bierce: it isn’t boarded over to keep out animals of the forest, but animals of the mind.
Bierce explores the psychology of grief at the story’s midpoint, admitting that people grieve differently: some desperately as if shot by a sharp arrow, others numbly as if bludgeoned by a club. This provides Murlock’s tearless response the benefit of the doubt, but as in so many of Poe’s stories of marital death (cf. “Ligeia,” “Morella,” “Black Cat,” “Berenice”), there seems to be something untoward and unspoken about his reaction – relief. Although we know nothing of their relationship, Murlock seems to be fairly comfortable with being allowed to be utterly alone and independent in the enabling freedom of the forest (see: Hawthorne). As he falls asleep he hears the childlike screech of a mountain lion calling from the impenetrable woods.
While a basic reading of the story would consider this mere foreshadowing, I think it is meant to hint that Murlock is hearing the celebrations of his animal self as it comes closer to being realized (i.e., entering the cabin through the window – symbolically arriving at consciousness in his mind). His trussing up of the corpse is said to have been hasty, overdone, and messy, and we can read this as meaning that he bound her wrists and ankles a little tighter than necessary, symbolizing his need to restrain her from returning – to keep her dead.
When he first hears the sound of the panther prowling the cabin, he mistakes it for his wife’s resurrected body standing up and casting off her binds. His reaction is not to embrace her or rejoice, but to seize his rifle and blindly fire it. When he sees the panther gripping her body by the throat, he is forced to recognize his own repressed animalism and his own denied contentment with her death. It is this sudden realization that causes him to blackout at that moment and to board up the window shortly after.
Like in “Eyes of the Panther,” the mountain lion is used as a metaphor for mankind’s animal nature – which calls soothingly to Murlock in the night as he dreams over his wife’s corpse, and comes as if summoned to stifle her once and for all as soon as she shows signs of revival. After this he gives up on cultivating his land, letting the fields return to saplings and the cabin decay into disrepair: Murlo