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The Haunted Valley by Ambrose Bierce — Commentary

The Haunted Valley

Short Story by Ambrose Bierce, Commentary



“The Haunted Valley” was Ambrose Bierce’s first published story.  It appeared in 1871 in the Overland Magazine.  It deals with gender ambiguity, same sex relationships, racial bigotry, and murder in the American West.  The story is divided into two parts.  In the first part, the narrator is traveling through a remote area, presumably in California, although it doesn’t say so specifically, where he encounters Jo. Dunfer, a rancher whose most salient personal qualities seem to be his bigotry against Chinese people and his penchant for whiskey.  Dunfer launches into a narrative about taking on a Chinese man, Ah Wee, as a cook and servant five years previous.  Ah Wee and a man named Gopher assist Dunfer in felling trees for a cabin he had wished to build on a remote part of the ranch.  Ah Wee is incompetent at felling trees and Jo Dunfer admits to killing him for this and other faults.  The narrative is disrupted at this point by a dramatic scream and Jo. Dunfer’s collapse.  Jo. Dunfer’s assistant [Gopher, although he is not named at this point] enters and the narrator briefly encounters him.  This incident is not explained in any great detail and the narrator leaves it in this ambiguous state.  He departs Jo. Dunfer’s residence in a disturbed state of mind and on his journey chances to come upon the grave of Ah Wee with this curious inscription.


Age unknown.  Worked for Jo. Dunfer.

This monument is erected by him to keep the Chink’s

memory green.  Likewise as a warning to Celestials

not to take on airs.  Devil take ’em!

She Was a Good Egg.

The choice of pronouns is an operative point.

The second part of the narrative takes place four years later when the protagonist returns to the same area.  This time he encounters Gopher, the other (white) assistant to Jo. Dunfer.  The narrator inquires about Jo. Dunfer and is informed that he is dead and in the grave beside Ah Wee.  Gopher accompanies the narrator to the grave and tells him that indeed Jo. Dunfer had killed Ah Wee, but not out of frustration with his abilities as a house servant, but out of jealousy over Ah Wee’s relationship with himself, Gopher.  One day Jo. Dunfer had caught Gopher and Ah Wee together and killed Ah Wee with an ax in a jealous rampage.  Dunfer buried Ah Wee in the grave and created the curious memorial marker.

Now comes the crucial turn on the very last page of the story which I will quote.

“When did Jo die?” I asked rather absently.  The answer took my breath:

“Pretty soon after I looked at him through that knot-hole, w’en you had put something in his w’isky, you derned Borgia!”  [referring to the narrator’s previous visit, four years prior]

Recovering somewhat from my surprise at this astounding charge, I was half-minded to throttle the audacious accuser, but was restrained by a sudden conviction that came to me in the light of a revelation.  I fixed a grave look upon him and asked, as calmly as I could:  “And when did you go luny?”

“Nine years ago!” he shrieked, throwing out his clenched hands — “nine years ago, w’en that big brute killed the woman who loved him better than she did me! — me who had followed ‘er from San Francisco, where ‘e won ‘er at draw poker! — me who had watched over ‘er for years w’en the scoundrel she belonged to was ashamed to acknowledge ‘er and treat ‘er white — me who for her sake kept ‘is cussed secret till it ate ‘im up! — me who w’en you poisoned the beast fulfilled ‘is last request to lay ‘im alongside ‘er and give ‘im a stone to the head of ‘im!  And I’ve never since seen ‘er grave till now, for I didn’t want to meet ‘im here.” (Bierce, p. 126)

I found three different commentaries on this story and I believe all three misunderstand it.  Bierce is admittedly not striving for clarity, but the story is clear if one is attuned to the possibilities of cross-gender identifications and same sex relationships.

