The Crimson Candle Comparison

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Both versions of ‘‘The Crimson Candle’’ fit the rhetorical definition of narrative, since both involve a teller and an audience, a progression by instability (each husband seeks the promise, each wife gives it, and each fulfills it in her different way) and a series of developing responses by the audience. But Bierce’s version has a higher degree of narrativity. What is striking to me, however, is that this difference is not simply because Bierce’s version introduces a more substantial instability and resolves it with more ingenuity. The higher degree of narrativity in Bierce’s version is also tied to two more substantial sets of judgments: one set made by the characters and the other set made by the audience. Furthermore, and this is my most…show more content…
This point brings me to my second thesis. Thesis two: readers make three main types of narrative judgment, each of which has the potential to overlap with or affect the other two: interpretive judgments about the nature of actions or other elements of the narrative, ethical judgments about the moral value of characters and actions, and aesthetic judgments about the artistic quality of the narrative and of its parts. In Bierce’s version of ‘‘The Crimson Candle,’’ for example, the man and the woman make different interpretive judgments about the nature of the commitment entailed by the wife’s oath, and these interpretive judgments overlap with ethical ones. In fact, their interpretive judgments are about the ethical obligation the wife incurs with her sworn promise. The husband assumes that her promise binds her to remain unmarried indefinitely. The wife finds a loophole in the language, one that allows her to fulfill the letter of the promise at the funeral and then be liberated from it. We readers…show more content…
We may or may not decide that the loophole is technically valid – that is, whether she is fulfilling the promise in a legalistic sense or simply manipulating it for her own ends – but our negative ethical judgment of the husband allows us to leave this question open without detracting from the effect of the story. The woman’s acting out her release from the promise during the husband’s funeral is also a telling commentary on her view of this promise and, we are invited to extrapolate, of the marriage itself. Indeed, the inferences packed into the final sentence are so many that we can’t help moving from the wife’s manipulation of the promise back to Bierce’s management of the narrative. And that move brings me to thesis four. Thesis four: ethical judgments in narrative include not only the ones we make about the characters and their actions but also those we make about the ethics of storytelling itself, especially the ethics of the implied author’s relation to the narrator, the characters, and the audience. Let’s start with Bierce’s relation to the narrator. While narrators typically

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