Style and Technique
Bierce’s mastery of technique is the source of the success of this story. He carefully and skillfully builds a convincing set of realistic circumstances and establishes an atmosphere of grim intensity; then he subtly begins to introduce the subjectivity and unreality on which the plot hinges. The opening section is basically objective and naturalistic. The language is clear and unemotional; the sentences are straightforward. The reader has no reason to question the authenticity or veracity of the story. In the third paragraph, Bierce very deftly begins to interweave a subjective point of view with the heretofore exclusively objective one. The first insight into the condemned man’s mind indicates that he is himself objective and reasonable; he finds the plan for his execution to be “simple and effective.” The gulf between physical reality and the prisoner’s perception of reality is presented with such calm detachment that the reader believes that he or she is simply being given access to Farquhar’s mind by an unemotional, omniscient narrator. In the final paragraph of the first section, the prose returns to the objectivity and precision of the opening lines: “the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.”
In section 2, the impassive narrator reports the events that lead up to Peyton Farquhar’s execution. He knows how the planter felt about war as well as the true intentions of the “grey-clad soldier.” Again the reader has no reason whatsoever to doubt the accuracy of the story. As surely as the Union scout deceived Peyton Farquhar, Bierce has led the unwary reader into a trap that he springs almost immediately in the third section. The reader has come to expect a faithful account of the facts from this narrator and consequently has little reason to question the genuineness of the tale of Farquhar’s escape.
Bierce has very carefully prepared the reader to trust him and consequently to ignore all the indications in the final section that Farquhar’s escape is imaginary. Numerous technical differences exist between section 3 and sections 1 and 2, each of which suggests that the events are phantasmal. The verbs, “seemed” and “appeared” are used in four of the first five sentences, signaling the story’s movement into fantasy. Exclamation marks begin to appear with regularity (two in the first paragraph and seven in the second), calling attention to the improbability of the events being described. Only two exclamation marks were used prior to the third section; they are in section 1 and serve to point up the condemned man’s distortion of reality: “What a sluggish stream!” he says of water “racing madly beneath his feet.” The explicit, journalistic prose of the first two sections yields to language characterized by abstraction, vagueness, or exaggeration: “inconceivably,” “unthinkable,” “unaccessible,” “magnificent,” “superhuman,” “preternaturally,” “interminably,” “ineffable.” Farquhar’s supposed actions are obviously beyond the realm of human possibility, but Bierce presents them with such authority and conviction that readers, having been conditioned to expect the truth, are cleverly lured into believing in Farquhar’s fantasy. Bierce’s skillful manipulation of language and point of view makes “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” a minor masterpiece.