Peter Boag (2012) in his study of cross-dressing in the American West states that “Ah’s sex is never entirely clear; feminine and masculine pronouns interchange readily right up to the story’s conclusion. . . Thus Ah Wee may have been a Chinese woman dressed as a man, or a (typically) feminized Chinese man” (p. 192)

William Wu (1982) read the story as Ah Wee being a girl whom Dunfer had won in a poker game.  Wu notes that the reader is misled through the whole story to think that Ah Wee is a man, but fails account for this misleading or to perceive the significance of the pronoun changes in the story.  Wu is focused on the racism in the story and thus misses the sexual implications that are really the crux of it, resulting in a misunderstanding of the murder and the sex triangle.  (Wu, 1982, p. 22)

Hellen Lee-Keller (2006) also tries to normalize the story in the same way as Wu.

As the tombstone indicated, Ah Wee was not, in fact, a he, but rather a she, and Dunfer killed Ah Wee in a fit of jealous rage thinking that Ah Wee and Gopher were involved in a sexual relationship.  Ultimately, Dunfer, who had fallen in love with Ah Wee over the years, fell into despair when he realized what he had done, started drinking heavily again, and grew even more anti-Chinese.

Lee-Keller follows Wu in seeing Ah Wee as female all the way through, but she doesn’t address Dunfer’s referring to Ah Wee as ‘he’ throughout, and seems to call into question that there was a sexual relationship between Gopher and Ah Wee.  In other words, she suggests that Dunfer killed Ah Wee out of misunderstanding and self-delusion.

The straightforward assumption that Ah Wee’s is a girl, won in a poker game, and subsequently killed in a sex triangle, does not make sense of the text, the shifting pronouns, and particularly the contrast between Dunfer’s and Gopher’s constructions of Ah Wee.  If you follow the shifting pronouns, there is a logic to their modulations.  They do not “interchange readily right up to the story’s conclusion,” as Boag reports.  Ah Wee is portrayed as a man by Jo. Dunfer through the whole story up until the very end of his narrative, with the exception of the curious epitaph on the tombstone.  Dunfer always referred to Ah Wee as ‘he.’  If Ah Wee were a girl, won in a poker game, why would there be any need for Jo. Dunfer to disguise her as a man, or for Ah Wee to adopt the identity of a man?  If that were the case, then it would mean that Jo. Dunfer imposed the male identity upon her out of his own psychological need for a male sexual partner.  But if that were true, why would he even take a girl home to his ranch, if what he really wanted was a boy all along?  The idea that Ah Wee was a girl straight up is untenable.  It fails to make sense of Jo. Dunfer’s referring to Ah Wee as ‘he’ throughout, and Gopher’s pronoun shift when he begins to talk about his own relationship with Ah Wee.  If you think Ah Wee was “really a she” as Lee-Keller thinks, then you have to explain why the whole story leads you to assume Ah Wee is male.   I don’t see any way to do that.  The story will simply not make sense if Ah Wee were really a female all the way through from the outset.

Alternatively, if Ah Wee were a female-to-male cross dresser, as one possibility suggested by Boag, it would mean she was presenting as a male throughout the story.  A full grown adult male would make an unlikely prize in a poker game and this raises a question mark over the whole tale about Ah Wee being a prize in a poker game.   This is Gopher’s version probably concocted to mask the fact that Ah Wee left him for Jo. Dunfer.   The poker game story is Gopher’s attempt at face saving.  Ah Wee was very likely Gopher’s lover before leaving him for Jo. Dunfer and moving to his ranch in rural California.  But was he/she male or female?

If she were a cross-dressed female-to-male, a la Alan Hart (see Boag, pp. 9-14), then you would have a female who gender identified as male becoming involved in “homosexual” relationships with two different males.  A rather convoluted  maneuver for a female to make.  This is not a realistic scenario.  I was not able to find any instance of a female who gender identified as male, who then went on to form sexual relationships with other men in her cross gender identity.  Somebody out there come forward if you have a counterexample.  There is no plausible interpretation of this story where Ah Wee is a natural female.

Gopher says that “the scoundrel she belonged to refused to acknowledge her and treat her white.”  This refusal to acknowledge her I think refers to Jo. Dunfer’s denoting Ah Wee as ‘he,’ that is, refusing to acknowledge his/her full identification as a female.  In other words, Jo. Dunfer insisted on Ah Wee’s biological gender as the proper identifier rather than accepting her psychological identification as a female.  This seemed improper and disrespectful to Gopher, and he attributed it to Dunfer’s shame and denial of his own relationship with Ah Wee, and consistent with his further maltreatment of her.  Gopher referred to Ah Wee as ‘she,’ when he was relating his own relationship to her, fully acknowledging Ah Wee’s psychological make-up.  This makes sense of the pronoun changes in the story and is consistent with the details in the narration.

