“In his famous short story, ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,’ Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce introduces an unnamed narrative device which occurs in a liminal setting; that is, it happens at the intense sensory threshold between life and death” (Habibi 1). Bierce uses several elements to emphasize one of the more important parts of his narrative, the dream sequence. The dream sequence in the story is a defense mechanism used by the protagonist, Peyton Farquhar, to avoid facing his fate. By revealing a detailed daydream of Farquhar attempting to escape his fate, Bierce reveals the truism that it is human instinct to try to find a way out of dreaded consequences. Peter Stoicheff states that the reader becomes so carried away by Farquhar’s desire for escape that the death is somewhat unpredicted by the very detailed description, which keeps it unanticipated. Bierce uses a distant narrator, an ironic sense of time, general irony, foreshadowing, and detailed descriptions of Farquhar’s thoughts and dreams to portray the destiny of the main character, Peyton Farquhar.
Bierce uses a distant, impersonal narrator to create sudden shifts in his story. “The story begins rather abruptly before readers have a chance to get their bearings. Bierce throws them in the midst of an extreme predicament” in which Farquhar is on the bridge with a rope around his neck, facing the deadly water below (Habibi 1). The narrator discretely mocks the nobility of Mrs. Farquhar as he displays Peyton remembering the soldier visiting his home. “One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands” (Bierce 73). As she does this, Farquhar asks the soldier how he might get the better of the sentinel, unaware that the soldier is a Federal scout. In doing this, the Farquhar couple is caught aiding the south. Because of the lack of sympathy from the narrator in this scenario, the reader can assume that Bierce does not view the Farquhars as noble, but as traitors. The reader learns that Farquhar is not actually in the war, but “no service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South” (Bierce 73). The reader is able to overlook Farquhar’s cowardly actions as Bierce entangles all thoughts with distracting and detailed delusions. Bierce, however, hangs Farquhar for his betrayal by using an impersonal narrator.
Another element Bierce uses in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is the ironic sense of time. According to Stoicheff, “the premise of the third section of ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ is that Farquhar imagines his escape in the brief interval between the removal of the plank that supports him and his actual death by hanging” (Stoicheff 3) Stoicheff suggests that at points of high emotional disturbance, the passing time is uncertain. “Though the time it takes for Farquhar to die by hanging is unknown, Bierce goes to some length to imply that at the unknowable threshold of death, time becomes crucially altered”; therefore, it may take far less time than it seems for Farquhar to transform from living to dreaming (Stoicheff 3). Don Asher Habibi states that the occurrence, or dream, is a mental outlook into the near-death consciousness of a condemned man, Peyton Farquhar. Habibi believes that in the protagonist’s earlier heightened awareness, he fantasizes a future of surviving and avoiding his horrific death. “Thus, a key element of the device involves a distention of time. The story concludes when the subjective moment comes to a sudden, crude end, and the reader is brought back to the world of objective, ‘real’ time” (Habibi 1). By using in-depth descriptions of Farquhar’s thoughts and flashbacks, Bierce is able to spend several paragraphs and pages to describe what Farquhar actually thought within mere seconds.
Irony, in general, is another significant device Bierce uses to aid the exposure of his story. George and Judy Cheatham point out that to set up irony throughout the story, Bierce ends each of the story’s sections with a shallow, realistic statement to draw away from Farquhar’s previous fantasies. “In section one, for example, Farquhar’s sentimental thought that his ‘wife and little ones are still beyond the invader’s farthest advance’ is countered with the narrator’s objective statement, ‘The sergeant stepped aside'” (Cheatham 3). The Cheathams imply that the name Peyton Farquhar, meaning patrician and manly but also sounding aristocratic, is mixed into the texture of the story and increases the irony between a Farquhar’s fantasies and the realities of war. “The pretensions of his name match those of his dreams, but neither name nor dreams match reality. The careful selection of such a minor detail like the character’s name suggests an artistic thoughtfulness in Bierce’s work” (Cheatham 3). Irony is generally used throughout the story to assist Bierce in depicting the final stages of Farquhar’s life.
