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In his story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Ambrose Bierce disrupts normal chronological order, placing news of the successful hanging – which takes place very early in purely chronological terms – at the very end of the tale itself. Bierce arranges the story this way for a number of reasons, including the following:
- By doing so, he creates suspense. During much of the story, readers are tricked into thinking that Peyton Farquhar has survived the attempt to hang him and that he is successfully making his way toward home.
- By structuring the story in this way, Bierce plays tricks with the reader’s perceptions and sense of reality in the same way that Farquhar himself is tricked by his own mind and fantasies.
- By imposing this kind of structure on the story, Bierce catches readers in a sudden, abrupt surprise, a surprise similar in some ways to the one Farquhar suffers when his body suddenly falls to its death.
- By ordering the story as he does, Bierce is able to give us a great amount of background information about Farquhar’s personality, aspirations, and mode of living, so that we come to “know” Farquhar and his life even as he is in the split-second process of dying.
- The present structure of the story allows Bierce to take tiny moment of Farquhar’s life and expand it enormously. Farquhar’s final second comes to seem, in many ways, the richest and most intense experience of his whole existence. This is especially the case as Farquhar fantasizes that he has managed to escape to his home and that he sees his wife:
As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon--then all is darkness and silence!
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
- By structuring the story as he does, Bierce punctures any romantic illusions the reader may have been entertaining. Just as Farquhar’s romanticism is brutally undercut, so is the reader’s.
In short, Bierce has many good reasons -- both artistic and psychological -- for structuring the story as he does.
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