Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is typical of Ambrose Bierce’s fiction in that it deals with the outré, the unusual, here violent death and a heightened psychological state; it contains sardonic humor; and it ends with a cynical, ironic twist. This story is one of several that he wrote about the Civil War. (Bierce fought in the Civil War; he was a member of the Indiana volunteers and was apparently a brave and skillful soldier.) The grotesque reality, the horror, of war was one of his persistent themes. There is nothing glorious in Bierce’s depiction of the war; the Union army is cold, efficient, and deceitful; the Southern planter is “a slave owner, . . . a politician” who was, therefore, “naturally an original secessionist.” Furthermore, Farquhar suffers from the illusion that war provides opportunities for glory, “distinction,” and “adventure.” The trap is set, and the execution of this rather pathetic quarry is concluded with ruthless efficiency. Farquhar’s dreams of “service with the gallant army,” his “longing for the release of his energies” lead him directly to a sudden and decidedly unremarkable death—a final, brutal release of his “energies.”
Another of Bierce’s concerns in this, and in various other stories, is the portrayal of intense psychological states. The withholding of information is not mere trickery; rather it is a logical, calculated effort to force the reader into the realization that...
(The entire section is 576 words.)
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''An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'' is the story of Peyton Farquhar, a Southern farmer who is about to be hanged by the Union army for trying to destroy the railroad bridge at Owl Creek. While the reader is led to believe he escapes under miraculous circumstances, it is revealed at the end of the story that Farquhar imagined his escape in the split seconds before his death.
Bierce uses a complex narrative structure to advance the theme of time in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." He distorts the reader's sense of time by revealing at the end of the story that Farquhar imagined his escape in the few seconds before he died even though the escape takes up a great portion of the narrative. By doing so, Bierce addresses the ways time can be portrayed and manipulated in fiction, a medium in which the reader is often reliant on the author to represent or create reality. Bierce also stresses that time is subjective and phenomenal, especially during times of mental or emotional duress.
Death and Dying
Bierce also examines the human desire to escape or cheat death and speculates what occurs physically and psychologically at the time of death. Although Farquhar's situation is quite grave—he is standing on a bridge with a noose around his neck as numerous Union soldiers stand guard—a part of him holds out hope that he can escape the situation and, therefore, mortality. By not allowing Farquhar to escape, Bierce...
(The entire section is 670 words.)