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

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge book cover
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In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," what are both the internal and external conflicts in the story?

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In part two, the internal conflict is revealed when Bierce elaborates on Peyton Farquhar's inner struggle to participate in the Civil War. Having an aristocratic southern background prevents Farquhar from enlisting in the Confederate Army, which bothers Peyton to the point that he decides to burn down the Owl Creek Bridge as a way to aid the Confederate cause. Ambrose Bierce does not go into detail as to why Farquhar cannot enlist, but he writes,

Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction (4).

Farquhar's insecurities and longing to participate in the fight against the North motivate him to risk his life by destroying the Owl Creek Bridge. Farquhar essentially feels inadequate because he is not a Confederate soldier and, thus, does not have numerous opportunities to fight Union troops.

Another internal conflict involves Peyton's inability to accept his fate. While waiting to die with a noose around his neck, Farquhar fantasizes about escaping. Farquhar imagines a scenario where his noose snaps and he falls into the water below. Farquhar's inability to accept the difficult reality is illustrated by his continual thoughts of escape before he is hanged.

The external conflicts throughout the story concern the belligerents involved in the Civil War and Peyton's struggle against the Union soldiers who are about to hang him. Throughout the story, the Union Army is fighting a war against the Confederacy, which seceded from the Union in 1860. Peyton's conflict begins when he is manipulated by a Union spy to burn down the Owl Creek Bridge. Unfortunately for Peyton, he is arrested and hanged by the Union soldiers stationed at the Owl Creek Bridge.

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Wallace Field eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The external conflict is, I think, a little easier to describe.  Peyton Farquhar is about to be hanged for the crime of attempting to burn down the Owl Creek Bridge, part of an important railroad line, during the Civil War.  Therefore, an external conflict exists between Farquhar, who would prefer to retain his life, and the Union soldiers who hang him.

However, the crux of the story -- and what makes it really interesting -- is the way time strangely slows down while Farquhar awaits his punishment and as he falls into the noose.  His internal conflict isn't a typical kind of conflict; he isn't torn between two things that he wants or doesn't want.  His conflict seems to arise from the fact that he cannot seem to accept his fate; it's as though the conflict exists between reality and his mind.  He is able to imagine that he escapes, swims the creek, travels miles and miles through the woods, and finally arrives at his home, a journey that should take a whole day or even two, all in the brief moment during which he drops from the bridge.  It is as though his senses, in his mind, have become preternaturally keen, but what is actually happening is that he is concocting a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy of escape.  Unable to cope with his reality, Farquhar creates a conflicting one within his mind, and this makes the final lines of the story -- where the noose snaps his neck -- all the more jarring for the reader.

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