The most likely scenario is that Ah Wee was a male-to-female cross-dresser, probably fully gender identified as female in the mode of Mrs. Nash recounted in Boag’s Re-dressing, Chapter 4.

Mrs. Nash was a Mexican male-to-female cross-dresser who successfully passed herself off as a woman among the U.S. Seventh Calvary in the 1870s and 80s for at least a ten year period during which she was married to three different soldiers in the Seventh.  Although it was widely known that she had a beard and shaved every day, she dressed and lived as a female, winning high praise as well as financial rewards for her skills in laundering, sewing, cooking, delivering babies, caring for infants, and witchcraft.  When she died of appendicitis it was discovered that “she had balls as big as a bull’s.  She’s a man!” (Boag, pp. 130-137)  The story became a national sensation.

I believe Ah Wee was a comparable figure to Mrs. Nash, a biological male who dressed and psychologically identified as a female.   Both Gopher and Dunfer knew Ah Wee’s “real” gender.  However, Jo. Dunfer did not recognize Ah Wee’s cross-gender identification, referring to him/her always as ‘he,’ whereas Gopher, loving Ah Wee in her cross-dressed identity, referred to her as ‘she,’ when he began talking about his own feelings for her.

The story told by Gopher of Ah Wee’s having been won in a poker game and his following her to Dunfer’s ranch suggests that the original attachment was between Ah Wee and Gopher.  Gopher was involved with Ah Wee as a cross-dresssed male-to-female.  Jo. Dunfer came between them by some means or other.   The poker winnings story seems unlikely to me.  If Gopher loved Ah Wee with the dedication that he seems to evince, why would he wager her in a poker game?  More likely is that Ah Wee fled with Dunfer to get away from Gopher.  But Gopher was a persistent, hopelessly attached lover who pursued Ah Wee to Dunfer’s ranch, got himself hired as a ranch hand by Dunfer, and continued his relationship with Ah Wee whenever possible.

Dunfer caught Ah Wee and Gopher together and killed Ah Wee in a jealous rampage.  Gopher suggests that the encounter in which they were caught was actually innocent in that he was reaching into Ah Wee’s clothing to remove a spider.  But this again sounds very self-serving on Gopher’s part.  Dunfer had almost certainly known of Gopher and Ah Wee’s prior relationship and very likely had an inkling that they were continuing on the sly behind his back.  The violent jealous rampage was probably the breaking of a dam of accumulated suspicion and resentment.  Dunfer confessed to killing Ah Wee before the authorities, recounting the version he had given the narrator and the case was judged a justifiable homicide.  He then erected the grave that Bierce describes with the curious epitaph, where he acknowledges, finally, her true (psychological) identity as a female.

In response to the narrator’s question about the time of Dunfer’s death, Gopher levels the accusation that he, the narrator, had been the one to poison Dunfer.  The “revelation” that comes over the narrator at that moment is that Gopher is making a confession.  Indeed it was Gopher who had killed Jo. Dunfer and buried him beside Ah Wee.  How does he know this?  Both he and Gopher know that he, the narrator, did not poison Dunfer.  So why would Gopher make such an accusation?  The accusation that the narrator had been the one to poison Dunfer is Gopher’s thin — or rather outrageous — cover story, and it brings up the suggestion that Jo. Dunfer did not die of natural causes.  Why would Gopher make such an accusation if he knew Jo. Dunfer had died a natural death?  In fact he knew perfectly well that Jo Dunfer did not die a natural death.  The narrator grasped all of this in an instant hearkening back to the moment in Jo. Dunfer’s house when he

saw that the knot-hole in the wall had indeed become a human eye — a full, black eye, that glared into my own with an entire lack of expression more awful than the most devilish glitter.  I think I must have covered my face with my hands to shut out the horrible illusion, if such it was, and Jo.’s little white man-of-all-work [Gopher] coming into the room broke the spell, and I walked out of the house with a sort of dazed fear that delirium tremens might be infectious.  (Bierce, p. 120)

