An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce: An Analysis

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 three different angles.  First, the political angle provided by the American Civil War of the 1860s.  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 – though the hallucinatory sequence experienced by Peyton Farquhar is temporally brief, within it contain profound truths about the nature of human psychology and existence.  Apart from these merits, the story also excels in employing literary devices, which heighten its aesthetic effect.

One striking literary element of the story is the non-linear plot structure employed by the author.  The story is divided into four compact parts.  Chronologically they are arranged in this fashion – 2,1,3,4 – which means the background information about Farquhar’s allegiance to the confederate cause is placed next to the event of his hanging by Union soldiers.  The last two parts are chronologically in the right places, and it is in the crisp and concise fourth part that we learn that the whole of preceding narrative were the final hallucinatory thoughts of Peyton Farquhar.  The third part, which was only a matter of few minutes, takes up a large chunk of the narrative.  This is deliberate on part of the author, for he is trying to show to the reader that there is so much life contained in each passing second.  The author is also hinting that we mostly don’t enjoy our lives to the fullest, probably because our attention is being diverted from really important things in life like family and children and toward superficial things like status, wealth accumulation, etc. (Powers, 1982, p.280)

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.  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. (Stoicheff, 1993, p.351)

In conclusion, the points mentioned above underscore the unique literary style witnessed in the story.  They also go on to show that Ambrose Bierce infuses the story with key insights into the psychology of distress and trauma.  Moreover, the story 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.

Works Cited:

Primary Source:

Bierce, Ambrose, An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge, retrieved from <http://fiction.eserver.org/short/occurrence_at_owl_creek.html> on 17th December, 2010

Secondary Sources:

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