Ambrose Bierce's "The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" captures the ambiguity of the civil war era through his effective use of tone, unusual use of point of view, and twist of plot.
Bierce had gained an understanding of the horrors of military carnage and a sense of comradeship with his gallant foemen of the Lost Cause. The store of reminiscences he acquired he was to use over the years for some of his finest essays and stories. (Grenander 15)
with "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" being such an essay. It must be said that the peculiarities of Ambrose Bierce enflamed the experiences and perhaps forged a clarity of experience for the readers of his essays that bring them to the hard steel of that reality
"His macabre tales featuring unexpected plot twists and his war stories calling upon on his experiences as a volunteer soldier for the Union Army have been regularly anthologized in numerous collections of U.S. literature and short stories. Bierce, like Edgar Allan Poe, has influenced many short story writers following him who feature mystery, suspense, and horror. For example, the surprise ending of his "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) has been echoed and reworked in countless stories and popular dramas" (Reuben). Those that have an appetite for the macabre are attracted to his unusually distorted use of time and place. Those juxtaposed upon one another add to the otherworldliness of the story and somehow make it seem all the more plausible. According to Richard Saunders in his work Ambrose Bierce: the Making of a Misanthrope the best of these brilliantly haunting tales stand up well even when compared to Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and masters of the genre perhaps he means Stephen King and Dean R Koontz who have no doubt read and emulated Bierce at times as their characters demanded. The element of time is distorted just enough to enable the reader to validate the conclusion that will roar from nowhere to knock him off of his feet. It is a very difficult task to foreshadow without giving all away. It must be strong enough, blatant enough, to be picked up easily in retrospect but innocuous enough to slip right past on first perusal. Perhaps a former military man would have thought that the description of the soldiers and officer at the bridge accidentally inaccurate in the sense that the guns are described as at parade rest, and the officer's sword was pointing to the ground. It was not protocol to be so lax in their custody practices for unfettered prisoners, and it is being related that this prisoner was not bound at the wrists any longer. It was in fact true that he was unbound, but it was also a fact that he is not freed, just the opposite, he is executed. The actions of the men had he truly escaped would have been frantic and pointedly aggressive, not almost casually unconcerned. The tone and foreshadowing have drawn the reader off mark.
The reader is given a vivid account of Farquhar's experience as the rope
breaks. He plunges into the river, gets his hands free, takes his first draught of air, dives and dodges bullets and grapeshot, swims away, and then makes his long desperate trek home. In all the excitement, it is easy to miss the jump from the third person objective observer to an intense third person account limited by the subjectivity of Farquhar's experience.(Habibi)
Perhaps it is this radical switch in point of view that masks or obscures the plot line for the reader. "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). Immersed in the sensory flood that the character is feeling at the moment of death, one is drawn into the plot in a frantic attempt, or should it be said wish, that the character that has become important to the reader has indeed survived. Illogical as that may be it makes sense at the time, and heightens the blow at the revelation in the end. The drama is heightened by the level of stress that is created and the speed with which the events are introduced.
Few of the readers of the essay would have had near death experiences themselves, but almost anyone that the narrator is speaking to would have heard of them, second hand of course. The wonderfulness about second hand information is that it has the ability to be irrefutable and malleable at the same time. Time for example need not follow the normal speed during that space between life and death so that it may slow down or speed up at will. There is no question that the near death experiences that have been recorded will verify that there are differences of perception, so any aberration will seem plausible, and unnerving. The more unnerved the reader the easier they are to manipulate. Some critics have spoken to the concept that:
Bierce is increasingly looked upon as a flawed genius whose faults ultimately set him apart from the mainstream of fiction writersâ€¦he bravely denied the heroism of the war and forced the view that during this (the war) terrifying conflict life was cheap and death simply meaningless. (Saunders 103)
This grabs at the reader's sense of instability, and that is all it takes to introduce and dupe them into the funhouse.
Conversely, Bierce, in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and other works is not afraid to face the world as it is or may be head on. He brings Farquhar to the realization slowly but inevitably. "He mastered techniques for transmitting what he saw. The vision was terrifying: searing conflicts at the depths of the human psyche and festering sores on the body politic. Nevertheless, he portrayed that vision with fidelity and clarity, tempered only by wit or irony" (Grenander 168). Bierce's use of bitter irony achieves this metallic aftertaste, as it were, the reader can see, feel, and taste the experience from an intimate and first person point of view even though the story is told by a third person narrator. It feels as though it is the reader in the cold river water and the reader whose hands have come loose, and the reader who finally allows the knowledge to seep into his consciousness that all is indeed not well. The jolt which that realization emanates can be felt just as validly by the reader as the character:
The final section picks up the action where the first section left off. The gallows is sprung, but somehow Farquhar lives! Thus begins the abnormal temporal, physical, and psychological state of the liminal, distended time flashforward. What better judge is there that the writer has effectively drawn his characters, used his plot and tone to create a world for the reader to enter and experience that which he has not done in real time, but has in his real life? (Habibi)
After reading "An Occurrence at Owl Creek" one attempts to catalog or categorize the story into the terms that others could relate to so that when it is the topic of discussion analogies can be drawn to clarify the experience and perhaps even the style of the story. The world of film is today's highway to the masses and it not surprisingly has directors and authors who have attempted to recreate the success of written literature into the genre of film. It is said that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" and at times the imitation is also an attempt to achieve a desired end quickly with the least effort. Take for example the film The Sixth Sense by M. Shyalaman and Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Both use the same methods to manipulate the audience. It validates the notion that Bierce used and sends it on to the next level. Both authors create characters that are seemingly bound to the standard conventions of this world. They, the soldiers in Bierce's story, and the characters in Mr. Shyalaman's story, are conducting their story as though it were a natural occurrence, and problem solving their way out of it. In the end they are presented as anything but normal and in both situations they startle and blanch their readers with the reality that no one even dreamed was possible. Afterwards when the audience recovers from the shock, they revisit the story and pick up the threads that previously were missed that inexorably drew them to what is truly a logical conclusion, if not an expected one.
This depth and saltiness of reality is what draws readers to "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." It is precisely its discomfort that calls to the reader, all of life is not beautiful but all life is real and that is what Bierce captures. It is the last hope of most people to avoid the finality of death, to get another chance. Life is meant to be clung to and cherished, even if it is only realized at the very last moment. At Owl Creek Bridge, Farquhar clings to this life with all of his consciousness. The fact that he is not successful is deemed as tragic by even the most jaded of readers because Bierce has done such an excellent job of imbuing the reader with his soul. The reader wants Farquhar to win because he, the reader, wants to win.
As T.S. Elliot recognized, "History has many cunning passages, contrived corridorsâ€¦and issuesâ€¦She gives when our attention is distracted. And what she gave to Ambrose Bierce, in compensation for the personal tragedies darkening his life, was a concitation of creative energies to produce those remarkable short stories on which, in large part, his literary reputation rests. (Grenander 54)
It is precisely those stories, like "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" that so capture the era of which they speak that they are like windows to a past time that we can view what history is meant to teach. Bierce used tone to make one feel, point of view to focus, and twists of plot to keep the reader's attention.