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In the Ambrose Bierce short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," the main character Peyton Farquar is about to be hanged from a railroad bridge in Alabama. But when he steps between the planks, the rope breaks and he tumbles into the river below. Or does he? We know that Farquar is a wealthy Alabama plantation owner who has attempted to set fire to the Owl Creek Bridge, but before he can do so, he is caught and tried as a spy. He is sentenced to be hanged, but it appears to the reader that Farquar has escaped and returned home to his family. Only in the last sentence of the story does the reader find that
"Peyton Farquar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge."
Farquhar is a loyal Southerner during the Civil War. He is tricked by a Union scout masquerading as a Confederate soldier into believing he could stop a Yankee advance into Southern territory by destroying the railroad bridge at Owl Creek. When he attempts to do this, he is captured by the Union Army and sentenced to hang.
Farquhar was unable to participate in the war for causes that Bierce does not explain. His lack of action, along with the trick of the Federal scout goad his pride into trying to burn the bridge before the Union Army can advance further. I believe the threat of being hanged for trying this provokes his pride further to try it. It would be his chance to lay his life on the line for the cause he believes in. The scout used pride as bait to lure out any meddling southern citizens.
Remember, this story is about how individuals interpret the The mind sees what it wants to. Of all the sensory input he contorts throughout the story it first starts with the scout. He believed that he was encountering a chance to prove his worth and dedication to the cause. Instead he is duped by a spy seeking to expose partisans.
Peyton Farquhar is a man with a strong feeling of allegiance toward the Confederate cause but, due to his "imperious nature", refuses to go through the proper route of joining the military. It is partly this trait that makes him a somewhat less likeable character, and for this reason, the reader may feel as if he is deserving of his ultimate fate.
Not knowing anything about military discipline, or about rules of engagement, Farquhar chooses to act as a vigilante by acting on his own accord. He is fooled by a Union soldier into going on their own to burn a bridge that would have blocked the northerners to get through. He got caught as a result, and processed as it is customary: death by hanging.
Perhaps it is the fact that he is a wealthy southerner that has always had things go his way what made him presume that he was above everyone else and should take matters into his own hands. Ultimately, Peyton is not meant to be neither a hero nor a villain, but another consequence of the brutal nature of war.
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