A psychophilosophical perspective on Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Ambrose Bierce’s short story titled An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is one of the classics of the art form.  The story could be read from several different angles, such as the social, cultural, psychological, political, etc.  First, the American Civil War of the 1860s provides the political angle.  Second is the cultural angle, whereby the unique flavors of the American South can be appreciated.  Third, the story provides rich material for studying the psychology of impending death.  Apart from these merits, the story also excels in employing literary devices, which heighten its aesthetic effect.  What we also witness in the short story are some of the persistent themes in Bierce’ fiction, namely, dark imagery, ambiguous setting of time, bare-essential descriptions, the background of war and magical/surreal events.  Hence, not only does An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge present various analytic perspectives, but it is also stamped with the author’s unique artistic elements.  This essay will take up the following thesis – though the hallucinatory sequence experienced by Peyton Farquhar is temporally brief, within it contain profound truths about the nature of human psychology and existence.

Seen at a glance, the short story seems to take the reader through conventional narrative devices of suspense, thrill and drama, leading to an unexpected twist ending.  But the profundity of the story goes far beyond these effects.  In other words, another literary element of the story is its implicit didactic undercurrent, which is also the most prominent theme in the story.  In fact, Bierce is suggesting two important things about life.  First, we usually take many small things for granted like the beauty of nature and the sensory pleasure it can give.  Second, the author is hinting that the proper parameter for measuring life should be quality and intensity of its use rather than mere quantity.

What Bierce is also driving home is the relative and flexible nature of time in the context of human sensory and cognitive experience.  As Peter Stoicheff (1993) notes in his critique of the story published in Studies in Short Fiction, rather than measuring time in absolute terms, the experience of living, and more particularly the intensity and rapidity with which events unfold, can stretch time to unimaginable lengths.  In the case of Peyton Farquhar’s tragic death, there seems to be an eternity of time between the moment the noose begins to constrict and the eventual cessation of life. (Stoicheff, 1993, p.351) The following passage explicates how Bierce exploits the dimension of time to full literary and dramatic effect:

“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)

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