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In Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", Peyton Farquhar goes
through a series of events while he is being hung. It can be concluded; "alluding to 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge', that the hero, Peyton Farquhar, 'has imposed a temporary reality, the desires of the heart, upon the true reality within the swollen moments of his post-mortem consciousness'" (Powers 278-279). Bierce uses a dream state structure and the element of surprise to give the reader insight into the mind of Peyton Farquhar as he is nearing death.
When Bierce wrote "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", he used the dream state structure to give the reader a glimpse into the mind of Peyton Farquhar as he is going through a life-ending event. To achieve this structure, Bierce uses a "psychologically realistic structure for the intimate experience of the mind undergoing death, he chooses this model of the dream as the most proximate and familiar, consistently weaving external stimuli into the details of Farquhar's dream narrative of escape in almost, but not entirely, unrecognizable form" (Stoicheff paragraph 4). Bierce starts setting up the dream structure at the end of section two. It starts with Peyton Farquhar standing on Owl Creek Bridge with a noose around his neck. Desperate thoughts of escape begin racing through his head, "he unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. 'If I could free my hands,' he thought, 'I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream'" (Bierce 72). The details that are used to support the dream start in section three with Peyton Farquhar being dropped off of the bridge. All of the upcoming events are details used to make up Peyton's "swift and sluggish journey from sensation to its effacement, Farquhar is 'conscious of motion', and that consciousness will divide into the minute sensations of physical escape down the creek, as the few seconds for death to 'occur' will divide almost infinitesimally into the 24 hours that the escape becomes in his dream" (Stoicheff paragraph 6). Peyton Farquhar drops off the bridge, "then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud plash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream" (Bierce 74). Peyton begins to sink, but "then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface-knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable" (Bierce 74). Farquhar's rising to the surface is associated with "the dreamer's interpretation of the slight bounce the body describes after reaching the extremity of its flexible rope" (Stoicheff paragraph 8). He also thinks he is going to drown; this is another detail that Bierce uses to interpret what Farquhar is really going through. Bierce's true meaning behind "drowning in the creek revises the fact of strangulation itself" (Stoicheff paragraph 8). He begins to struggle with freeing his hands and succeeds. He is freed when "the cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward; the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light" (Bierce 74). After he realizes that his hands are free he begins the task of freeing himself of the noose, "he watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake" (Bierce 74). After he gets the noose off, he is in pain, and "his neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire; his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth" (Bierce 74). The horribly aching neck has another interpretation relating to what is actually happening as he is being hung, it "reinterprets the pain of hanging" (Stoicheff paragraph 8). Peyton Farquhar is free of the noose, and begins swimming to the surface. His senses begin to come back to him, "he was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were indeed, preternaturally keen and alert" (Bierce 74). He notices every detail of the environment around him, "a fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water" (Bierce 74). Hearing the fish has another meaning to it, "for instance, the ability to hear 'the rush of a fish's body parting the water' is no doubt impossible, as several readers have concluded, but within Farquhar's suddenly interior world generated by external stimuli it is one conceivable distortion of a final rushing heartbeat sounding amid the 'congestion' of the hanged man's head as he dreams of being in the water below" (Stoicheff paragraph 9). He reaches the surface and sees the soldiers on the bridge. A soldier fires a shot at him, "suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray" (Bierce 75). But after the first shot, more shots start firing and he is afraid he won't get away. "God help me, I cannot dodge them all" (Bierce 75). Another force keeps him motivated to keep going, and "he does dodge them all. Even a Federal cannon cannot impede the hero's flight to home and family" (Cheatham 46). Peyton is then caught in a "counter-swirl" while he is in the river (Bierce 75). This "counter-swirl" also resembles a part of the hanging (Bierce 75). "The "counter-swirl" that spins him around in the current recasts the twisting at the end of the rope" (Stoicheff paragraph 8). He keeps swimming while dodging the soldier's bullets. The soldiers begin to fire a cannon at him also, "the cannon had taken a hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond" (Bierce 75). The gun shots and the cannon also relate to a part of the hanging that is actually happening while he is in this dream state, "the 'sharp report' of the firing gun, its slightly later 'dulled thunder', and the ostensible 'explosion' of the cannon that 'was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond' are Farquhar's dreamed revision of the sound of his own neck breaking. Bierce effectively underlines the association, describing the literal event of the breaking neck as occurring 'with the sound like the shock of a cannon' at the story's conclusion" (Stoicheff paragraph 8).
Bierce continues to use details of Peyton Farquhar's journey to make his dream structure. It continues with Peyton finally washing up on the bank of the river. As Peyton washes up on the shore, "he dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it" (Bierce 76). He starts making his way through the woods, worn out and starving. The only motivation to keep him going is "the thought of his wife and children" (Bierce 76). Bierce describes Peyton as being in pain and also being thirsty from being nearly hung. Peyton Farquhar's "neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air" (Bierce 76). The 'thrusting' of the tongue is another reference to the hanging, "the sensation of his own tongue 'thrusting forward from between his teeth into the cold air' registers its grotesque protrusion during strangulation" (Stoicheff paragraph 8). Peyton is so tired on his journey home that he falls asleep, though "doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking; for now he sees another scene-perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium" (Bierce 76).
Bierce uses the element of surprise to support his dream structure and add some excitement to it. Peyton Farquhar continues his long journey until, "he stands at the gate of his own home" (Bierce 76). Then he sees his wife come out of the house and he runs toward her, ready to embrace her. But something stops him "as he is about to clasp her, he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon-then all is darkness and silence" (Bierce 76). Then Bierce ends the story and the dream with, "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 76). This sentence uses the element of surprise to bring the climax of the story to a shocking end. "The narrator's factual intrusion shatters the climactic moment of Farquhar's escape romance: 'Peyton Farquhar was dead'â€¦" (Cheatham 46). Bierce uses the element of surprise throughout the story to assist the dream structure. He uses the element of surprise at the beginning of the story, with Peyton Farquhar about to be hung, "the story begins rather abruptly. Before readers have a chance to get their bearings, Bierce throws them in the midst of an extreme predicament" (Habibi paragraph 2). Before going any further Bierce uses a flashback before Peyton is going to be hung. Bierce explains how a soldier comes by and tells Peyton about the bridge, "a 'gray-clad soldier' impresses upon him the importance of the bridge for the Union advance, and explains to him how it could be burned. The penalty for such an act of sabotage is hanging, but the intrepid civilian describes himself as a 'student of hanging'" (Habibi paragraph 5). This suggests that Peyton is going to try and sabotage the bridge. However, he doesn't know that the soldier is a federal scout. With this detail, "Both Farquhar and the reader are set up for some trickery" (Habibi paragraph 5). Bierce also uses the element of surprise to trick the reader into thinking that Peyton escapes; when in reality he is already dead.
Bierce tells the story of Peyton Farquhar by using the dream state structure and the element of surprise. The dream state structure effectively gives readers insight into the mind of Peyton Farquhar as he is approaching death and the element of surprise is essential to assisting Bierce in making the dream state more interesting.