Essays and Criticism
The Portrayal of a Character's Inner Psychology
Ambrose Bierce may very well have been a man out of time. He was a cynical journalist writing at a time when social thought was dominated by optimism. He was the writer who introduced psychological studies in fiction into an American literary scene dominated by realism, naturalism, and regionalism. He was uncompromising in his refusal to bend to the requests of his publishers. Some people have seen his flight to Mexico in 1913 as his deliberate escape from living in that wrong time period. After finishing the preparation of his twelve-volume Collected Works, Bierce gave up writing to join with Pancho Villa's revolution as an "observer." He never returned from this last adventure. His disappearance in Mexico has rendered his death as one of the most celebrated among literary people of letters, captivating the imaginations of people throughout the world.
The legend of "Bitter Bierce" grew after his disappearance (his fate was even envisioned in Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes' award-winning novel The Old Gringo), leading some to focus more on his adventurous life than on his writings. Many critics do feel that Bierce's work was overlooked and rejected by his contemporaries. One of the reasons for this may lie in Bierce's handling of his own work: he turned down offers of popular magazines to publish his stories because he did not want them to undergo editing; his work was published by small presses in California, not the big East Coast firms, to...
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Something Uncanny: The Dream Structure in Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
"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, "[s]omehow the reader is made to participate in the split between imagination and reason, to feel that the escape is real while he knows it is not" (Woodruffs emphasis).
The premise of the third section of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'' is that Farquhar imagines his escape in the brief interval between the removal of the plank that supports him and his actual death by hanging. That time is somewhat indeterminate in the story, as it is for at least two reasons in actuality. Some hanging victims die immediately, while others struggle for several seconds—death in these cases...
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Bierce's "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). Farquhar derives from the Gaelic Fearachar, meaning manly or brave, the name of an early Scottish king. 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."
The name itself, moreover, reinforces the central irony of the story, that Peyton Farquhar is the satiric butt of the story rather than the sympathetic figure he has often been called. Bierce subtly and ironically delineates Farquhar's naively unrealistic view of war, contrasting it with warfare's harsh truths. Bierce reveals Farquhar's past life, for example, through the empty martial abstractions a civilian like Farquhar might use: "gallant army," "inglorious restraint," "larger...
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