The short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” has received more critical attention than any other single work written by Ambrose Bierce. This is most likely because of the way the story combines into one text the best components distributed among much of Bierce’s fiction such as narrative, plot, imagery, the exposure of human-deception, and a surprise ending (Stoicheff 1). In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, Bierce differentiates between internal and external worlds and illustrates that the mind can create its own realities and escapes. He does not tell the reader that Farquhar is hallucinating, but instead expects the reader to evaluate the story and realize the impossibility of events described in the final events of the story. With such literary techniques, Bierce opposed many of the literary trends of his day in both his journalism and his fiction. “He believed any view of life which ignored the unconscious processes of mind could not call itself realistic” (Davidson 2). “Bierce’s works reflect his obsession with ironic, unnecessary, and strange death, as well as his cynical, disillusioned attitude on the meaninglessness of life” (Habibi 2). He detested war and saw firsthand the absurdity and insanity of it. This emerges as a connecting theme in several of his writings. His protagonists are usually antiheroes and they make conscious decisions based on flawed thinking, which ultimately lead to tragic predicaments (Habibi 2-3). Bierce is known for his use of literary elements and skillfully uses third person narrative, a quickly paced plot, realistic detail, and blends fantasy and reality to lead the reader into believing in Farquhar’s escape. Therefore, the reader is unable to interpret Farquhar’s true fate until the very end of the story.
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Bierce cleverly chooses to write this story in third person narrative. By using third person narrative, the author is able to do a variety of different things to capture the readers’ attention and keep them guessing. He most likely chooses this course of action to convey to the reader the main character’s feelings and emotions and to conceal his death. This perspective, often called limited omniscience, tells the story from an observer’s standpoint (Samide 1). By definition, this narrator knows all things important in the story, even a character’s own thoughts. Therefore, the reader is able to get a more in depth look into how the main character is feeling, as well as tell the reader the outward world of the story (Samide 1). In this story, the author chooses to focus on the mind of only one main character, Farquhar, and enters it extensively throughout the course of the story. At any given time, the narrator may also move in and out of the chosen character’s mind and thoughts, or inform the reader about what is happening in the outer world of the story. Because the author chooses this point of view, it is difficult for the reader to know Farquhar’s escape is unreal until the last line of the story, when the narrator emerges from his mind to tell the reader Farquhar is dead (Samide 1). Bierce skillfully forces the reader to believe in Farquhar’s hallucinated escape and therefore, is able to surprise the reader with Farquhar’s death. It enables Bierce to take the reader inside Farquhar’s mind to demonstrate how emotional confusion alters not only the way the mind interprets the reality of a situation, but also the way it perceives the passage of time.
Bierce also uses a rapidly paced plot to keep the reader from figuring out the surprise ending. He quickly paces the plot in order to distract the reader from closely examining Farquhar’s unlikely escapes from death. Before the reader has time to consider the likelihood of a broken neck from the rope or some other injury, Bierce has Farquhar struggling not to drown. He sinks deep into the water, his hands still tied together and the noose still wrapped around his neck. So instead of thinking about his broken neck or suffering from another injury, the reader focuses on his new problem of drowning. Then, somehow, Farquhar is able to free his hands from the rope and slips off the noose. But again, the reader is relieved that Farquhar escapes drowning that he does not fully examine the likeliness of this escape. Then, Farquhar bursts to the surface of the water for air and must start dodging bullets, diverting the reader’s attention once more from the previous escapes from the ropes and drowning (Samide 3). Therefore, by using a rapid paced plot, Bierce is able to distract the reader from examining the likeliness of the escapes by creating new diversions, making it more believable for the reader.
