An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is one of the most famous short stories written by Ambrose Bierce. The tale tells about a southern farmer Peyton Farquhar who has attempted to destroy the railroad bridge at Owl Creek and was sentenced to a hanging by the Union Army. When Farquhar stands on the bridge with a rope on his neck, the author makes the reader believe that he falls into the water and gets free to come back to his farm to reunite with his family. However, in the end the reader sees that the main hero of the story was hanged and all the events were in his head in the seconds before his death. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge has been heavily critiqued for its ending, although, it appears to be an example of innovative narration and brilliance of the author’s technique. It is also praised for examination of disputable themes, such as the nature of time and the complexities of human cognition in coping with death with the help of irrational fantasies, and denial.
Bierce has a unique way of showing the concept of time in the story by using a complex narrative structure. He distracts the reader distorting their sense of time by revealing at the end that Farquhar died and everything that had been read before was just a figment of his imagination. By using this technique, the author demonstrates the ways time can be manipulated in fiction. Bierce also emphasises the subjectivity of time, especially at times stress. The story directly addresses the subject of time by the episode with the ticking pocket watch, resembling to the main character “the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil” (Bierce 12). This scene reflects the perception of the time passage caused by Farquhar’s proximity to death. The author implies that time loses its force in front of the human mind, which sometimes can deceive the person.
The story examines the natural desire to escape death and demonstrates what happens to a person physically and psychologically at the moment of dying. Bierce speculates on the subject of other planes of reality existence, and portraits death as a gateway to them. The author gives a detailed description of what an individual might experience in the last minutes of their life. The main character transfers the real details of his hanging to an imagined world. There is a distinctive dividing line when Farquhar’s perceptions of the surroundings changes. In this moment, his senses become “preternaturally keen and alert” (Bierce 15), and he notices things that are impossible to see, such as leaves and the insects on them, or the colors of the dewdrops. In the end of the story, the reader sees the episode suggesting that everything is a trick of the main character’s imagination. Farquhar thinks that “perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium” and finds himself in front of his house’s gates (Bierce 18). Without a doubt, this is the type of shift which can occur only in a dream.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge studies the line between life and death, and examines the ways humans deal with the concept of death, always trying to escape it. In the story, Farquhar, having a romantic and idealized concept of war, encounters brutality and violence of armed forces, and he fantasizes that he escapes and comes back to his wife. Dreams are demonstrated as a method for coping with life challenges, and the author seems to suggest that imagination can be deceptive, and may often involve negative consequences.
In conclusion, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a complex story having numerous themes to be discovered. The most important subjects are the concept of time and oddity of human mind, which can do surprising tricks in a dangerous situation. The author has unique ways of storytelling, distracting the reader from the reality and leaving them amazed in the end.
Bierce, Ambrose. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The Library of America, 2011, from Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs, pp. 10-19.