Morality of Protagonists in Twain’s and Bierce’s Books

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Morality of the Protagonists of “A Dog’s Tail” by Mark Twain and “A Horseman in the Sky” by Ambrose Bierce: A Compare and Contrast paper

            Short stories are perhaps the form of literature that has the widest readership. It is a form of literature that is economical on words making it a short and enjoyable read. The greatest irony of short stories is that it would often times lead the readers thinking about the narrative and its message for a long period of time. Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce are among the legendary figures of the short story genre. Their works had been read worldwide and had been a staple learning material for literature classes. Some of their best known works are “A Dog’s Tail” by Mark Twain; and “A Horseman in the Sky” by Ambrose Bierce. To juxtapose these masterpieces would be interesting, not just because of the legendary status of their authors, but because of the stories’ choice of protagonist. In “A Dog’s Tail”, a dog shares the readers its life from its own point of view. In Ambrose Bierce’s “A Horseman in the Sky”, the protagonist was a young soldier from the American Civil War. Moreover, it is very ironic that when these protagonists are put side by side, the reader could notice that the dog has much more moral ideals than the young soldier.

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Summary of the two texts

            Before we traverse further on this discussion, it would be helpful to recap the texts for those who had the chance to read them or provide a summary for those who haven’t read the text. A summary would provide us a much needed trajectory during the comparing and the contrasting of the selected texts.

The story of “A Horseman in the Sky” was about harsh realities about war. In Virginia, a young man named Carter Drues was residing with his parents. When the American Civil War has broken out, Carter had decided to join in the war as a soldier of the Union Army. His fahter’s response to his decision was a cross between disapproval and approval “go sir and whatever may occur do what you conceive to be your duty…” Then the harsh part comes in “Virginia to which you are a traitor must get on without you” A foreshadowing line closes the dialogue “should we both live to end of the war we will speak further of the matter” (Bierce 28). Although ti sounds like Carter’s father does not care, the reader could feel the tension in that scene. It would also be revealed that Carter’s mother on has a few more weeks to live. Before Carter had left the scene, he ironically saluted his father then had set off to join the Union Army.

            During the war, Carter was assigned as a sentinel for the Union Army. He was assigned a minor mission of going at the top of a hill to evaluate the safety of their position and search for a road to the south. He was also given a shoot-to-kill order if he may encounter any threats along the way. In the course of his climb, from a distance he spots a horseman atop the hill, so he loads up his rifle. Just when he was about to shoot, he recognizes the face of the horseman atop the hill, it was his father. He was put under a heavy morel dilemma. Then what his father had said in the early part of the story had echoed through his mind “…whatever may occur do what you conceive to be your duty” (Bierce 28). His conscience was clamed, then the pulls the trigger.

            On the other hand, Twain’s “A Dog’s Tail” was a story of a lighter tone. The story was told in the perspective of a loyal female dog. This was shown through the first line of the story “my father was a st. Bernard my mother was a collie…” But the dog considers herself belonging to a human classification “…but I am a Presbyterian” (Twain 1) The first part of the was a depiction when the dog was still a puppy.  During her young life as a puppy, she was separated from her mother. The protagonist was sold as a pet, she and her mother’s heart were broken, they cried and said their farewells. As a puppy, she could not find an explanation to her separation to her mother.

            Later in the story, her owner had a baby, and so did she, in her case a puppy. The plot complicates when a fire has broken in the room where the human baby was located. She tried desperately to save the human child from the fire. She had managed to drag the human baby out of harm. But her master was unaware of the fire, her master taught she was hurting the baby. She was beaten brutally with a cane by her master. But when her master realizes the truth behind the situation, the master had stopped beating her, but she had received praise for her valiant efforts much later no in the narrative.

            During the culminating part of the story, her master and some visitors were performing some kind of experimentation. The experiment involves her puppy and for that she felt great honour “feeling proud for any attention shown to the puppy was a pleasure to me [her]” (Twain) Then the master and the visitors walked to the laboratory carrying her puppy. Then a shriek was heard, her puppy was bloodied and dying, then her master had clapped his hands in expression of delight of some kind of accomplishment.

