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There is no indication in the story of any intention to enlist the reader's sympathies toward either side in the American Civil War. The narrative focuses very closely on the plight of one solitary individual who could just as easily be a Union sympathizer being hanged by Confederate soldiers. The focus on Peyton Farquhar is so intense that the narrator actually goes deep into his mind. Although the author uses a third-person objective and omniscient point of view, the effect is to place the reader right inside the condemned man's shoes from the moment the story opens with these words:
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck.
The soldiers performing the hanging are erect, disciplined and dispassionate. This is just one more man to be killed of the over 600,000 men who will die in the war. There is nothing to distract the reader's attention from the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of Peyton Farquhar. That is what makes this story so intense and the conclusion so chilling. What is happening to this unfortunate man is in effect happening to the reader.
When it seems that Farquhar might have a chance of escaping, the reader feels surprise and hope. Regardless of whether the reader's sympathies might be with the North or South, the reader wants very much to have the escaping prisoner get away. He is a human being. He has a wife and family. He has a natural human desire to survive and enjoy the beauties of nature and the pleasures of domestic life.
The narrator continues to beguile the reader, bringing him or her closer and closer to freedom, home, and happiness. It is because of the reader's close identification with the condemned man that the ending comes as such a shock.
At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon--then all is darkness and silence!
The reader ends up feeling deep pity for Farquhar regardless of the dead man's political sympathies and wishes he had not made such a foolish mistake as to trust the word of a total stranger and that he had not gambled his own and his wife's happiness on a desperate and futile romantic adventure.
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