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The irony in this short story lies in the presentation of thje character of Peyton Farquhar in the second section of this story. There is a deliberate discrepancy between Farquhar's notions of what war is all about the messy, brutal reality of war. Note how Farquhar is presented in this section after the reader has been told how he was unable to become a soldier in one conflict:
...he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction.
The narrator goes on to express that Farquhar agreed on the whole with the "frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war." Clearly Bierce is creating a character who has romantic notions concerning war that bear no resemblance to the reality of what war is all about. He easily swallows the idea that such an important bridge would lie unguarded and could easily be burnt down, and even when he is on the point of being hung, his desperate desire to be a hero causes him to imagine a daredevil escape rather than the ignomonious reality of his death. The irony in this story thus lies in the discrepancy between the reality of what war really is and Farquhar's romantic notions of war as an "opportunity for distinction" and "the larger life of the soldier." All is not fair in love and war, and this is a truth that Farquhar ironically evades until his very end.
Some further examples of irony in Ambrose Bierce's story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" are the following:
It is ironic that Peyton Farquhar is being hanged for a crime he did not succeed in committing. He is being hanged from the bridge he intended to burn down.
It is bitterly ironic that he imagines he is escaping and goes through a whole series of hopes and fears but ends up having his neck broken by the hanging rope just when he thinks he has reached the safety of his home.
It is ironic the way Ambrose Bierce leads the reader to believe that the "gray-clad soldier" who stops at Farquhar's plantation and tells him how easy it would be to burn down the bridge turns out to be an enemy soldier. The very last words of the second section are: "He was a Federal scout."
It is ironic that Farquhar should imagine that he is living for a long period of time while falling with the noose around his neck, when he only has a matter of seconds to live. The length of his life was measured by the amount of slack in the rope.
A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees.
There are many different views of what constitutes irony. Typically irony seems like something that would be a joke if it were not so painful or tragic. Ambrose Bierce had a sour, sardonic, pessimistic, cynical nature, as is shown in the grim humor of the definitions in his book The Devil's Dictionary. He savored irony.
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