Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
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...
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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Magill Book Reviews)
The anonymous protagonist stands on a railroad bridge, awaiting execution. The preparations are meticulously described. As he awaits death, his thoughts carry him back in time.
The man, we learn, is Peyton Farquhar, a well-to-do Southern planter. A civilian, he wanted to do something to help the Southern cause. A stranger passing through his property stops for water and mentions that the Owl Creek Bridge is crucial to the advancing Northern troops. The reader understands that Farquhar is being hanged because he attempted to destroy the bridge.
He is hanged; the sensations of the hanging are told in precise detail. He seems to survive the hanging, a freak accident sending him into the river below where he manages to escape the soldiers’ bullets, as well. He seems to find his way home again after the ordeal on the bridge and in the river. But, at the end, we discover that he is dead, that he never actually escaped from the hanging. Everything so carefully described occurred only in his mind, in the split second before he ceased to live.
Bierce was the master of closely observed, meticulously related detail. The power of the tale derives from this straightforward technique. Even the understated title helps to seduce the reader into a false sense of security. The photographic description of the scenes and locations builds up a basis of naturalistic realism that is in direct contrast to the dramatic conclusion of the tale.
The ironic tale, influenced by the brothers Goncourt and Gustave Flaubert, was a particularly apt vehicle both for Bierce’s technical skill and for his bleak view of life.
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Discussion
Ideas for Reports and Papers
What Do I Read Next?
For Further Reference
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Berkove, Lawrence I. A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002.
Blume, Donald T. Ambrose Bierce’s “Civilians and Soldiers” in Context: A Critical Study. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2004.
Davidson, Cathy N. The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
Davidson, Cathy N., ed. Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
Fatout, Paul. Ambrose Bierce, the Devil’s...
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