            Only a servant had empathized with what had transpired “poor doggie you saved his child” (Twain) the story would end as the protagonist was in deep sorrow and it has been implied that she would stay in that miserable state until she herself dies.

The protagonists’ morality

            It is noticeable that both stories discuss morality as a major theme. Both endings of the stories involve moral predicaments that forces the protagonists to a decision that could just be either moral or not. The dog, although it was only suggested, to make a decision of whether to hold grievances against the murderers of a loved one. On the other hand, the young soldier was lead to make a heavy decision of whether to be the murderer of a loved one. With this comparison, it appears that the dog surpasses the young soldier in terms of morality.

To further explore the morality levels of the protagonists, it is essential to take into consideration the concept of conscience. That is because conscience would provide us a better idea of what lead the protagonists they way they did. A discussion of the protagonists’ conscience would also enable us to infer about what are running in the back of their minds during their actions.

The dog’s mode of thinking is parallel to the common notion that dogs are man’s best friend. But in the comparison between the dog and the young soldier, his mode of thinking was a common trait for soldiers. The mentality of soldiers seems to be robotic in nature especially with regards to the principles and orders of a military organization. The mode of thinking of the young soldier was to follow orders no matter what. As in the case of “A Horseman in the Sky”, the echoing line of Carter’s father “…whatever may occur do what you conceive to be your duty” had lead to the tragic murder of a loved one (Bierce) The ending tells us much about the young soldiers’ conscience and mode of thinking. The young soldier’s firing of his rifle towards his own father tells us that the young soldiers’ conscience was governed by his assignment. It appears that the weight of following orders is heavier for the young soldier than the weight of having to kill one’s own father.

In the text of “A Dog’s Tail”, the dog has saved her master’s baby from the fire in the nursery. That is along with the wishful thinking that her master would be pleased. The dog’s mode of thinking works well with Twain’s characterization of her character as a loyal dog. Her mode of thinking even appears to have taken an auto-pilot mode when her master’s baby safety was jeopardized “…before I could think I sprang to the floor in fright and in a second was halfway to the door…” (Twain) The dog was scared of the situation, but something had lead her to saving the master’s baby. It was her conscience that was influenced by the memory of her separation with her mother “…but in the next half second my mother’s farewell was sounding in my ears” (Twain) She did not want the master and the master’s baby to feel what she had felt: the painful separation from a loved one. This event tells us that the dog’s conscience is having a more emphatic nature. That again is in opposition with the young soldier’s robotic and controllable conscience.

We could observe that the dog had mulled over the death of a loved one. That is in opposition to the young soldier whose emotion was sounder during the ending. Both of the protagonists were following certain moral codes as a guide to their way of living. The dog appears to value the concept of family and loved ones. That is in contrast to the young soldier’s lack of regard for the concept of family and loved ones. An evidence to prove that there exists a significant difference between the protagonists’ concept of family and loved ones is the nature of their separation with a loved one.

The dog was forced to be separated from her mother because she was sold as a pet. The dog’s separation with her puppy also appears that it was beyond her control. It is beyond her control because she had thought that she could please her master and pleasing her master was one of her major concerns.

On the other hand, the young soldier’s separation with his family could have been avoided. It was the young soldier’s pursuit of militaristic ideals that had caused his separation with his family and a rift in his relationship with his father. But the ultimate evidence for the young soldier’s lack of regard for the concept of family and loved ones is very evident in the ending. An individual who values the concept of family and loved ones would not pull the trigger on one’s own flesh and blood just because one is ordered to do so.

In this juxtaposition of the two protagonists, we could safely say that the animal puts more importance to family and loved ones—significantly—than human being.


            It is common for both of the protagonists to be bound in some form of duty. And both the dog and the young soldier had religiously followed their duties. This is more obvious in the case of the young soldier whose primary duty is to follow each and every order of his commanding officers. He was ordered by his officer to shoot any threat that he might encounter. It is just fateful that he had encountered his father and had shot him. The call of duty was more resonant in the young soldier’s conscience more than flesh and blood as expressed by this line “duty had conquered the spirit had said to the body: please be still” After saying that, the young soldier had brought down his own father (Bierce).

