The finale of The Sopranos was only the latest usage of a trope that has become a staple of American fiction since its popular inception in Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. (If you haven’t read the story, go read it first.) The basic idea is that the main character is about to die or near death or half-dead, and experiences some sort of imagined fantasy, perhaps a wish-fulfillment that he or she believes to be real, until death cuts the fantasy short. In this fantasy, time may be hugely compressed, rules of physics may change, unlikely events may happen, explicit and heavy-handed symbolism of previous events may occur, and so on.
Bierce’s story is notorious on its own, but it’s since permeated popular culture. The entire baby boomer generation got exposed to it when a short French adaptation of Bierce’s story was aired as an episode of The Twilight Zone, revealing just how great Rod Serling’s debt to Bierce (and O. Henry) was. Serling’s heavy-handed and moralistic twist endings, which themselves share much with Golden Age science-fiction, have been even more of a determinant of what constitutes an “ending” to a popular story in American culture. (For a particularly bombastic example, see Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star.) And I do say American; while William Golding’s Pincher Martin utilizes the trope, it does so in a way that makes it less relevant, as the story reads as explicit allegory regardless of the reality of the situation, and the British Golding even seems to give the game away early by subtitling the book “The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin.”
Bierce did not come up with the general idea. Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (whose structure was later appropriated by Alasdair Gray for Lanark) is a tale of a boy experiencing an afterlife that recapitulates his life and serves as a corrective, and I’m sure there are earlier examples. Bierce may, however, have come up with the idea to hide the conceit from the audience by restricting the audience’s point of view to that of the main character, so that fantasy and reality are not explicitly distinguished until the “twist” ending. (I don’t know of any antecedents, but please let me know if you do.) This changes the fictional game considerably, since the author’s goal is no longer to contrast the fantasy with reality, as with Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Secret Miracle”, but to blend the two sufficiently that the reader does not figure out that somewhere along the line, reality took a vacation. Consequently, the story must subtly shift to an even more limited point of view, something that Bierce cleverly invokes by shifting to the present tense at the very end of the story, just before the reveal. The trope has become so well-known that mysterious shows are often threatened with angry viewers should the “answer” be some half-dead state of fantasy. (Another favorite cliche: alien zoo!)
That “somewhere” at which point the reader and character leave reality is always weighted with symbolism. In Pincher Martin, it is the natural disaster of a shipwreck. In Jacob’s Ladder, it was a battle in Vietnam. In Mulholland Drive, it was a drug-fueled scene of masturbation and remorse for murder. In The Sopranos, it was going to sleep and dreaming in a moment of mortal danger and betrayal. In Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, it is simply the explosion of a bomb. Regardless, the fantasy that follows from thereon always involves some forgetting or cancellation of the transition point, not only in the sense of plot, but also in theme. The transition point comes to signify a terrible truth that the protagonist(s) would rather not acknowledge, and facing up to that truth cancels the fantasy. In Bierce’s original story, there is no character development: the twist stands alone as plot. But theme came to follow story, and the idea that reality would slowly invade fantasy to reveal death became the standard for the trope.
I could speculate that the prevalence of this trope represents some sort of theme of self-flagellation and masochism in American culture: the desire to delude one’s self and ignore unpleasantness, but an unwillingness to own up to one’s lies leading to increasing cognitive dissonance and eventual punishment. But one could also say that this is just as equally a self-congratulatory reification of the individualistic streak of American culture, in which the morality tale of the trope reassures us that we can never delude ourselves forever, and our minds will eventually know truth. Of the American examples above, Dick’s is the only one in which the morality tale of good and bad capitalists ultimately takes a back seat to metaphysical uncertainty. In the others, we all get our absolute knowledge and our moral certitude, as does the character. Our necks eventually snap. Next to the long history of the United States’s ideal of an individualistic, egalitarian culture and its continued refusal en masse to acknowledge the mostly continual failure of that ideal, the certainty of the ultimate “reveal” is a comfortable myth.
To be continued: next time, the eschatological and religious implications of the Owl Creek Bridge trope.