An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Ambrose Bierce
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” Ambrose Bierce
(Full name Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce; also wrote under the pseudonyms Dod Grile and William Herman) American short story writer, journalist, poet, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents criticism of Bierce's short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which was initially published in 1890 and later appeared in the collection of short stories titled Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891).
Regarded as one of the best-known short stories in American literature, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was initially published in the San Francisco Examiner on July 13, 1890 and then appeared in Bierce's collection of short stories, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891). Commentators describe the story as an exploration of a condemned man's psyche during execution. Although ostensibly a war story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is sometimes included in supernatural anthologies for its depiction of abnormal phenomenon and has been cited as an early and significant exploration of psychology in fiction.
Plot and Major Characters
Critics divide “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” into three sections. The first is the description of a static scene: a Confederate sympathizer, Peyton Farquhar, is about to be hanged from the Owl Creek Bridge by Union soldiers for his unsuccessful attempt to blow up the bridge. In this first section, critics note that Bierce utilizes a myriad of details and military terminology to create an almost handbook description of how to hang a man. As the noose is placed around Farquhar's neck, Bierce describes the dispassionate actions of the Union soldiers in preparation for the hanging and Farquhar's last-minute desperation to escape. As the moment of his execution arrives, Farquhar perceives the external world slowing down and can hear the ticking of his watch pounding in his ears. The second section is a flashback to the events that led up to the hanging. Farquhar is revealed not as a hero, but as an arrogant, self-serving plantation owner from a respected Alabama family. Despite his pro-slavery leanings and secessionist beliefs, he never joins the Confederate army and instead remains on his plantation, dreaming of being a soldier and a hero. When a Federal scout rides up to his plantation disguised as a Confederate soldier, Farquhar confides his far-fetched plan to sabotage the Owl Creek Bridge and kill Union forces. Farquhar's implausible mission ends in his capture and death sentence. In the third section of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” the scene shifts forward to his execution: as Farquhar's body drops and is assumed dead, the rope breaks and Farquhar regains consciousness in the creek. As he escapes the Union forces and finds the road home to his plantation, his neck hurts him and the road disappears from underneath his feet. The narrative shifts from past tense to present tense as Farquhar returns home, greeted by his beautiful wife. As he embraces her, he feels a stunning blow to the back of his neck as it breaks. It is revealed that Farquhar's escape from the hangman has been the final fantasy of a dying man.
Critics identify the major theme of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” as the human need to escape death. As the moment of his execution arrives, Farquhar deludes himself into believing—albeit for just a few seconds—that he has escaped the hangman's noose and has arrived home to his loving wife. Therefore, self-delusion is perceived to be another key thematic concern of the story, which is illustrated not only by Farquhar's escape fantasy, but also by his distorted view of himself as a courageous patriot and freedom fighter. Commentators contend that Bierce makes his contempt for Farquhar very clear, particularly for his avoidance of military duty and his inflated sense of importance. In fact, the unreliability of information is acknowledged as a central issue in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” as Bierce utilizes irony, an untrustworthy narrator, and shifting perspectives to show that the mind can create its own realities and its own escapes. In the story, Bierce does not overtly inform the reader that Farquhar's escape is a hallucination but expects that the careful reader will realize the impossibility of events described in the final section of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is regarded as one of the most famous and frequently anthologized stories in American literature. Much of the critical discussion about the story focuses on the story's surprise ending and investigates clues throughout the piece that reveal that Farquhar's escape was only a hoax. Several critics have derided the surprise ending, regarding it as a perceptual trap and an unjustified trick. Others praise Bierce's manipulation of time, language, and perspective in the story as masterful and contend that the author placed several clues within the narrative to show Farquhar's fallibility. Psychological interpretations have been applied to the story, particularly allusions to Freudian and dream theories. A few reviewers have found parallels between “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and O. Henry's “The Furnished Room.” Moreover, commentators have compared Bierce's story to cinematic adaptations of the story, particularly Robert Enrico's La Riviere du Hibou. A few critics have investigated the origins of the story and the actual location of the bridge by examining events from Bierce's own Civil War experience. Others consider “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” to be an influential story that anticipates the work of later writers of psychological fiction.
