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Literature and Composition

Literature and Composition

Working with Short Stories

When trying to look beyond the words that are written in short stories, there will probably be as many different interpretations as there will be readers. Only when putting one text next to another, can we realize that sometimes they deal with the same main idea or topic. For instance, in both “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bring”, written by Ambrose Bierce, and “Beware of the Dog”, written by Roald Dahl, we can see that the authors tries to make their readers understand the difference between illusion and reality through the use of irony, imagery and symbolism which frequently make the story misleading for both the reader and the characters.

One of many ways of portraying the difference between illusion and reality is the use of irony. For instance, in the story “An occurrence at owl Creek Bridge,” the protagonist imagines that he escapes from the bridge and runs back home to his loving family but then, within seconds, he is thrown back to reality and gets hanged: “If I could free my hands, he thought, I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving, I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home” (6). This is the illusion that led the man to believe, even if it was for a split second, that he could be with his family again, and that he could find joy and happiness one more time. Further on, we read that, “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge” (38). Here, the author reveals that the man actually dies. It is ironic because his happiness lasts for no more than a few seconds, while in his thoughts; it is almost an entire day. In the story “Beware of the Dog,” Dahl first tells us that his main character is, in fact, an injured pilot who is flying home and who was completely fine and making jokes about his wound. “I’m doing nicely. I know my way home...Then I shall say, someone help me to get out. I shall laugh and say, for God’s sake, help me out” (3). At this moment in the story, the reader starts to wonder why is the protagonist acting this way, why isn’t he panicking or complaining form pain? It is simple: because it is an imagined scenario, an illusion. This part is ironic because within a few minutes, the pilot ends up jumping from his plane, waking up from his illusion, because he knew he could no longer be able to fly his air craft. In sum, we can see that in both texts, with the use of irony, the authors made their protagonist live through various illusions so that later on the can wake up to reality.

Imagery is used by both authors, to demonstrate the distinction between illusion and reality. While in one text, we can clearly understand that the main character is living in the world of illusion, the other one is forced to see the reality of his dreadful situation. For instance, in the “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, we can see that the man’s escape doesn’t seem possible; taking in to account the situation he is in: “By diving, I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take the woods and get away home” (6). With the use of imagery, escaping bullets seems awfully simple for him and also makes us, the readers, understand that it is nothing but an illusion. Later on in the same text, with the use of the same literary element, Ambrose Bierce tries to demonstrate once more that illusion is more welcoming than reality, especially when you are in a tight situation. When we read, “Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene- perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium. He stands at stands at the gate of his own home.”(37), we finally should be able to understand that this is not what will truly happen. In the second story, on the other hand, the protagonist is thrown into unpleasant realities. When he gets back to the real world, imagery is used to describe his position. “Above there was the sun, and the sun was white like the clouds, because it is never yellow when one looks at it from high in the air,” (1) is an excellent example of how an author, by using descriptive words, can make the readers understand the mess that his character put himself in: “As he looked, the dials became blurred, and he couldn’t even see the needle. He knew that he must bail out; that there was not a second to lose, otherwise he would become unconscious” (9). Here, imagery describes the situation in such great detail, that it doesn’t even cross one’s mind that this might be unreal in any way. Therefore, imagery is an excellent way of explaining the difference between illusion and reality.

Symbolism is used when one tries to describe something with the use of something concrete. This writing technique plays a big role when helping the readers understand the divergence between illusion and reality. In “An Occurrence at owl Creek Bridge” the story first takes place on a bridge: “A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below” (1). Bridges are generally symbols for bringing things or people together. In this story, on the other hand, it is used to separate the main character from his family and loved ones because at the end of the story he is hanged: “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge” (38). Therefore, in this case, the bridge plays the role of bringing an illusion in the story, making the readers believe that everything will turn out alright until the end comes and reality strikes. Alternatively, in “Beware of the Dog”, colour is used to create an illusion for the main character in order to make him feel comfortable and less suspicious when he was in the hands of the enemy. Since the colour white, for example, symbolizes peace and clarity, Black stands for fear and the unknown: “The sight of this fly, the suddenness of seeing this small black speck on a sea of grey, brushed the surface of his brain, and quickly, in that second, he remembered everything”(15). Basically, colour is the one thing that allows the pilot to grasp his real location. Overall, here we can see how symbolism can make the difference between reality and illusion and how it can be misleading.

To conclude, it is important to understand the role played by different literary elements, especially when they are placed to define the illusion and reality which can be tricky to identify at times. Irony, symbolism and imagery, are perfect for this job because they allow us to understand what the writers have in mind but in a very subtle way which makes it so much more interesting to read. For example, in “Beware of the Dog” when the pilot thinks that he is safe but is in fact in grave danger, or in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” when we are happy for the protagonist that he escapes but then we find out that he actually dies, demonstrate the extent of this writing style, how easily we can be mislead both when reading a story, or in real life. Therefore, from now on, you should be aware and make sure that you know what is actually going on. Consider yourself warned!

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