            It is also important to take into consideration the common notion that soldiers are always governed by duty. This characterisation of soldiers is common in other literary works. In a sense, soldiers are considered the epitome of duty.

            The duty of the dog is rather vaguely defined in contrast to the duty of the young soldier, but the duty still exists. The duty of the dog is subtly suggested by her actions. The dog saving the master’s baby suggests that the dog’s duty was to keep her masters safe. This particular duty is commonly attributed to the image of dogs. Dogs are commonly considered to be much more than mere pet, they can also be considered as guards of a human home.

            But ultimately, the main duty of the dog in the narrative was to please her master. When her master had brought her puppy to the laboratory to perform some inhumane experiments , she even felt a mixture of delight and honour “feeling proud for any attention shown to the puppy was a pleasure to me [her]” (Twain). And since it was her primary duty to please her masters, she did not hold grievances against her master when he brutally beat her after saving her master’s baby. But more significantly, even after her puppy’s life was taken away by her master’s arguably immoral experiments.

            In a loose sense, it is similar between the two protagonists have a duty to please somebody. The dog wanted to please her master while the young soldier wanted to please his officer.

Other literature in support of this paper’s argument

            The trajectory of the discussion of this paper owes much from the works of Immanuel Kant. In relation to his works, what had lead the dog to save the master’s baby was to act out of inclination. According to him, to act out of inclination means to perform something with the consideration that it could make you feel good and it could provide you something of a personal gain. It is understandable for the dog to always seek the attention and approval of his master. That is because that is the dog’s nature. However, Kant is more likely not to favour the actions of the young soldier.

            For Kant, his concept of duty involves a belief that there should be principles that are innate in us. And these principles should not be further questioned because they are considered good as is. The murder of the Carter’s father in the hands of his own son’s hands would definitely raise the eyebrows of Kant. That is because murder is virtually considered immoral in a universal sense. This claim would be supported by the reaction of the young soldier’s officer when he discovers that Carter had killed his own father “Good God!” (Bierce)

But it can also be argued that the action of the young soldier also follows a Kantian ideal. He had shot his father because they are enemies in that context and his father could endanger the lives of his fellow soldiers. For Kant, duty should be governed by a rational and moral choice.

Interestingly, Kant and the dog may be up for a long debate. According to Kant, morality is inherent to humans—not to nonhuman animals. But then again, the actions of the dog had disproved this notion.


            When the dog and the young soldier are juxtaposed, the morality of humans would be put into question. The result of comparing and contrasting these two protagonists is almost undeniable, the animal has more morality than the human. The dog had shown a deeper relationship with her conscience while the young soldier had displayed that he is lacking conscience.

            Moreover, the elements of war in “A Horseman in the Sky” and the animal experimentation in “A Dog’s Tail” certainly put humans on the losing side in the discussion of morality. Both stories include instances of death of a loved one, both are also by murder. But in the stories respective endings, the protagonists had varying response to the very immoral act of murder. The dog was brought into deep sorrow by the death of his puppy, while the soldier felt alright with the death of his father—by his own hands. It appears that the animal had acted more humane than the human.

Works Cited

Bierce, Ambrose. A Horseman in the Sky. Retrieved 22 April 2008


Budd, Louis. Mark Twain: The Contemporary Reviews (American Critical Archives). CA:

Cambridge University Press. 1999

Quirk, Tom. Mark Twain and Human Nature (Mark Twain and His Circle Series) (Mark Twain

and His Circle Series). Missouri: University of Missouri Press. 2007

Stratton-Lake, Philip. Kant, Duty and Moral Worth. NY: Taylor & Francis. 2007

Twain, Mark. A Dog’s Tail. Retrieved 22 April 2008



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Morality of Protagonists in Twain’s and Bierce’s Books. (2016, Sep 08). Retrieved from

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