Tales of Soldiers and Civilians 1891; also published as In the Midst of Life, 1892
Can Such Things Be? 1893
The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce. 12 vols. (short stories, sketches, poetry, essays, and satire) 1912
Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California [as Dod Grile] (sketches) 1872
The Fiend's Delight [as Dod Grile] (sketches) 1873
Cobwebs from an Empty Skull [as Dod Grile] (sketches) 1874
The Dance of Death [with Thomas A. Harcourt under the joint pseudonym of William Herman] (satire) 1877
Black Beetles in Amber (poetry) 1892
The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter [translator; with Gustav Adolph Danzinger] (novel) 1892
Fantastic Fables (satire) 1899
Shapes of Clay (poetry) 1903
The Cynic's Word Book (satire) 1906; also published as The Devil's Dictionary, 1911
The Shadow on the Dial, and Other Essays (essays) 1909
Write It Right (essay) 1909
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SOURCE: Barrett, Gerald R., and Thomas L. Erskine. “Language and Theme in ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” In From Fiction to Film: Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” pp. 69-75. Encino, Calif.: Dickenson Publishing Company, Inc., 1973.
[In the following essay, Barrett and Erskine offer a stylistic and thematic analysis of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”]
Although “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is commonly regarded as Ambrose Bierce's best and most famous short story, its “surprise ending” is not universally admired. Seeing obvious comparisons to O. Henry's “The Furnished Room,” Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren regard the ironic turn of events as an unjustified “trick,” existing for its own sake and totally without what they call “fictional meaning.”1 W. Gordon Cunliffe also notes the superficial resemblance between the stories by Bierce and O. Henry, but while he describes the O. Henry ending as unconvincing and mechanical, he praises Bierce's ending and observes that the surprise ending is a “surprise” only to the unsophisticated reader.2 In fact, Bierce skillfully and unobtrusively prepares us for the ironic end of the story by using “whiplash reversals” at the end of each part of the story.3 Cunliffe's perceptive and informative comments about ironic anticipations point us to a larger...
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SOURCE: Palmer, James W. “From Owl Creek to La Riviere du hibou: The Film Adaptation of Bierce's ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” Southern Humanities Review 11, no. 4 (fall 1977): 363-71.
[In the following essay, Palmer investigates the similarities and differences between “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and its cinematic adaptation, Robert Enrico's La Riviere du hibou.]
Robert Enrico's fine film La Riviere du Hibou is based on Ambrose Bierce's short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Enrico's adaptation is particularly interesting for two reasons. First, the adaptation follows closely the immediate events of the story, Peyton Farquhar's hanging and his supposed escape. Enrico skillfully captures the story's tension between the real hanging and the subjective imaginings of Farquhar. Secondly, the theme and tone of Bierce's story undergo significant modification in the transition to the screen, primarily because Enrico deletes the expository section of Bierce's story, thereby shifting much of Bierce's irony away from the central character, Peyton Farquhar. Attempts to deal with the question of fidelity in adaptation most often lead to confusion, for fidelity is a notion that tends to resist definition. But a close look at Enrico's film, how it follows Bierce's story and how it deviates from that story, may suggest some of the similarities and differences...
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SOURCE: Geduld, Harry M. “Literature into Film: ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, no. 27 (1978): 56-8.
[In the following essay, Geduld considers the nature and problems of film adaptation through a study of Robert Enrico's La Riviere du hibou, a film adapted from Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”]
The workshop on literature into film was prefaced by a screening of Robert Enrico's 1964 film adaptation of Ambrose Bierce's short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Separately, the story and the film version are usually viewed as one or more of the following: an anti-war statement; an expose of the horrors of capital punishment; a study of the complex relationships of life and death, hope and disillusionment, illusion and reality. For the purposes of the workshop, however, the film and its source provided a focus for a general consideration of the nature and problems of film adaptation.
In his opening comments the director of the workshop emphasized that the study of film adaptation is not an ivory tower exercise. During the past twenty years, money from movie companies has been funneling into the publishing business on a large scale—and particularly into the paperback book business. Increasingly, novels that are extensively promoted by modern advertising techniques or that are expected to hit...
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SOURCE: Ulrich, Ursula O. “‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’: The Short Story and its Cinema Adaptation.” In Proceedings of the 7th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, edited by Eva Kushner and Milan V. Dimic, p. 421. Stuttgart: Erich Bieber, 1979.