Foreshadowing is yet another element with which Bierce writes his story. Bierce’s statement, “God help me, I cannot dodge them all” suggests that Farquhar will not escape successfully. In an even more universal way, Farquhar’s daydreaming foreshadows his reality of being unable to change the consequences he will face. “An ideal vision of Peyton Farquhar’s imagined reunion with his wife and home” indicates that his wife, who is happy and carefree within his vision, is just that; a vision (Stoicheff 2). Mrs. Farquhar, or any wife for that matter, would not truly act as Farquhar imagines on the day of her husband’s execution. Farquhar is simply and unconsciously remembering his wife how he wants to before he is hung. Stoicheff reminds the reader that Bierce describes the event of the breaking neck as occurring in association to Farquhar’s hanging at the story’s conclusion. Stoicheff indicates that Farquhar’s sense of “rising toward the surface” of the water is his explanation of the bouncing body described after reaching the limit of the rope. Also in accordance to Stoicheff, “a complex connection of Farquhar’s body and the pendulum,” which “swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation like a vast pendulum,” also foreshadows Farquhar’s death. Stoicheff supports the idea that the basis of unavoidable death is so powerfully concealed within ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ that it is altered not only into an escape from death but further into a vivid dream of birth itself. Stoicheff tells the reader that as Farquhar attempts to reach the surface of the curiously deep creek after the rope has broken, his first mission is to free himself from the rope that forcefully holds his hands behind his back. After he frees his hands, he watches them magically tear away the binding rope and push it violently aside. Stoicheff believes that Farquhar may envision his hands in this way because the act of hanging intensifies, which would make sense as to why they would seem to be separate from the rest of his body. “However, the imagery of the cord around the neck, and of its being removed by someone else situates this phenomenon not merely in the dream episode of rising to the creek’s surface, but in a dream of the experience of birth. The external stimulus of suffocation by hanging is revised here to become the baby’s sensation of the umbilical cord around its neck” (Stoicheff 6). The use of foreshadowing is very effective in supporting Bierce as he tricks the reader and eventually reveals the reality of Farquhar’s death by hanging.
Because of the personal connection the reader adopts with the main character, the revealing of Farquhar’s thoughts as he dreams of escaping his death is possibly the most important technique used by Bierce in describing the hanging of Peyton Farquhar. Habibi points out that in the beginning, the objective narrator explains the disposition of soldiers for the execution. Then, there is a quick transition to the third person account to the subjective views and thoughts of Peyton Farquhar, such as the flow of the stream reduces, the time and motion slow down, sounds become greater, and Farquhar concentrates on an escape plan. Bierce ends the first section a second before the noose is snapped. “Remarkably, instead of continuing with the urgency of the moment, the next section shifts dramatically to a flashback explaining who Farquhar is and how he was tricked into his most unfortunate circumstance” (Habibi 1). Habibi proposes the idea that the information the reader learns about Farquhar suggests the possibility that a man who is educated about criminal consequences may be able to save himself. Bierce ends the second section by informing the reader that the soldier is a federal scout. Throughout the story, fraudulent schemes are used against both Farquhar and the reader. The third section begins right where the first section suddenly stopped. “The gallows is sprung, but somehow Farquhar lives. Thus begins the abnormal temporal, physical, and psychological state of the flash-forward. The reader is given a vivid account of Farquhar’s experience as the rope breaks” (Habibi 2). Within the daydream, “Farquhar is reprieved when the rope breaks. He plunges into the river below the bridge, swims to shore, and makes his way home. Upon arriving, he suddenly feels his neck breaking, but in reality he has reached the end of the unbroken rope” (Walz 2). Farquhar dives into the water and frees his hands. He breathes in the fresh air as he dodges the soldiers’ bullet. Then, he swims away, with home as his incentive. “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 2). Once the reader is back inside Farquhar’s consciousness, Habibi believes he is tuned in to Farquhar’s inhuman sharp senses, incredible endurance, pain, and delight at having escaped a torturous death. However, just as Farquhar reaches his farm and is about to embrace his beautiful wife, the reader suddenly returns to the decisive, objective narrator. The final sentence helps understand that Bierce’s narrator is deceiving. “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). After this final moment, the reader is aware of the detailed, deceiving fantasies caused by Farquhar’s dreaded fate. Bierce wrote that Farquhar was restored by the suddenness of his actions and the scrapes on his hand from the gravel, and the sand which he joyfully threw all over himself seemed like real treasure. “The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of Aeolian harps” (Bierce 76). This too-good-to-be-true idea of Farquhar’s world is his imaginary escape, his daydream that Bierce uses in order to distract the reader from the reality of Farquhar’s fate.
Up until the final stages of the story, the reader believes that Farquhar is both planning and making an escape from his death by hanging. By using techniques such as an impersonal narrator, an ironic sense of time, general irony and artistic thoughtfulness, foreshadowing, and Farquhar’s vision of desired reality, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” reveals a dream that was viewed as realism from the reader’s standpoint until the very end. Bierce uses several elements to emphasize on one of the more important parts of his narrative, the dream sequence. Through the techniques used by Bierce in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Peyton Farquhar’s delusions are able to illustrate attempts to avoid facing his formidable fate.
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