Existential inquiry in ‘Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ by Ambrose Bierce

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. This essay will extend the third angle and argue that though the hallucinatory sequence experienced by Peyton Farquhar is temporally brief, within it contain profound truths about the nature of human psychology and existence.

A striking aspect 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 material for the thesis is contained in the third part which was only a matter of few minutes but 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)

By showing to the readers that so much drama could be contained in a brief period of time, Bierce is suggesting that there is a great scope for happiness and enjoyment during human lifetime which we don’t realize in the normal course. The high-adrenaline condition created by the thought of approaching mortality had taken Peyton’s imagination to a surreal zone. In this state of mind, the small hopeful signs of his escape from death looks magnified and magnificent. His powers of perception and the intake of sensory stimuli were taken to new heights. For example,
“He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. 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 them: the locusts, the brilliant- bodied flies, the grey spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass…..He dug his fingers into the sand, which looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of Æolian harps.” (Bierce, 1890)

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 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 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. More importantly,

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