“A Horseman in the Sky” by Ambrose Bierce tells of a young man of Virginia who goes off to join the Union in the Civil War. He tells his father who is mildly disappointed and tells him if they both survive they will speak again at the end of the war. The young man has fallen asleep at his post and awakes to see a man sitting proudly on a horse. He must make the decision whether or not to shoot the man. Eventually he shoots the man’s horse. The man who sat enraptured by a horseman in the sky is the young man’s father.
This piece shows how to deliver a surprising final scene with poise and subtlety. The author leads the reader along and uses flowery language to its fullest extent. His descriptions of the unnamed father provide all the information needed and by not naming him, the reader could extend the metaphor to the Civil War as a whole. Brothers killing brothers and fathers killing sons. In this case, however, the son has killed his father, making him fall off the cliff. The author doesn’t reveal the identity of the man on the horse until the end. I’d love to emulate this author’s use of symbolism in my writing, as he does it with such aplomb and subtlety that one simply doesn’t know what is happening until it reaches the end. I find it fascinating that the author chose to have Carter shoot the horse not the father.
- Why did Carter shoot the horse?
- Why did Carter shoot his father?
- What do you think the horseman in the sky symbolizes, if anything?
- Discuss how a single event, Carter waking up in this case, can change everything?
- What do you think would’ve happened if Carter hadn’t shot his father?