[In the following essay, Ulrich outlines the differences between “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and its film adaptation and asserts that the surprise ending “is even more effective in the film than in the story.”]
Ambrose Bierce's short story is clearly divided into three parts: the first gives an outside observer's minute and objective description of the preparations for the hanging of a man on a railroad bridge; the second introduces the about-to-be-hanged man by name, briefly indicates his social and family situation, sketches his character, and relates the event which led to his conviction; the third and longest part of the short story is an account of the condemned man's subjective experience of the hanging, consisting mainly of his illusion of a surprise escape and ending abruptly with the fatal shock of his breaking neck.
Bierce's narrative is marked throughout by the ironic disparity between appearance and reality, reason and imagination, thought and feeling. In all three parts, the real action is propelled with the utmost expediency and sobriety, yet the narrator cannot refrain...
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SOURCE: Fabó, Kingo. “Ambrose Bierce: ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” Acta Litteraria: Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 24, nos. 1-2 (1982): 225-32.
[In the following essay, Fabó examines the structuring principles in Bierce's story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”]
Every one of Ambrose Bierce's short stories is about death; so is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in a cumulative way: the protagonist, Peyton Farquhar dies three deaths rather than just one—he is hanged, shot and drowned in rapid succession. The real protagonist of the story, then, is death or, since death cannot be experienced, the last instant preceding it. This, of course, requires someone to die, in order that the process might be presented through him. In other words, the fact of death and its portrayal are more important than the person who happens to be its subject (or rather object). And, indeed, the characters of the story are unimportant both in and for themselves and for one another; they have no personality, no distinctive features. They do not act: things happen to them in random and unexpected ways, an occasional action triggering off a whole succession of automatic consequences, pitiless and mechanical, leading up to a denouement that is felt to be inevitable in its finality and closedness. It might even be called tragic, had the word not acquired a connotation of engagement and pathos. The...
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SOURCE: Powers, James G., S.J. “Freud and Farquhar: ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’?” Studies in Short Fiction 19, no. 3 (summer 1982): 278-81.
[In the following essay, Powers applies a Freudian interpretation to “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”]
Much has been written of Ambrose Bierce's predilection for bizarre topics—his penchant for “gratuitous horror and meaningless annihilation,”1 his cynicism rooted in an idealism which collided with the “crudities of the Gilded Age” at the turn of the century2; his love-hate relationship to war; finally, his pioneer treatment of the “clock of consciousness” in a relentless time world. In this last respect, John Crane observes, alluding to “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” that the hero, Peyton Farquhar, “has imposed a temporary reality, the desires of the heart, upon the true reality within the swollen moments of his post-mortem consciousness.”3
It is these “desires of the heart,” welling up in the unconscious of Peyton Farquhar, at the moment of his departure from the observable fixities of this world, that this article addresses. Little has been said of Bierce's psychological treatment of fiction, except a terse reference in Robert A. Wiggin's short reflection, Ambrose Bierce, wherein he mentions that “Bierce was precocious in his rebellion against...
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SOURCE: Cheatham, George, and Judy Cheatham. “Bierce's ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” Explicator 43, no. 1 (fall 1984): 44-7.
[In the following essay, Cheatham and Cheatham probe the origins of the name of the protagonist, Peyton Farquhar, in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”]
Peyton Farquhar—no reader of Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” fails to note the oddity of the name. Any one having taught the story has no doubt had students find the name humorous. Why then did Bierce, who could have given the character any name, choose the one that he did? Is Peyton Farquhar simply one of those old names, familiar to the nineteenth century, which falls strangely on modern ears, or does its oddness serve some function in the story? A close look at the name suggests the latter point and, further, that Bierce chose the name carefully.
Peyton, first, is a variant spelling of Payton, the Scottish form of Patrick (from the Latin, meaning a patrician, a person of noble descent).1 Farquhar derives from the Gaelic Fearachar, meaning manly or brave, the name of an early Scottish king.2 Such a pair of names, of course, well suits a “well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family,” who is “at heart a soldier.”3
The name itself, moreover, reinforces the central irony of the story,...
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SOURCE: Davidson, Cathy N. “The Process of Perception.” In The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce, pp. 45-55. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
[In the following excerpt, Davidson explores the perceptions of Peyton Farquhar, the protagonist of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” focusing on how they are affected by his inevitable execution.]
