‘The Boarded Window’ is a story by the American author Ambrose Bierce, who is also remembered for his witty The Devil’s Dictionary and for his mysterious disappearance in around 1914. Like many of Bierce’s tales, ‘The Boarded Window’ contains elements of the horror genre. The story is about a man living in a cabin in the woods in Ohio. When his wife dies, he falls asleep after preparing her body for burial, only to discover a terrifying intruder making off with it.
You can read ‘The Boarded Window’ here before reading on to our summary and analysis of Bierce’s story below.
‘The Boarded Window’: plot summary
The main incident in the story takes place in 1830. The narrator tells us about a man named Murlock who lived alone in his cabin in the forest in Ohio, a few miles from the city of Cincinnati, in an area populated by people of the frontier. Although Murlock was only around fifty years old, he looked twenty years older. One day, he was found dead in his cabin and was buried near the cabin next to his wife. The narrator tells us that the area is said to be haunted by a ghost.
The narrator then tells us a story about Murlock and his wife which the narrator’s grandfather had told him. Some years before, Murlock’s wife fell ill and died, and Murlock set about preparing his wife’s body for burial. After preparing everything, he grew weary and fell asleep, only to be woken up by a ‘long, wailing sound’ coming through the open window of the cabin: a noise which sounded ‘like the cry of a lost child’. However, Murlock seemed unaware of whether the sound was really there or if he had dreamed it.
When he awoke, there was something in the room with him, a ‘black darkness’. The table shook and Murlock heard the sound of bare feet upon the floor of the cabin. When he recovered his senses, Murlock realised that his wife’s body was gone from the table where he had laid it out for burial, and he saw a panther dragging his wife’s body out through the window.
Firing his rifle, he managed to scare the animal off, and saw his wife’s neck had bled where the panther bit it. She was not dead after all, at least not before the panther attacked her. In his wife’s teeth was part of one of the animal’s ears.
‘The Boarded Window’: analysis
Perhaps the most obvious precursor to ‘The Boarded Window’ is Edgar Allan Poe’s 1844 short story ‘The Premature Burial’, which tells of a wealthy and beautiful young Frenchwoman who married a banker even though her heart lay with a young journalist named Julien. After several years of ill-treatment at the hands of her husband, Victorine was thought to have died, and was buried although she was, in fact,
still alive. She was only rescued because Julien raided her grave in the hope of cutting off some of her beautiful hair as a keepsake. Another important influence was probably Poe’s other premature-burial story, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, in which Roderick Usher inters his twin sister in the tomb when she is, in fact, still alive.
Meanwhile, the story’s woodland setting among frontiersmen recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne more than Poe, and the sense that there are dark and sinister forces present in the surrounding forest and that attempts to make such an area of wild land civilised and settled will end in failure.
A key question to consider in any analysis of ‘The Boarded Window’ is what the boarded window of the story’s title represents. Is this a symbol of Murlock’s own wish to shut out the outside world and incarcerate himself within his secluded cabin? (Isolation is obviously a key theme of this story.) As the only window in the cabin, it is a powerful visual sign of his willingness to shut himself away from the world, and keep the world out from his own, interior world, following his wife’s death (that is, her actual death; obviously when he mistakenly believes she has died, the window is still open and that is how the panther gets in to kill her).
The most logical reason why Murlock boards up this window is to keep out such beasts of the woods as the panther, in case it comes back for him next time (or a similar animal is attracted to his cabin). But the window works well as a symbol of the closing-in of Murlock’s world in the wake of the terrible event involving the death of his wife: having been ‘young, strong and full of hope’ at the time of his marriage, intent on building a farm, he becomes a secluded and solitary individual who looks far older than he actually was. The pioneer has become a recluse.
One of the most fascinating aspects of ‘The Boarded Window’ is Bierce’s depiction of Murlock, or rather, his narrator’s depiction of Murlock. For one of the sleights-of-hand Bierce performs in this story is convincing us that what is being offered as conjecture is being reported as fact. Having told us that he intends to ‘sketch in’ some of the missing details from his grandfather’s account of Murlock’s life, the narrator then cheerily provides imagined details, putting specific dialogue into Murlock’s mouth and speculating on the man’s emotions: such as when he suggests that Murlock was incapable of tears when his wife ‘dies’, telling himself that he will cry once he has finished preparing the body for the grave.
‘The Boarded Window’ is, then, not just a cleverly wrought Gothic tale with a shocking denouement, but a cunning narrative in which the hand-me-down framing of the story (a narrator reporting what he learned from his grandfather about Murlock, and then gleefully embellishing it, can hardly be considered omniscient, or even reliable), which is so common in the American short story tradition (consider Mark Twain’s early tales), invites us to question what is fact and what is pure speculation. ‘The Boarded Window’ is itself a boarded window of sorts: offering a potential way inside for those persistent enough, but remaining opaque from the outside.