An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is one of the most widely anthologized American short stories and is considered Ambrose Bierces best work of short fiction. Bierce, a Civil War major, began his writing career after the war ended, and his wartime experiences greatly affected his literature. A predominant theme in many of Bierce's short stories is the physical and mental anguish associated with war, and this theme is expressed in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." First published in Bierces short story collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians in 1891, the story centers on Peyton Farquhar, a southern planter who, while not a Confederate Soldier, is about to be hanged by the Union Army for attempting to destroy the railroad bridge at Owl Creek. Another theme commonly found in Bierce's short stories is the conflict between illusion and reality. Ambrose Bierce uses point of view, characterization, imagery, and setting to convince the reader that Peyton Farquhar escapes successfully in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."
Bierce cleverly uses the limited omniscient point of view to conceal Farquhar's death. Limited omniscience uses a third-person narrator to begin telling the story as an outward observer. The narrator then moves into the mind and thoughts of one specific character. From this point on, the narrator can move freely from the character's mind and the outward world of the story (Samide 1). This point of view creates focus and depth to broaden Bierce's writing style (Conlogue 263). Limited omniscience is the only point of view that would be able to mask the actual death in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."
Using limited omniscience, Bierce's narrator describes the immediate preparations for the hanging from an outward point of view. "The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck" (Bierce 71). While in this outside state, the narrator also describes earlier events that lead to Farquhar's hanging. While Farquhar awaits his death, he thinks about his wife and children and his possibilities of escape. As Farquhar drops from the rope to face his death, the narrator moves into his mind and remains there throughout the entire hallucination of escape. During the vision, the reader travels with Farquhar throughout his entire "escape". The reader hears all his thoughts and feels his emotions. "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. 'To be hanged and drowned,' he thought, 'that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair'" (Bierce 74). Towards the end of the illusion, the narrator emerges back to an observer to inform the reader of his actual death. "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). Because of this point of view, the reader believes the escape is true because the reader experiences the entire hallucination with Farquhar. This perspective allows Bierce to fool the reader into accepting the reality of escape and forgetting the possibility of death (Samide 1).
In order to continue deceiving the reader, Bierce uses characterization to portray Farquhar as a sympathetic character to whom the readers can relate. Farquhar is portrayed as a man who takes care of his family. He is attempting to protect his home by burning down the bridge and this bravery is admirable in a character. Farquhar is also deceived by a Union scout with whom he shared his home. This deception makes the reader feel sorry for Farquhar. Readers view the hanging as unfair and harsh punishment that does not fit the crime. All of these circumstances make the reader more likely to believe an escape did happen. People want to believe in the positive side of events, and they want to believe that good conquers evil. Readers want to believe that Farquhar, the good side, escapes from the Union soldiers, the evil side. Consequently, the reader is more susceptible to believe in an escape than a death (Samide 2). Also, Bierce cleverly uses Peyton Farquhar's name to relate to the reader. Peyton, if spelled Payton, is the Scottish version of the name Patrick, which in Latin means, "a person of noble decent." Farquhar derives from the Gaelic Fearachar, meaning manly or brave. This relates to Farquhar who is described as a "well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family," who is "at heart a soldier." This name reiterates the feeling of sympathy for Farquhar (Cheatham 45).
Realistic imagery and detail add to the plausibility of Farquhar's escape. Bierce describes in great detail Farquhar's escape, along with everything he sees and feels. During the hallucination, after the rope breaks and Farquhar emerges from the water, his senses become supersensitive. "He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf-saw the very insects upon him: locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig" (Bierce 74). The reader can imagine the scene as it is seen from Farquhar's point of view and it seems real. Later, Farquhar hears the Union soldiers beginning to fire shots 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). More imagery that adds to the plausibility of escape is Farquhar's fatigue. Bierce describes Farquhar as growing "fatigued, footsore, and famished" from his long journey (Bierce 76). Usually, in dreams there isn't a feeling of weakness and exhaustion so this adds to the believability as well. Finally, Farquhar envisions meeting his wife. "As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, and attitude of matchless grace and dignity" (Bierce 76). This imagery allows the reader to believe Farquhar has escaped and is in fact meeting his wife again. The reader is taking this journey through the hallucination with Farquhar, and they see and feel everything he does. Therefore, it is difficult for the reader to consider the possibility of death, because the hallucination seems so real (Samide 3-4).
Finally, setting adds to the sympathy for the character and to the validity of the escape. The time and place play an important role in the plausibility of the story. There have been only a few times in American history when the military could execute a civilian, and one of those times was during the Civil War. The Civil War was a low point in American history, and many of the actions that took place seemed unnecessary. In this short story, when the Union decides to execute Farquhar, it is seen as an overreaction, and the readers sympathize with Farquhar. The readers hope that Farquhar escapes and becomes the hero (Samide 2).
Also, the physical setting of the bridge enhances the reader's belief in escape. The hanging is to be taken place on the Owl Creek railroad bridge, not an actual gallows specifically designed for hanging. The rope used is simply hung from a high timber on the bridge that could very easily break if it not secured properly. So, in Farquhar's hallucination when the rope breaks, it seems plausible to the reader, and since the bridge is over a river, Farquhar falls safely into the water and is unharmed. Once the soldiers begin to shoot at him, he escapes by diving under the water for protection and camouflage, which adds to the believability of escape (Samide 2).
Most importantly, Bierce's use of time manipulates the reader's perception of reality and, therefore, adds to the plausibility of escape (Stoicheff 349). Bierce uses lengthy detail and a fast-paced plot to describe the hallucination. After Farquhar drops from the rope, everything is set into motion. Bierce uses this fast-moving scene to distract the reader from second guessing the escape. The reader has no time to think about the likelihood that Farquhar could have broken his neck (Samide 3). Bierce makes sure the reader has no moment to become skeptical. Then, Bierce uses great detail to describe the rest of the vision, making everything seem factual. Also, the intricate details and imagery drag out the hallucination to make it appear to the reader that hours have passed, but, in reality, only a few split seconds have passed (Conlogue 263). The reader is left in complete shock once the limited omniscient narrator returns to an outside viewer and describes the reality that Farquhar actually died. The dream seemed so real because of Bierce's manipulation of time, and the audience is stunned by the unanticipated revelation (Stoicheff 349).
Ambrose Bierce's brings a very distinct style of writing to "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." He also brings his war experiences and personal views into this famous short story. Throughout history Bierce has been seen as controversial and daring, which makes his writing even more memorable. In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", Bierce uses his distinct style to create a combination of point of view, sympathetic characterization, and skillful use of setting to fully convince the reader of Farquhar's escape and create a dramatic twist that leaves the reader in shock. Stuart C. Woodruff said, "somehow the reader is made to participate in the split between imagination and reason, to feel that the escape is real while he knows it is not" (Stoicheff 349). Bierce manipulates the reader which makes this short story clever, memorable and, overall, one of Bierce's finest works.