The double motif in the short stories of Ambrose Bierce

Stephen Damian Nacco, Fordham University


One of the most fascinating aspects of Ambrose Bierce's short stories is the appearance of the double motif or doppelganger. Some of Bierce's stories apply traditional types of doubles, such as manifest doubles (in "One of Twins" and "The Mocking-Bird") and nonhuman doubles ("Moxon's Master"). However, what makes Bierce an original among doppelganger writers is that he accounts for the existence of doubles scientifically. With his doubles based broadly on nineteenth century theories of evolution, Bierce subscribes to a unique, pessimistic version of Herbert Spencer's theory that all human emotional patterns are inheritable. That is, as expressed in his essay "That Ancestral Bond," Bierce adopts an essentially deterministic view of human heritage. Flawed heredity shapes human psychology. Primitive emotions, rather than will and reason, dictate all human actions. Throughout his Civil War and supernatural fiction, Bierce's doubles illustrate the failure of modern humankind to divest itself of its primitive instincts. The second self is a reflection of the inherent flaws of heredity. Many of Bierce's Civil War and supernatural stories capture characters who react with instinctual terror or superstition when faced with the prospect of their own extinction. In stories like "A Holy Terror" and "A Watcher by the Dead," doubles serve as harbingers of death--physical manifestations of these superstitious and irrational fears. Ancestral doubles can also form a sympathetic relationship (as in "A Psychological Shipwreck") or an antagonistic one ("Parker Adderson, Philosopher"), or they could be doubles separated by several generations of time ("John Bartine's Watch"). Furthermore, a story like "The Death of Halpin Frayser" is a powerful example of how Bierce's deterministic view of human heredity combined with pre-Freudian psychology lays the groundwork for latent doubling.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Nacco, Stephen Damian, "The double motif in the short stories of Ambrose Bierce" (1991). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9118840.