Short Story #340: The Man Overboard by Ambrose Bierce

Title:  The Man Overboard

Author: Ambrose Bierce


Book cover: Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

The narrator explains that he was on the Nuppleduck reading, when Captain Abersouth (that same captain) poked his on deck to figure out what was going on.  The narrator responded to what was going on with the story and not with the boat.  The boat promptly sinks.  The narrator calls for another ship and joins them, wanting passage to get to Tottenham Court Road wherein he aunt lived.  On this ship, a tension arises between the steersman and the passengers about the direction.  The decision is brought to Captain Troutbeck, who is spineless.  When the issue is resolved they return to the steersman and passengers to find that the threat of the looming horizon has changed as a result of the narrator resetting the course towards Tottenham Court Road during the argument between the steersman and passengers.  The narrator returns to the point from which he was originally picked up and they notice the debris from his original ship.  The lookout spots something but is entirely incapable of communicating it when he comes down from the crow's nest. After they remove the obstruction from his throat, he says that a man went overboard.  Everyone runs to the deck and begins to throw things overboard as a means for the man to grab something.  People, including the narrator go overboard in throwing everything over including lifeboats and such.  In the role call afterward to determine who was missing, they discover everyone is fine.  The narrator admits that he also threw over the log-book and that they needed to come up with a story that would explain the loss of cargo and such.  The narrator proposes that someone must actually be thrown over to save face.  They decide to throw the captain over and toss him.  Here, the narrator explains that he didn't cast the log book over but has made amendments to it.  However, those amendments the narrator also explains were made that the behest and force of the chief officer who sends the narrator overboard after he has ascribed them.  In the water, he notices a bit of wreckage and realizes it is a raft carrying Captain Abersouth who is reading.  The narrator is not entirely welcomed on the raft because of his poor literary choice.   However, the conversation begins to turn strangely.  Captain Abersouth discusses the events of the "story" the narrator is telling and then delves into two previous stories The Captain of the "Camel" and a "Shipwreckollection."  He comments that the narrator always had him dying while the narrator escaped to live.  Acknowledging this, the narrator threw him off the raft and lives for another day.


This story got strange at the end in a very meta-fictional way.  It's interesting to see how Bierce built it up over the previous two stories and it has me wondering what he was trying to do and was this a fully-finished work.  Though some of the previous stories border on meta-fiction or at least fiction that is self-mocking the contrivances of fiction, this is the first one that is self-aware fiction.  It was quite a surprise to encounter from Bierce.

Short Story #340 out of 365
Rating: 4 (out of 5 stars)
Date Read: 11/01/2014
Source:  The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, compiled by Ernest Jerome Hopkins.  Bison Books, 1984.  The full works of Ambrose Bierce, including this story can be found here on

For a full listing of all the short stories in this series, check out the category 365 Short Stories a year.

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