Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is the story of Peyton Farquhar, a Southern farmer who is about to be hanged by the Union army for trying to destroy the railroad bridge at Owl Creek. While the reader is led to believe he escapes under miraculous circumstances, it is revealed at the end of the story that Farquhar imagined his escape in the split seconds before his death.
Bierce uses a complex narrative structure to advance the theme of time in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” He distorts the reader’s sense of time by revealing at the end of the story that Farquhar imagined his escape in the few seconds before he died even though the escape takes up a great portion of the narrative. By doing so, Bierce addresses the ways time can be portrayed and manipulated in fiction, a medium in which the reader is often reliant on the author to represent or create reality. Bierce also stresses that time is subjective and phenomenal, especially during times of mental or emotional duress.
Death and Dying
Bierce also examines the human desire to escape or cheat death and speculates what occurs physically and psychologically at the time of death. Although Farquhar’s situation is quite grave—he is standing on a bridge with a noose around his neck as numerous Union soldiers stand guard—a part of him holds out hope that he can escape the situation and, therefore, mortality. By not allowing Farquhar to escape, Bierce emphasizes that death is unavoidable no matter how much people long to avoid it. Bierce also provides a detailed description of what a person could experience at the moment of death. Farquhar transfers the physical realities of his hanging—the falling from the bridge, the snapping of the neck, the swinging on the rope—to an imagined scenario. In this hallucinatory state, his senses are heightened to such a level that he believes he can hear spiders gliding across the water, see a million blades of grass, and hear the beating of dragon flies’ wings. It is unclear, however, if these sensations are a physical or psychological response to death.
Bierce addresses deception on a variety of levels in the story. Farquhar deceives himself into believing that it is possible to escape hanging, and he imagines that he does so. The reader, wanting to believe that Farquhar has managed to avoid death and achieve the glory he so wanted to attain, ignores clues throughout the narrative that Farquhar is hallucinating. Bierce contributes to this deception by using a complex narrative structure in which the reader is unsure as to who the narrator is and if that narrator is reliable. Bierce, who believed that fiction ought to challenge readers, once wrote that h detested “bad readers—readers who, lacking the habit of analysis, lack also the faculty of discrimination, and take whatever is put before them, with the broad, blind catholicity of a slop-fed conscience or a parlor pig.” Finally, Farquhar, who is obsessed with “the opportunity for distinction,” allows himself to be tricked by the Union soldier masquerading as a Confederate. The soldier merely has to suggest to Farquhar that the bridge could easily be set on fire for him to attempt the deed. All of these deceptions are caused by people wanting to believe what is impossible or unlikely.
Dreams and Reality
Bierce also comments on the discrepancy between dreams and reality in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” In the story, Farquhar, who dreams of being a great war hero for the Confederacy, has a romantic and idealized view of war. When he is confronted with the brutality, deception, and violence of armed conflict, he fantasizes that he escapes and triumphantly returns to his family. Dreams, then, are presented as a way of coping with the harsh realities of life. However, through his telling of the story and his portrayal of Farquhar, Bierce seems to suggest that such fantasies and self-deceptions are cowardly and often have negative consequences.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Ambrose Bierce, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.