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Simply stated, "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce is about an execution around the time of the Civil War. This story was also about entrapment, betrayal, and romanticism. Our protagonist was a passionate Son of the South who was led into a trap by the carefully chosen words of a calculating federal spy and his own romantic need to serve the Confederate cause even though he was too much of a gentleman and a politician to actually join the army. Peyton also suffers an incredible reversal of fortune. Born into an aristocratic upper class family, he had grown up to marry a lovely woman and have adorable children, yet the first time he performs a task in service of his cause, he is caught and summarily executed. Moreover, Bierce's narrative provides a window on the delusions dying men often have. Yes, people that are about to face execution often indulge in thoughts involving daring escapes, an elaborate rescue plan by fellows, or simply hope for the mercy of his executioners, but a retrospective reading of the text will show that each of the scenes can be explained by the effects of strangulation on the body and the brain.
From the brief biography of Ambrose Bierce, it is possible that he may have born witness to several of these executions having fought against men like Peyton in the Civil War. Although his initial description of Peyton suggests a gentlemanly heroic type that is about to die for his cause, it is clear from part two that he has nothing but contempt for him because of his pampered background and support for a corrupt institution. "Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaign" (Bierce, 4). In revealing the man to be a slave owner, the narrator chips away (yet somehow does not completely destroy) sympathy for the condemned, especially after the reader discovers he had been betrayed by the Scout and the real time hanging gives way to a final sequence of escape toward his wife (Bierce, 6).
The sequence of events in Part III can be attributed to the final thoughts of a strangulating brain. First, Peyton appeared to be cognizant of his situation shortly after dropping through the slats. "From this state he was awakened--ages later, it seemed to him--by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation" (Bierce, 6). Bierce's use of the phrase 'it seemed to him' had taken away the credibility of Peyton's brain. During death, time appears to dilate in the sense that fifteen seconds may seem like a few hours, which is why he is able to construct the elaborate escape fantasy down to the eye-color of the soldier that was shooting at him as he was making his great escape. "The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a grey eye and remembered having read that grey eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them" (Bierce, 8). Such an insignificant detail would never occur to a person that was fleeing for his life. Nevertheless, the feelings of swimming through the water, and descriptions of trudging home through the forest do give a first time reader the sense that he really did escape his fate.
In the annals of Near Death Experiences, it is common for people to report seeing loved ones come into clearer focus-especially loved ones that have already died. However, for Peyton, he instead sees his wife because she is not with him and she is the only person that he cares about seeing. In fact, it is the last thought that Peyton Fahrquhar would ever have. "At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of his 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, 12). The movement toward the wife is similar to a person's consciousness that is moving toward the other side, but unlike those happy tales the darkness takes over just before he is about to hold her in his arms. Most stories let the dead (or near-dead) person hold or speak to a loved one.
In summation, there is also the notable absence of an afterlife. "Peyton Fahrquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge" (Bierce, 12). Many nineteenth century stories have dying characters see a loved one before they die so that the reader and other characters would get the impression that they are moving on to another realm that is better than the one we inhabit, while twentieth century writers often remove the sentimentality (and pretensions to an afterlife) from death. Although this story is written in the romantic era of literature, there is no such romantic ending for our romantic protagonist-instead, his body is shown swinging in the wind and his afterlife is to become bird or fish food.
In summation, Ambrose Bierce destroys two dearly held social conventions in less than four thousand words. The first is the human need to seek glory in the service of a cause-instead, our protagonist dies obscurely on a bridge, and his death is only witnessed by two officers because he had lost everything that fate had given him and failed in his goal to stymie the Yanks. The most important goal that this story achieves is an expose of the delusions of a human brain that is convinced that it is going to live forever.