An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Questions and Answers
by Ambrose Bierce

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In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," comment on the quote "Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded." What does it tell us about Bierce's view on the military? How does it contribute to the overall theme. Also, find if it relates to why the author keeps the identity of the man on the bridge secret until the second part of the story.

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Stephen Holliday eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," which, along with many of his Civil War stories, came out of his own experience as a Captain of topographical engineers (map makers) in the federal army.  When the story was originally published, its full title was "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, or A Dead Man's Dream," the second part of which was often dropped in subsequent publications. One can argue, of course, that "A Dead Man's Dream" forewarns the reader and thereby spoils the suspense.

Bierce's delay in naming Farquhar tells us that, for Bierce, the man's identity is not as important as his station in life and his perilous situation, and Bierce makes it clear that being a gentleman provides no safety from the machinery of war and punishment. The tone of Bierce's comment on Farquhar's impending death is cool, unemotional, sardonic--we get the sense that the narrator has no feeling for this victim of a harsh war and that war, rather than men, controls the action.  When Bierce comments that the military has a "liberal code" governing hanging, the subtext can be read as "brutal code" because, as Bierce depicted war and its effects throughout his Civil War stories, war is brutal, unsentimental, and it harms both good and bad men.  In this instance, the victim is a non-combatant, a gentleman planter who has engaged in spying and therefore places himself in a fatal situation.

Although Bierce never overtly condemns war and its effects, he makes clear that war has, among other things, stripped normal emotions from those who have to carry out the worst of its tasks:

How coldly and pitilessly—with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquility in the men—with what accurately measured interval fell those cruel words:

"Company!… Attention!… Shoulder arms!… Ready!… Aim!… Fire!"

Farquhar's fate, then, is not actually in the soldiers' control--once he has inserted himself into the war, war itself becomes his judge and executioner.  And his name and his individual life are of relatively little significance when he allows himself to be part of its machinery.

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bullgatortail eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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To answer the second part of your question first, Bierce does not reveal the name of Peyton Farquar because he wants to build the reader's interest and add to the mystery of the situation.

The quote suggests that the average assassin is an immoral criminal, but Farquar is far from that. He is an honorable family man who has deliberately decided to serve his state (and the Confederacy) as a spy instead of advancing his military career; as a wealthy plantation owner, he would have probably been an officer with the chance for glory--a high priority for most Southern men of the time. Instead, he has been tricked, caught, tried and about to be hanged in ignominious fashion. He does not even rate a gallows or "any last words" before his execution. Bierce shows that military service is not glorious or glamorous. In this instance it is all business, and death is always close at hand.

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