“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 mind makes its own reality, that Peyton Farquhar, in fact, experiences an escape, that time and truth are not so simple as one likes to think. If there is a deceiver, it is the human mind, or perhaps the life force, which offers the possibility of escape up to the final instant when it becomes clear to the reader, at least, that there is no escape. Bierce’s rendering of Farquhar’s thoughts in the instant before death is quite convincing and compelling.
One other distinctive quality of this story, and of Bierce’s fiction in general, is the cynicism. The grim representation of military affairs and the sardonic use of the adverb “gently” to describe the movement of Farquhar’s dead body in the final sentence are clear indications of Bierce’s cynicism. However, an even sharper and more bitter indication of his pessimism is evident in his assumption that the reader will be shocked by the ending, having resolutely ignored all the indications that Farquhar is merely imagining the escape. The third section is filled with “superhuman,” improbable, or patently impossible acts: seeing the “very insects” in the forest, “the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass.” Farquhar is caught in a “vortex” and “flung” on the southern bank “concealed from his enemies.” There he finds “giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in this arrangement. . . . A strange, roseate light shone . . . the music of aeolian harps.” The forest through which he travels is “interminable,” “the path wide and straight . . . yet untravelled.” The astute reader will perceive the distinct differences between the prose in this section and the realistic prose of the first section and deduce that the third section represents imagined events. Bierce, however, does not expect his readers to be astute; he assumes that they prefer fantasy to reality and will accept whatever preposterous occurrences are necessary to provide a happy ending for Peyton and, by extension, for themselves. Farquhar’s fate, he suggests, is the only possible fate: unromantic and untimely death.