Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” contains three distinct sections: a matter-of-fact opening scene, a flashback to provide some necessary history, and a fast-paced conclusion. The story begins with clear, simple, declarative sentences:A man stood upon a railroad bridge in Northern Alabama, looking down into the swift waters twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope loosely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head.
In the next sentence, it becomes apparent that this man is about to be executed by a unit of the Union army. The preparations for the execution are described in clinical detail. The narrator seems to be a dispassionate spectator who is unfamiliar with any of the participants in this grim event. The physical setting and movements of the Union company are rendered with such calm accuracy that the scene comes to life clearly and vividly. The condemned man is judged to be “about thirty-five years of age” and is “evidently” a southern “gentleman.”
“The preparations being complete,” the focus narrows to the condemned planter; the objective description yields subtly to a more subjective point of view, which allows the reader insight into the Southerner’s thoughts. The man is calm but, as might be expected, somewhat disoriented; he imagines that the “swift waters” are “sluggish.” He is disturbed by “a sharp, distinct, metallic precussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil. . . . [W]hat he heard was the ticking of his watch.” As he stands alone awaiting his death, he imagines throwing off his noose, diving into the water, and escaping to his beloved home and family. As these thoughts pass through his brain, the sergeant steps off of the back of a board on which the man is balanced over the water, and the condemned planter falls toward the stream, the noose tight around his neck.
(The entire section is 808 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is by far Bierce’s most widely read story, and it may also be his best. It focuses on Peyton Farquhar, a Southern planter and part-time Confederate conspirator, who, as the story opens, is about to be hanged on the Owl Creek bridge for having attempted to burn it. As Farquhar is being hanged, the reader is told, the rope breaks and he plunges alive into the water below. The rest of the story recounts his escape down the creek and then through the forest toward his home. Just as he reaches his house, where his wife awaits him, he feels a sharp blow to the back of his neck. In reality, he is not home at all: He hangs dead, of a broken neck, beneath the Owl Creek bridge. The rope has not, in fact, broken. Farquhar’s escape has been only a momentary illusion.
What makes this plot so successful, as it lures the reader into the story, and what makes the whole story so captivating, is the technical brilliance of the narration. Bierce begins the story, for example, with a very objective, unadorned, strikingly dispassionate, and minutely detailed description of both the soldiers and Farquhar on the bridge as the former prepare for the latter’s execution. The objectivity of the prose lends an official air to the narrative, almost as though it were not a piece of fiction at all but a military report. This objectivity combines with the detail with which the scene is set, including everything from an explanation of the various postures of the soldiers to the exaggerated ticking of the prisoner’s watch, to lend a profound degree of realism to the story. The reader is thus led to believe from the beginning of the story that what is being told is minutely accurate.
Once Farquhar is in the water, the tone is far less dispassionate, however, as the narrator enters the head of the fleeing prisoner, focusing on Farquhar’s reactions both to the soldiers who pursue him...
(The entire section is 786 words.)