The narrator’s visit to Dunfer’s ranch gave Gopher the opportunity he had probably been seeking for some time.  Gopher could claim that the narrator had poisoned Dunfer and thus cover his tracks as the murderer.  Gopher had plenty of motivation.  Gopher had loved Ah Wee, but Ah Wee preferred Dunfer to him — at least that is the way it seemed to Gopher.  Dunfer had taken Ah Wee away from Gopher — allegedly in a poker game, but most likely by other means. I think it probable that Ah Wee left with Dunfer willingly to escape Gopher’s clinging attachment.  Dunfer treated Ah Wee badly, according to Gopher — this is plausible — and eventually killed her in a jealous fit for continuing her relationship with Gopher.  It was Gopher who buried Dunfer beside Ah Wee.  It all fits.  Ah Wee is consistent with the type of male-to-female cross-dresser described earlier in the case of Mrs. Nash and the Seventh U.S. Calvary.  Jo. Dunfer’s referring to Ah Wee as male but then changing the pronoun on the tombstone:  “She was a Good Egg”  indicates that he had no illusions that Ah Wee had a dual gender identity.

I think Bierce understood what he was doing, and realized some people would be confused by the story.  He probably wanted it that way.  I suspect the story is based somehow on real events and that it is not simply a product of Bierce’s fantasy.  It was his first published story, and I think it is significant that he would choose this topic as the subject of his first public effort.

The story was written around 1870, shortly after the Civil War.  The frontier was still very much an unsettled place of adventure and opportunity.  It was rapidly changing, however, as were prevailing attitudes toward the many variants of sexual expression.  America was becoming more anxious even as it grew stronger, men were becoming less confident in themselves and in their place in the emerging industrial society, and people were becoming conscious and questioning of the sexual behavior of individuals.  These strains and anxieties are reflected in the intense racism in the story.  However, the racial bigotry, which is quite blatant, does not extend to the cross-dresser.  The cross-dresser is a curious anomaly, but is not yet pathologized per se.  Sexual and gender deviance are being associated with race, and it would not be long before the reflexive racial bigotry that was taken for granted and widely accepted would be extended to sexual minorities of every sort.  This story represents a transition stage between a time when sexuality was less of a public preoccupation to one where it became central to one’s position and acceptability in society.

The three published commentaries on this story that I was able to locate gloss over or miss the full import of the pronoun changes which are the heart of this sordid story of sex and murder.  The tendency is to normalize the story, to heterosexualize it first of all, and to completely ignore, or fail to perceive, the cross-gender identification that is central to the whole drama.  But Ah Wee’s male-to-female cross-gender identification is the only way to make full sense of the text.  If you pay attention to it, the text is clear.  It might have been clearer to Bierce’s audience in the late nineteenth century than it is to us.  Cross-dressing and cross-gender identifications were much less obtrusive and much more amenable to integration in society than they are today, as Boag’s excellent examination of the subject points out.  The bigotry against the male-to-female cross-dresser, was not as pervasive or even as widespread in the nineteenth century as it is today.  Racial bigotry was certainly intense and taken for granted.  This story illustrates how the country had not yet solidified what would later become rigid stereotypes and expectations for masculinity and male sexual behavior, but present day commentators tend to project back onto the story our own present-day biases and preconceptions which were still forming at the time the story was composed and were far from the fully entrenched cultural norms they later became.  This historical blindness not only simplifies the story and robs it of its psychological complexity, it also neutralizes the lessons it has to teach us in how our own culture has evolved in its notions of masculinity and proper male sexual behavior.






Bierce, Ambrose (1984)  The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce.  Edited by Ernest Hopkins.  Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Boag, Peter (2011) Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London:  University of California Press.

Lee-Keller, Hellen (2006)  Ambrose Bierce Project Journal, Vol 2, No. 1.

Wu, William F. (1982)  The Yellow Peril:  Chinese Americans in American Fiction 1850-1940.  Hamden, CT:  Archon Books.

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