“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce centers on Peyton Farquhar, a southern farmer about to be hanged by the Union army for attempting to destroy the railroad bridge at Owl Creek. As he stands with the noose around his neck, Farquhar imagines that the rope breaks and he escapes. At the end of the story, it is revealed that these imaginings took place in the seconds before his death.
Structure and Narration
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is divided into three sections, with each section having its own distinct structure and narrative technique. In the first section, Bierce describes the setting of the execution up to the point the plank beneath Farquhar’s feet is removed. It is told from a conventional third-person point of view, with the narrator objectively describing the scene and relating the circumstances from outside the story. The second section provides background information on Farquhar, including how he came to commit the act for which he is about to be hanged. It is revealed that Farquhar was at home with his family when a soldier rode up and told him that the Union Army would soon be advancing across the Owl Creek bridge, which was vulnerable to attack. The soldier then told Farquhar that a great deal of driftwood had piled up against the bridge and that it could easily be set on fire. At the end of the section, the reader is told that the soldier was not a Confederate but rather a Union scout who has tried to provoke Farquhar into attempting to destroy the bridge. This section is also told from the third-person point of view, but it varies somewhat from the narration in the first section because some of Farquhar’s perceptions are revealed. The third section picks up where the first section left off; then the rope around Farquhar’s neck apparently breaks and he falls into the water. The viewpoint of the story suddenly shifts to a modified first-person point of view, and the reader is given access to Farquhar’s thoughts and feelings as he attempts to escape. The narrator describes in great detail what is happening as Farquhar struggles to get out of the river, escape gun shots and cannon fire, and run through the wilderness to his house approximately thirty miles away. At the very end of the section, the story suddenly switches back to the third person and it is revealed that Farquhar is dead. Bierce’s shifts in narration create a sense of disorientation in the reader because it is not always clear who is relating the story and if the narrator is reliable. This reflects Farquhar’s own disorientation and allows the reader to take part in his hallucinations.
Bierce treats Farquhar as a satiric object in the story. Satire is a literary technique that uses ridicule, humor, or wit to criticize or provoke change in human nature or institutions. Bierce uses “indirect” satire; he relies on Farquhar’s romantic notions of war to emphasize its brutal realities. Farquhar, who for some unknown reason was not allowed to become a Confederate soldier, believes that war is an opportunity for distinction ”and that all is fair in love and war.” He is obsessed with achieving honor and believes that battle would allow “the release of his energies.” Because of these beliefs, Farquhar is a prime target for entrapment. The Union soldier merely has to suggest to him that Oak Creek bridge could easily be burned down. Seeing an opportunity for glory, Farquhar rushes off to commit the deed. However, even as he stands with a noose around his neck, he is unable to accept the realities of his impending death. Instead, he imagines an extraordinary series of events during which he, in his mind, emerges a hero.
Bierce uses figurative language—the opposite of literal language, in which every word is truthful, accurate, and free of exaggeration—to enhance the emotional impact of his story. He uses figurative language most extensively in the third section to give clues to the reader that Farquhar is hallucinating and becoming increasingly disoriented. In this section, the narrator’s language is often melodramatic. For example, when Farquhar is in the river, fighting to break the rope around his wrists, the narrator declares: “What splendid effort!” and “What superhuman strength!” Additionally, the surroundings are described in the minutest detail, suggesting that Farquhar could not possibly be experiencing what is being described. For example, the narrator states that Farquhar noted the prismatic colors in all the dew drops upon a million blades of grass,” he heard the beating of the dragon flies’ wings,” and he heard “the rush of [a fish] parting the water.” Bierce also uses alliteration—the repetition of consonant sounds—to make the language in this section sound unrealistic and hallucinatory: “He was now in full possession of his physical senses,” “A piece of dancing driftwood,” “His heart.. .had been/luttering faintly.” Finally, Bierce uses meter—rhythmic language patterns—to create a singsong, dreamlike effect. For example, he uses iambs, a unit of words consisting of a repeating pattern of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable: “The trees’ u-pon’ the bank’ were gi’-ant gar’-den plants’.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Ambrose Bierce, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.