Bierce’s most famous ghost story has all the hallmarks of a typical supernatural tale from his pen: it is broken into multiple sections, beginning in media res, tells a confusing story from different points of view (allowing clarity to come only after all sides are given a chance to present their impressions), and details acts of craven violence between seemingly devoted family members. The story borrows heavily from Edgar Allan Poe, especially the second chapter, and uses tropes common to Poe’s murder tales (particularly “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Imp of the Perverse”).
Yet another story about the violence which love can inspire (cf. “Brownville,” “Middle-Toe,” “Vine on a House,” “Eyes of the Panther,” etc.), its description of one haunting from three different perspectives has made it a timeless classic of the genre and one of the more influential ghost stories in American literature. What has made it so prominent is its treatment of perspective: we will learn by reading each of the three reports that each witness held one vital key to understanding what has happened, and that each lacks one important key which the others have.
The contemporaneous psychologist (and brother to Henry James) William James once commented that “it is not so much the truth of events that matters, but how they are perceived, and the difference that they make to the perceiver.” Such is the case here, where the victim of a murder is unaware of who killed her, making her loving appeal to her murderer misguided, while the killer is unaware of her ignorance, mistaking her open arms of love as reaching arms of vengeance. Finally, the first observer, offspring of the killer and his victim, is unaware that any such haunting has taken place, and is perhaps the most in-the-dark of any of them.
What follows is a classic study of dramatic irony (wherein the readers are aware of things which are not known to the characters), the power of perception to shape reality, and the subjectivity of the human conscience.
The story is told in three parts, from three different points of view – each from a different member of the Hetman family of Nashville, Tennessee. The first part comes from the Hetmans’ grown son, Joel Jr., who describes the horrible story of how he learned about his mother’s murder while he was away at school.
Rushing home from Yale, he reunites with his father who informs him that he had come home at night to find Julia Hetman dead in their bedroom, with the bruises of strangulation around her crushed neck. The servants deny having heard anything, and although Joel Sr. claims to have heard someone slipping out the backdoor at the moment he arrived home, no sign of the murderer is ever found. Joel Jr. decides stay home with his father – who has become a “nervous wreck” – to help him cope with the loss.
One night, months later, both men are returning home on foot, approaching their moon-drenched homestead, which lies swaddled amongst shadowy trees on the outskirts of Nashville. The road ahead of them glows ghostly white before disappearing into the lightless shadow of their house. Suddenly, Joel Sr. stops in his tracks and stares at some invisible thing, calling it to his son’s attention. Joel Jr. sees nothing, but his father backs away. Joel Jr. feels a strange, chilly air moving around his face and hair, and notices a light turning on in the upstairs window of their house as a servant is aroused from his sleep. In the meantime, he realizes that his father has run off into the woods. He never sees him again.
The second part of the story is a statement from Joel Sr., who recounts his miserable life spent on the run from his own guilty conscience. He tells of a dream where he suspected his wife of infidelity and unexpectedly came home early from a business trip only to catch sight of a strange man stealing away from his house. He bursts into their bedroom to find his wife cowering in terror, and strangles her to death. He tells of yet another dream where he encountered his wife’s ghost in the middle of a moonlit road, with the strangulation marks still livid on her throat.
The third and final part is a transcription done by a medium of a message from Julia Hetman herself. She tells of how she was awoken from her sleep one night by a series of frightening noises, and began to fear that she was about to be attacked by some creature of the night. Terrified, she cowers in the corner, only for a man to burst into the room and throttle her to death. She never saw his face, and her next memory was of desperately trying to make contact with her family (she watches them sleep and peers in on them, but they never see her back).
One dark night, she sees her son and husband sadly walking down a moonlit road, and is stunned when her husband finally makes eye contact with her and his face charges with recognition. Thrilled, she smiles and approaches him with arms outflung, but his face blanches in terror. She was never able to find him again, and she mournfully states that her attempts to reveal herself to her son have been unsuccessful, and she knows that he, too, will die soon and be lost to her forever.
Like so many of Poe’s tales and poems, “The Moonlit Road” provides a brutally cynical depiction of human psychology, the afterlife, and the selfishness of love. The first chapter shares much with “The Raven,” “Lenore,” “Ulalume,” “Annabel Lee,” and “The Bells,” all of which describe an introspective man’s youthful happiness, how that happiness was checked by death, and how his middle age has been consumed by thoughts of his jaded innocence.
Like these poems, “The Moonlit Road” opens with Joel Jr. lamenting the loss of his parents as a mystery which death forbids him to understand and prevents him from finding closure. The second chapter shares more in common with Poe’s murder stories, particularly “The Black Cat,” “The House of Usher,” “William Wilson,” “Metzengerstein,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Imp of the Perverse,” all of which describe a mind hounded by guilt, its struggle to repress its conscience, and its ultimate surrender to spiritual terror. The description of Joel Sr.’s neurotic motive, smug planning, brutal murder of a terrified victim, and gradual self-destruction mimic these psychological thrillers.
The final chapter – told by the medium Bayrolles, who will also return in “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” – has much in common with Poe’s philosophical stories “Shadow,” “Silence,” and “The Premature Burial,” which discuss existential encounters with Death and the mutability of all things. Overall there are also clear parallels with Poe’s tales of dying women whose fates (or resurrections) haunt the men who share some responsibility for their spiritual isolation: “The Oval Portrait,” “Morella,” “Ligeia,” “Berenice,” “The Oblong Box,” etc.
Using many of these tropes, Bierce makes the story his own by investigating the hypocritical selfishness of love, the ironic horror of the afterlife (so desired by so many, he depicts it as a zone of hellish isolation rather than a paradise of purifying reunion), and the unfairness of life. Even Poe was likely to use the supernatural to propagate justice (the villains of his stories are often goaded into confessions by ambiguous hauntings), but Bierce leaves his ghost helplessly stranded in Purgatory, his villain relieved from guilt by suicide, and his innocent bystander hopelessly in the dark.
Life, he suggests, (and the afterlife) are disappointing, cruel, and unsatisfying, and there is little that we can do – during life or after death – to make healthy and nourishing relationships with each other.