Bierce's protagonists are usually known by their failures, failures that show the limits and the limitations of a particular character's particular perspective. In this respect the test passed sometimes proves nothing. Survival becomes an accident of obtuseness in a few stories such as “A Watcher by the Dead,” a tale that shows two characters, Doctors Helberson and Harper, who do not even recognize that they have been tested at all. The test failed, however, is always indicative. It proves perceptual shortcomings, shortcomings that are not transcended through a belated recognition of their existence (when such recognition occurs).
The three possibilities—the sadder and wiser man who has learned the lesson of his previous limitations, the fortunate unfallen who survive through chance and their own short-sightedness, the defeated protagonist whose death is a measure of his previous self-deceptions—are all brilliantly combined in Bierce's best-known story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” This story also...
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SOURCE: Ames, Clifford R. “Do I Wake or Sleep?: Technique as Content in Ambrose Bierce's Short Story, ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 19, no. 3 (spring 1987): 52-67.
[In the following essay, Ames argues that the popularity of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a testimony to Bierce's technical skill, particularly his ability to manipulate perception and suspend disbelief.]
What evidence could be applied to, supposing we were asked at this very moment whether we are asleep or awake—dreaming all that passes through our minds or talking to one another in the waking state.1
Peyton Farquhar, the unfortunate hero of Ambrose Bierce's short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” learns to make the distinction between waking and dreaming the hard way, and the reader is left stranded at the end of the story with the uncomfortable feeling that the certain evidence Socrates sought from his pupil Theaetetus is available only to those who suffer this kind of final recognition. Indeed, since both veridical and delusive perceptions generally seem to follow a logical pattern, and since there can be no essential difference in the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that make up the content of experience in waking and dreaming, the answer to the question “Do I wake or sleep?” can be delivered...
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SOURCE: Conlogue, William. “Bierce's ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” The Explicator 48, no. 1 (fall 1989): 37-8.
[In the following essay, Conlogue finds a connection between Peyton Farquhar and a medieval band of hemp-eating Moslem assassins.]
In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” Peyton Farquhar grows hemp. These tree-like plants, used in making rope, grow to over 15 feet in height. The narrator of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” tells us that Farquhar is a “student of hanging”; he studies rope (12). The American Heritage Dictionary gives as one definition of rope, “death by hanging” (1071). Farquhar's “gyration,” his whirling round and round in the river, mimics the twisting of hemp to make rope (16). The trees Farquhar notices along the river bank have a “definite order in their arrangement,” as if they had been planted (16). Farquhar has entered a paradise where “roseate light” shines and “the music of aeolian harps” plays in the tree branches (16). He wants to remain in “that enchanting spot” but he continues on toward his plantation in his hallucination (16).
This leads to the central pun of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The pun appears in the physical description of Farquhar. “He wore a mustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one...
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SOURCE: Stoicheff, Peter. “‘Something Uncanny’: The Dream Structure in Ambrose Bierce's ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 3 (summer 1993): 349-57.
[In the following essay, Stoicheff considers Bierce's utilization of dream theory in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” maintaining that through his “intuitive employment” of Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury's and Sigmund Freud's dream models Bierce “generates and sustains the uncanny impression of unconscious reality.”]
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” has received more critical attention than any other single work by Ambrose Bierce. This is probably because it combines into one text the best ingredients distributed among much of Bierce's fiction—satire, irony, manipulation of the reader, the exposure of human self-deception, a surprise ending, and a stylistic compression and tautness. It may also be because something of the story still eludes its commentators, leaving a residual and “uncanny” (to use Bierce's convenient term in the text) sense of revelation hovering just beyond one's grasp. Peyton Farquhar's death at the end is a surprise, so carried away are we by his desire for escape; yet it seems somehow presaged by the very description that keeps it, until the story's last paragraph, obscure and unanticipated. As Stuart C. Woodruff, one of the story's closest analysts, puts it,...
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SOURCE: Owens, David M. “Bierce and Biography: The Location of Owl Creek Bridge.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 26, no. 3 (spring 1994): 82-9.
[In the following essay, Owens provides a biographical context for “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and investigates the actual location of Owl Creek, finding it to be an amalgamation of Alabama and Tennessee locales.]
