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Time is defined by “a nonspatial continuum in which events occur in apparently irreversible succession.” (TheFreeDictionary.com) This distortion of the continuous forward motion of time disrupts the perception of reality. When the reader can no longer distinguish actual reality from a perceived reality, other character judgments come into question as well. The disruption of time allows the sequence of events in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” to be presented in a manner that forces the reader to question any assumptions made about Peyton Farquhar’s true character. By taking the reader through the mind of Peyton Farquhar during the moments prior to his death, his miraculous escape, and his sudden snap back into the present, the reader is left wondering about the true nature of time and the effect it has on the awareness of reality.
The story begins with a third person narrative. “A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feel below.” (Bierce, p. 71) The narrator provides a cold, objective perspective of the initial situation. The lack of subjective emotional description by the narrator allows the reader to observe a distressful situation without becoming emotional attached to the character. “Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him.” (Bierce, p. 74) The subjectivity of emotion is removed and factual assumptions begin to arise. The reader can surmise the narrator is simply relaying a factual telling of an event. By presenting the story with this type of narration, Ambrose Bierce has given the reader a solid perception of reality.
The narrator’s description of every tangible detail to the story sets a specific time period for the events that take place. The reader can easily distinguish a historical time line for the story. “Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause.” (Bierce p. 72) The story is set in the south, during the Civil War. Ambrose Bierce uses a specific time period as a method of developing the reader’s perception, of not only the situation, but of the character of Peyton Farquhar himself. By labeling Peyton Farquhar as a “slave owner” (Bierce p. 72), “politician” (Bierce p. 72), and “original secessionist” (Bierce p. 72), the reader may begin to empathize with the reasons for Peyton Farquhar’s situation. The reader can easily believe that by being “devoted to the Southern cause” (Bierce p 73) during the Civil War, “the man who [is] engaged in being hanged” (Bierce p. 74) is justifiably in the situation. The descriptive language used to describe Peyton Farquhar during this specified moment in history, elicit strong emotions in the reader. Ambrose Bierce easily manipulates the reader’s perception of Peyton Farquhar while solidifying the reality of the story.
Ambrose Bierce continuously foreshadows the disruption of time and Peyton Farquhar’s upcoming death. The moments leading up to his hanging, Peyton’s reality begins to become distorted. “He became conscious of a new disturbance.” (Bierce p 74) “A sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil.” (Bierce p 75). What should be an irrelevant background noise suddenly becomes extremely significant and loud. Ambrose Bierce clearly expresses just how significant the few moments before death become. “More significantly for Bierce’s purposes, though, is that “time” itself, when employed to calibrate human experience, seems to become indeterminate at points of maximum emotional disturbance.” (Stoicheff) Peyton Farquhar only hears “the ticking of his watch.” (Bierce p 75) This distinct reference to time gives the reader a moment to ponder just how many ticks of Peyton’s watch actually occur during the upcoming sequence. As “the noose tightens around his neck, and he is “as one already dead” (Bierce p 75) “from this state he [is] awakened – ages later.” (Bierce p 75)
Death is a reality each and every individual must eventually accept. Having to face death in such a brutal manner leaves Peyton Farquhar reminiscent of his wife and home. “He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children.” (Bierce p 76) Although improbable, the thoughts of escape begin to cloud Peyton’s mind. “‘If I could free my hands,’ he thought, ‘I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream.'” (Bierce p 76) Until this point in the story, Ambrose Bierce’s narration has maintained a steadfast objectivity. In the third and most notable section of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, when “the sergeant stepped aside” and the board is released from beneath Peyton Farquhar, the narration becomes much more emotion-laden. The reader begins to experience the pain and terror that must come from facing death in such a manner. Although the events of his escape are surreal and improbable, because time-flow is normally irreversible, the reader is continuously pushed forward into believing Peyton has actually survived his escape. Thus, allowing time to continue uninterrupted, yet more subjective.
The reader is finally given small insight into the thoughts and emotions of Peyton Farquhar. The internal thoughts and fears of a man just moments from his death can be unnerving and terrifying. However, the reader nearly cheers for Peyton Farquhar to escape unharmed. The narrator continues the objective description of even such a traumatic scene. “It seemed to him–by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. (Bierce p 75) With each passing moment, with each detailed description of the pain Peyton Farquhar must endure to achieve his escape, time seems to slow down. As in any adrenaline filled moment, time becomes slightly distorted, however Bierce again uses descriptions to what can only be a method of elongating a single moment. “As [Peyton Farquhar] rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water.” (Bierce p 75) “Farquhar’s ordeal describe[s] the sensations of an exhausted escaper as those of a hanged and dying man.” (Palmer p363) Reality becomes further muddled in the reader’s mind.
Initially the reader was left with many assumptions about the character of Peyton Farquhar. The factual descriptions given allowed the reader to sympathize with Farquhar’s captors. However, in the second section of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, the reader is given the opportunity to see the events unfold. It becomes apparent that although a “secessionist,” (Bierce p74) Farquhar was entrapped into the events that unfolded by a union soldier. The reader can than begin to sympathize with the character. Ambrose Bierce uses this opportunity to and entrance into the surrealist dream sequence to “develop character more fully” (Walz p262-265) The Truth the reader has come to accept begins to unravel and suddenly becomes questionable. The distortion of time and perception begin to distort the awareness of reality for the reader. Ambrose Bierce shows that time can be manipulated and elongated significantly by “highly emotional events.” (Stoicheff) The narrator’s description of the a single insignificant sound and how it comes the most abundant thought before death should make the reader question the subjectivity of not only time, but reality and truth as well.
The reader’s ability to sympathize with the character through a distortion of time and to begin to question the nature and subjectivity of time make apparent how relative truth is. In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, reality is subject to time, emotions, and the reader assumptions. Each individual aspect effects reality significantly. Ambrose Bierce reiterates the fact that time, reality, and truths are all created in the reader’s mind. If the reader’s perception creates each aspect and the reader’s perception can be easily manipulated, then it stands to reason that each aspect can then be manipulated as well. However, although time is nature to subjective perceptions, Ambrose Bierce makes it obvious that it cannot be escaped. In the end, “all is darkness and silence!” (Bierce p75) “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.” (Bierce p76)
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