“time itself, when employed to calibrate human experience, seems to become indeterminate at points of maximum emotional disturbance. Though the time it takes for Farquhar to die by hanging is indeterminate, Bierce goes to some length to imply that at the unknowable threshold of death itself time becomes crucially altered and even paradoxical, resistant to commonplace reciprocities of sensation and duration. Within a short time period, sensation does not become effaced, but instead divides itself into infinite units of experience, saturating the mind with stimuli. From this perspective, ‘time’ becomes vertiginous, the span of a second dilating to reveal ever increasing interior units of time, which themselves repeat the process of fractal division… in effect turning time inside out to reveal Blake’s eternity in an hour.” (Stoicheff, 1993, p.352)
Without tending to advocate moral relativism, Bierce adroitly handles the delicate job of showing heroic virtues alongside human frailties in the character of Peyton Farquhar. Him being a white souther slave owner, he is culpable of participating and perpetrating the institution of slavery. But this does not discredit his virtues in other areas of life. His allegiance to the confederate cause should be appreciated, since he was willing to risk his life to sabotage Unionists’ march further south. His genuine love for his wife and children is also very touching, especially when we consider that the whole hallucinatory sequence was triggered by this love. The whole object of his will to escape death was to rejoin and embrace the warmth of his family members. What this shows is that Peyton Farquhar’s complicity with the practice of slavery does not necessarily make him an immoral man. (Gale, 2001, p.25) His bravery, and attachment to his family make him an ideal head of family in the Southern cultural context.
“By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famishing. The thought of his wife and children urged him on…He must have traveled the entire night. 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, 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 the 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, 1890)
In conclusion, the points mentioned above underscore the stated thesis. They also go on to show that Ambrose Bierce infuses the story with key insights into the psychology of distress and trauma. The story also stands out for its universal appeal. That is the value, meaning and relevance of the story remains intact across cultures, nationalities and milieus. In other words, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge would have retained its popularity and relevance even if it was set in a different continent at a totally different period in history, for the essence of the story, namely that of a honest man’s love for his family and how this affects his thoughts during the brief few moments before death, could be understood and appreciated by all of us. Since psychology as a field of study is all about distilling common anxieties, concerns and fears afflicting the human mind, the story is a perfect case study for students of the discipline. That it is a fictitious account of an individual’s psychology is impertinent here, for the genre employed by the author is realism not fantasy or science-fiction.
Bierce, Ambrose, An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge, retrieved from <http://fiction.eserver.org/short/occurrence_at_owl_creek.html> on 17th December, 2010
Gale, Robert L. An Ambrose Bierce Companion /. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
Stoicheff, Peter. “”Something Uncanny”: The Dream Structure in Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”.” Studies in Short Fiction 30.3 (1993): 349+.
James G. Powers, “Freud and Farquhar: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge?” Studies in Short Fiction 19 (Summer 1982): 278–281