Ambrose Bierce was an American journalist and author. He participated in the Civil War, serving in the Ninth Indiana Infantry.1 During this period, Bierce published various articles and essays. Afterwards, he started a new career as a journalist. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is Bierce’s most famous story. The narrative has many distinguishing characteristics. It lacks romantic and sentimental ideas that were popular among writers at the time. However, it presents a new vision of the role of human beings in the world. The main purpose of this paper is to analyze An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, taking into account existing critical opinions of this story.
Depending on how deep readers immerse themselves in the story at the beginning, the ending might surprise them. The author describes small details with great accuracy. The story takes place in Alabama during the Civil War. Bierce describes the soldiers, their guns, their habits, military terminology, and other aspects in detail to create a real-world for readers. The author’s war experience helps to make the story genuine and unique.
However, the final part creates a contrast as Bierce introduces a weird fantasy world that conceals reality. If the beginning was not so complicated and realistic, the ending would not be as surprising and shocking as it is.2 Readers do not expect that Farquhar has only dreamed of his escape, but harsh reality suddenly breaks into this fantasy world.
However, the author leaves some clues throughout the story that show the difference between reality and imagination. For example, the soldier’s guns described in the first part of the narrative as harmless and ceremonial are different from the guns in the episode of Farquhar’s escape. They suddenly start shooting as real military weapons. Also, the author shows that Farquhar’s thoughts are illusory and use an unreliable tone. For example, when the main character plunges into the river, the author ironically refers to popular narrative styles. Commercial fiction usually describes insurmountable obstacles that the protagonist is surprisingly able to overcome. Bierce employs this technique to give readers a clue that the story of the escape is not real.
The author’s realism is necessary to demonstrate the terror of execution. It is an attempt to change common ideas about the Civil War. He highlights the real nature of military conflict and avoids romanticism. He shows the hideous truth without exaggeration. Bierce emphasizes the fact that many people gave their lives in the name of false and vague ideas. The author reveals the thoughts and emotions of a person who is about to be hanged. The story is an example of a realistic style. There is not a first-person narrator, which allows the author to present a comprehensive description of this horrifying event.3
He shows the inner life of the protagonist, which overlaps with his thoughts. Farquhar rejects real life by creating a new, alternative world. However, this is not purely the author’s artistic fantasy. Major stress can induce such hallucinations. There is a widespread idea that a person’s entire life might replay itself in the mind of a person who is about to die. However, Bierce presents a different view. A person does not recall memories of the past. On the contrary, he looks to the future, imagining the relief he feels about his luck. This illusion is so intense that it even elicits physical pain in the main character.
Although Bierce took part in the Civil War, he made this story apolitical. In spite of the fact that the author makes readers feel empathy with the executed rebel, the main idea is to present the protagonist as a person, not as an element in a political movement. Farquhar looks more real and alive than the antagonists who perform a routine, mechanical job. Also, the author highlights the main character’s appealing traits. He is young and good-looking, brave and devoted. However, Bierce describes his final moments with dark irony.4 This irony contributes to establishing the more real world of the narrative.
Farquhar symbolizes the class of planters. His pointless death reveals the tragic outcomes of the Civil War. His execution reflects the slaughter that caused thousands of deaths. The main character’s wife is his only supporter. However, she is far away from the place of execution. Farquhar is totally isolated.5 Various factors contribute to that. The author describes him as a soldier who could not go to war as others did.
However, he wants to join them and fight along with them. Farquhar perceives himself as a hero. His land was invaded and occupied by enemies. He was left behind and betrayed. Farquhar is a symbol of a socioeconomic system that his enemies strive to destroy. He has no allies and dies alone. The soldiers who carry out the execution are indifferent towards their victims. The final episode demonstrates the absolute isolation of the main character.6 This alienation offers no hope for any possible relief.
However, hope is another important theme in this story. The final part reveals the protagonist’s unconditional hope for salvation. Farquhar tried to burn down a bridge, thinking that it might change the course of the war. However, he was tricked by a Union soldier who talked Farquhar into attempting it. The young planter was caught and sentenced to death. At the beginning of the story, he looks at Owl Creek as he waits for the hanging.
Throughout the story, the author demonstrates the human instinct to survive that is evoked when a person faces death.7 Hope does not leave the protagonist until the end. Bierce even makes readers believe that Farquhar managed to avoid the inevitable punishment. When the protagonist falls and experiences suffocation and unbearable pain, he imagines that the rope breaks, and he plunges into the river. He believes that multiple bullets do not harm him. Farquhar swims to the bank and runs away from his enemies. He keeps running for a whole day and eventually comes home. His wife meets him with a smile and greetings.
During this illusion, the author offers various clues that show that the escape is not real. However, readers who want to believe in a happy ending can easily ignore them. Bierce questions all the unreasonable hopes that people might have. He underlines the idea that death is inevitable for everyone. However, this idea scares people, and they try to fool themselves through their meaningless efforts. The author’s cynicism promotes his view of cultivating false hopes. The death of the main character is also a symbol of the sunset of the South. The story thus diminishes all deceptive hopes. Bierce shows that life and death are insignificant elements in the universe.
Another important aspect of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is the narrative structure. The story’s ending provoked various reactions from other authors and critics. Some insisted that it was an unnatural denouement and did not correspond to existing literary conventions. Others perceived the ending as an innovative artistic approach. The story follows the traditional order. It has an introduction, main part, and conclusion.
However, the author’s conclusion is not exactly what it seems to be. Although the main character dies in the middle of the narrative, the story goes on. Through the final part, Bierce demonstrates that stories might be unresolved. They do not necessarily have to abide by the rules of traditional narratives. Bierce employs these innovative techniques to present his ideas clearly. He tries to avoid ambiguity. He combines two incompatible versions of reality within the same plot.
The final part illustrates the protagonist’s inner life that contrasts with the objectivity presented at the beginning of the story. By shifting the focus, the author suggests that both internal and external visions are significant. In addition, Bierce changes the perception of time, making it stretch and shrink. The first two parts occur in real-time. However, the final section lasts only a few seconds, while the narrative describes several hours of Farquhar’s life. One of the author’s most impressive innovations is how seamlessly the surface plot obscures two contradictory worlds.
This work is a striking example of realistic prose. The author adopted different techniques to embody his controversial ideas, but many readers did not approve of his innovative narrative style. However, this story has become a modern classic and is rightfully recognized as a masterpiece of world literature.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Bloom’s Literature. Web.
Bierce, Ambrose. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories. Courier Corporation, 2008.
“Hope in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Bloom’s Literature. Web.
“Death in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Bloom’s Literature. Web.
“Isolation in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Bloom’s Literature. Web.
Tabachnick, Stephen E. “A Possible Source for the Conclusion of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews vol. 26, no. 1, 2013, pp.45-48.