In what ways are the condemned man's perceptions of time and motion distorted as he is waiting to be hanged?

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bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Time seems to slow down for Peyton Farquar as he awaits his fate in Ambrose Bierce's short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." His senses are keen, and he notices in great detail all of the preparations being made for his execution. At first he notes the rapid waters below, and he fixates on a piece of driftwood. But here time seems to diminish. "How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!" He observes the gold tint on the water, and the "brooding mists" downstream. Then another sound distracts him from the thoughts of his family. A metallic sound like that of a "blacksmith's hammer" rings in his ears. He finally realizes it is only the ticking of his watch.

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Farquhar's perceptions of time and motion begin to become distorted while he is waiting to be hanged. He is looking down at Owl Creek, which is described as "racing madly," but to him it seems "sluggish." He sees a piece of driftwood which should be moving swiftly in the "swirling water," yet to him it is drifting slowly.

       How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!

Then when he falls between the ties with the noose around his neck, he has only a few seconds to live, and yet in his imagination he experiences a whole series of events which could take hours. When he finally imaginies that he has reached his home, which we are told is about thirty miles from the Owl Creek bridge,

          All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in

          the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the

          entire night.


His perception of time has been so altered that his imagined escape and journey back to his home all take place within a few seconds. It has often been said that a man's whole life can flash before his eyes in a few moments when he is dying, and Ambrose Bierce's story makes this seem credible.

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scarletpimpernel's profile pic

scarletpimpernel | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Bierce employs stream-of-consciousness technique for the portion of his story which occurs in Peyton's head. Not only does Peyton think that everything is moving slowly, but the sound of the ticking watch is unnaturally loud which demonstrates that time is in the forefront of his mind.

Even though Peyton stands on the plank for a very short amount of time before he is hanged, in his mind it is enough time for his life to flash before his eyes.  This idea presented by Bierce is realistic to anyone who has experienced a close call.  For example, if you have ever been in a car accident, when the car begins to skid, etc., it seems like an unusually long period until you realize afterward that it has been a couple of seconds. Bierce would have personally known this feeling of being suspended in time from his combat experiences in the Civil War.

In regards to motion, Peyton believes that he is moving--escaping to his plantation--when in reality, he stands motionless awaiting his death.

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