“A man stood on a railroad bridge in northern Alabama,” begins Ambrose Bierce's most famous short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Set in the American Civil War, the story describes the hanging of Peyton Farquhar, a Southern planter caught attempting to sabotage a railroad bridge considered vital by the Union Army. At the onset, Bierce clearly sets the action of the story in Alabama. In a historical context, the setting makes sense. Late in the Civil War, the Union and the Confederacy struggled for control of the rail lines in northern Alabama, with the Confederates desperately destroying critical facilities to slow the northerners' advance and disrupt Sherman's supply lines. Bierce reinforces the historical accuracy of the setting with a brief reference to the fall of Corinth, Mississippi, an immediate consequence of the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. However, there is an important fictional modification in the geography of the setting. Owl Creek is in Tennessee, not northern Alabama.
In April of...
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SOURCE: Walz, Lawrence A. “Mary Henry's Journey from Owl Creek Bridge.” Literature/Film Quarterly 23, no. 4 (1995): 262-65.
[In the following essay, Walz addresses the use of the “Owl Creek Bridge Plot” in the 1961 film Carnival of Souls and contrasts the protagonists of the movie and the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”]
Ambrose Bierce's short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) has long been celebrated for its classic surprise ending. Peyton Farquhar, being hanged as a Confederate saboteur at Owl Creek Bridge, is reprieved when the rope breaks. He plunges into the river below the bridge, swims to shore, and makes his way home. Upon arriving, he suddenly feels his neck breaking—in reality he has reached the end of the unbroken rope.
This ending is a variation of the standard plot twist—“It was just a dream.” In Bierce's hands, however, the treatment becomes serious”; Peyton's fantasy of escape and freedom at the moment of his death shows the strength (almost grandeur) of human hope, and the sadness and inevitability of human fate. Through Bierce's skillful writing, Peyton Farquhar becomes a symbol of hope in the face of death.
The “Owl Creek Bridge plot” has been used in fiction—and film—for other aesthetic goals: to develop character more fully, to present themes different from Bierce's. In this...
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SOURCE: Blume, Donald T. “‘A Quarter of an Hour’: Hanging as Ambrose Bierce and Peyton Farquhar Knew It.” American Literary Realism 34, no. 2 (winter 2002): 146-57.
[In the following essay, Blume explores Bierce's knowledge of executions and the physiological effects of hanging and argues that the hallucination sequence in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” takes place in a fifteen-minute period after his neck was broken.]
When “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” first appeared in William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner on 13 July 1890, it became the eleventh Civil War story Ambrose Bierce, the locally famous author of “Prattle,” a long-running and widely read weekly column, had published within the paper following his hiring by Hearst early in 1887. Bierce's subsequent republications of the story in three collections divided into “Soldiers” and “Civilians” sections further established the tale's identity as a war story with a “twist” ending.1 As generations of readers have learned, the action of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” turns on an elaborate deception: Peyton Farquhar, a Southern planter with Confederate sympathies, urged on by a Northern spy disguised as a Southern scout, and apprehended while attempting to destroy the bridge over Owl Creek, does not actually escape from the hangman's noose, but only imagines that he does....
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SOURCE: Berkove, Lawrence I. “‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’: Nothing Better Exists.” In A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce, pp. 113-35. Columbus: The Ohio State University, 2002.
[In the following essay, Berkove ranks “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” as one of the most accomplished literary hoaxes ever written, contending that Bierce manipulates the readers of the story by allowing them to project their expectations into the story and “letting those expectations blind them into not reading carefully and thoughtfully enough.”]
To Bierce, reason, although imperfect, remains humanity's best hope for preventing a needless death or at least for delaying death's inevitability. Conversely, the failure to use reason, or the misuse of it, will hasten death or bring it on needlessly. This is the theme of Bierce's most famous story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (CW [The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce], II, 27-45). “Nothing better exists,” said Stephen Crane. “That story contains everything.”1 Crane was right. Certainly it is the finest story that Bierce wrote, and it has deservedly achieved the status of a classic. In it Bierce finally mastered his medium. Compared to “A Horseman in the Sky,” even after that story's subsequent revisions, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is the work of a much surer pen. Just...
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