Another literary device Bierce uses in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is the element of imagery. Bierce relies heavily upon imagery throughout the story, centering on sight and sounds to make his tale more convincing. Bierce goes to great lengths to describe the opening sequence in terms of its military arrangement. He provides vivid images of group formations and soldier stances such as “a single company of infantry in line, the barrels inclining backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock, at ‘parade rest’ the butts of the rifles on the ground” (Bierce 72). These descriptions show Bierce’s past military experience in various wars and battles, giving the story a sense of realism. Also by using such realistic details, Bierce is able to make Farquhar’s escape more believable to the reader. After the first round of shots from the soldiers, when he hears the captain give orders to fire, Farquhar dives deep into the water. Some of the bullets, still warm from the guns, spiral down into the water beside him (Samide 3). “One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out. (Bierce 75)” These few examples of realism lead the reader to believe that Farquhar is really escaping. When he comes to the surface again, the current has taken Farquhar out of shooting range of personal weapons, but he must now worry about the cannon being used. The first shot misses, but sprays him with water. The second shot is a much better shot that will surely hit him, but suddenly, the current whirls him around a bend in the river and throws him up on the bank, out of aim of the cannon (Samide 3). While the rapid series of dangers has caused the reader to consider the probability of each escape, the author’s use of imagery and realistic detail convinces the reader that he is out of danger and is now on his way to finishing his escape by losing himself in the dense forest and getting back home to his wife and family (Samide 3). The rest of the story goes on to describe Farquhar’s long trip home. He continues on his journey through the forest and finally arrives to the gate of his own home. He sees his wife and she holds out her hands in joyous welcome. As Farquhar reaches out to embrace her, he feels a “stunning blow” to his neck”, sees a “blinding white light”, hears a sounds like the shock of a cannon-then all is darkness and silence” (Bierce76). “At this point in the story, the limited narrator moves out of Farquhar’s mind and returns to the objective world on the bridge, revealing to the reader the shocking last line and revelation that, all along, the escape was Farquhar’s hallucination” (Samide 3-4). “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)
One of the literary elements Bierce uses that he is most known for is his blending of fantasy and reality. Bierce mixes the external world of death with Farquhar’s internal world, resulting in the success of his hallucination. Farquhar, in his mind, is imagining his incredible escape when he is actually dying. Bierce skillfully uses metaphors and similes in order to secretly describe the true fate of Farquhar. For example, Bierce uses the pendulum not only as a significant metaphor for time, but also as a simile for Farquhar’s body, which “swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge” (Bierce 76). Farquhar is “conscious of motionâ€¦ of a vast pendulum” because his body literally traces, and therefore senses it. Similar intrusions of other objective stimuli into Farquhar’s experience occur throughout the rest of the story. The “sharp report” of the firing gun, its slightly later “dulled thunder,” and the alleged “explosion” of the cannon that “was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond” are all Farquhar’s hallucinated revision of the sound of his own neck breaking. Bierce successfully emphasizes the association, describing the literal event of Farquhar’s neck breaking as occurring “with sound like the shock of a cannon.” “Farquhar’s sensation of “rising rising toward the surface” of the water is the dreamer’s understanding of the slight bounce the body experiences after reaching the extremity of its flexible rope; the feeling of almost drowning in the creek modifies the fact of strangulation itself; the “horribly” aching neck and the “uncomfortably warm” bullet impossibly “lodged between his collar and his neck” under the water reinterpret the pain of hanging; the “counter-swirl” that spins him around in the current refers to the twisting at the end of the rope; the “projecting point which concealed him from his enemies” transforms the bridge now above him; the sensation of his own tongue “thrusting forward from between his teeth into the cold air” registers its grotesque protrusion during strangulation; the inability to “feel the roadway beneath his feet” is a similarly accurate feeling, dutifully revised into an understandable fatigue, thirst and numbness near the end of his narrative of escape” (Stoicheff 3). Thus, a key element in the story is the distention of time and the blending of fantasy and reality. The reader is left with a range of reactions: the element of surprise, the promise and loss of hope, the tragedy of death, the ultimate coherence of objective reality, and acknowledgment of Bierce’s carefully constructed deception (Habibi 1).
Bierce skillfully blends the third person point of view that conceals Farquhar’s death until the very end, a rapidly paced plot of narrow escapes from death that distract the reader, concrete details that make the final escape seem real, and the technique of blending fantasy and reality (Samide 4). Bierce’s usage of narrative, plot, imagery, and blending of fantasy and reality make it hard for the reader to detect Farquhar’s true fate until the final line of the story. In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, Bierce distinguishes between the internal and external worlds of Farquhar and shows the reader that the mind can create its own realities and its own escapes. He expects the reader to evaluate the story and realize on his own the impossibility of events described in the final events of the story (Davidson 2). Bierce purposely uses these elements of fiction in order to create a suspenseful ending that connects with the central theme of the human need to escape death.
Welty Bierce, Ambrose. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 9th ed. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009, 71-76.
Samide, Daniel E. “Anatomy of a Classic: Ambrose Bierce Cleverly Used Some Key Literary Tools in Crafting His Civil War Tale ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” The Writer May 2005:42. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 5 Apr. 2010.
Habibi, Don Asher. “The experience of a lifetime: philosophical reflections on a narrative device of Ambrose Bierce.” Studies in the Humanities 29.2 (2002): 83+. Academic OneFile. Web. 11 Apr. 2010.
Davidson, Cathy N. “Ambrose (Gwinett) Bierce.” American Short-Story Writers Before 1880. Ed. Bobby Ellen Kimbel and William E. Grant. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 74. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 10 Apr. 2010.
Stoicheff, Peter. “‘Something Uncanny’: The Dream Structure in Ambrose Bierce’s ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” Studies in Short Fiction 30.3 (Summer 1993): 349-357. Joseph Palmisano. Vol. 72. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 10 Apr. 2010.
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