silhouette of a man half submerged in water wiht a noose around his neck

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Ambrose Bierce
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Explain Bierce's views of the war in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." How does he feel about it?

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Ambrose Bierce's views of the war as reflected in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge ” appear to be that war should not be romanticized. He seems to understand the futility of war and the insanity of people killing one another. Nevertheless, he also seems to understand the...

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Ambrose Bierce's views of the war as reflected in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” appear to be that war should not be romanticized. He seems to understand the futility of war and the insanity of people killing one another. Nevertheless, he also seems to understand the importance of fighting for a just cause, even while he recognizes that the other side feels equally impassioned about their views and retains their humanity even though the opposing side views them as the enemy. This is evident in the description of Peyton Farquhar, who spends his last dying moments thinking about his family, hoping his wife and children know how much he loves them and wishing he could bid them a tearful and loving goodbye. It would also seem that this shows Bierce’s views about the futility of war.

In fact, Bierce himself was a soldier during the Civil War. The violence that he witnessed and experienced first-hand made him think twice about the nobility of war. According to the New York Times, he enlisted in the Union Army and participated in “some of its bloodiest battles,” and he “was shocked by the carnage.” He subsequently wrote essays about one of the battles titled, “What I Saw of Shiloh.” In the short story, “The Coup de Grace,” he also described the horrific sights he witnessed, which included men being burned alive in brush fires.

Bierce experienced “almost constant harassment from Southern guerrillas determined to sabotage Union supply and communication lines,” according to the New York Times. In turn, this led him to write “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Although he condemned the southern sabotage efforts, he nevertheless displays some sympathy for Peyton, while simultaneously showing how one dimensional Peyton's view of war is. Peyton is disappointed that he is ineligible for active duty as a Confederate soldier. He longs for “the larger life of the soldier,” romanticizing it and thinking of the honor of serving a cause in which he believes, and the glory of being a military man. Bierce is telling us with this story that there is no glory, nor romanticism behind war—just bloody, dehumanizing combat.

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The famous short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce takes place during the American Civil War. A civilian planter caught while attempting to sabotage a bridge is condemned to be hanged. He imagines that the rope breaks and he escapes and flees home to his wife and children, only to find that it is an illusion as the rope tightens around his neck at the end.

In the story, Bierce is ambivalent about his own feelings concerning the war. He is clear about certain violent aspects of war, but at the same time, he describes the nobility inherent in someone fighting for the side that he believes in. The story is related mainly from the viewpoint of Peyton Farquhar, the planter who is caught and subsequently hanged, and Bierce makes it clear that Farquhar has honorable ambitions when he gets involved.

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. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in war time.

In this passage, Bierce provides justification for the protagonist's involvement in the conflict, so he does not present Farquhar as an innocent victim. The war is rather presented as background for the metaphysical statement that Bierce wants to make about the difference between reality and illusion at the moment of a person's death. In the end, though, Bierce accentuates the futility of martial conflict, as all of Farquhar's noble intentions cannot save him, and he is unable to return safely to his family.

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This question is a question of tone. Tone is a literary device in which the author's attitude toward a subject is conveyed to readers. Generally, tone can be inferred through the author's word choice. Tone is different than mood, because mood refers to the emotions that are being evoked in readers. Since tone is conveyed through word choice, it is advantageous to look for specific quotes that might carry the author's attitude. I like the following quote for this discussion:

No service was too humble for him to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.

This quote doesn't show its true colors until the last bit. The word "villainous" is a great adjective, which gives away Bierce's attitude regarding war. He feels that the dictum/principle of all being fair in love and war is villainous. That's not exactly a positive attitude. In general, I would probably describe Bierce's attitude as cynical and bitter. He might say that Farquhar's actions were brave, but Bierce likely sees the entire situation as wasteful. Men may perform brave acts, but ultimately, the entire concept of war is a waste of human lives.

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Ambrose Bierce seems to feel that all war is wasteful, unnecessary, and brutal.  His narrator's subtle judgment of Peyton Farquhar's assent "to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war" lets us know that he, perhaps, feels that such a belief is savage.  To believe that all is fair in war is to believe that people can behave in absolutely unconscionable ways, as long as there is a war on to justify their actions.  Something that might be considered dishonorable when there is no war being fought can seem somehow justified during a war, and this, to him (or to his narrator, at least) seems villainous.  

However, this judgment doesn't apply, in isolation, to Peyton Farquhar but to anyone who would adopt such a position.  Although Farquhar would seem, especially to a 21st-century reader, to be on the "wrong side" of the war -- he's a plantation- and slave-owner, one who supports the idea that the South should secede from the Union -- Bierce does not appear to judge him for this.  Instead, Bierce judges him for what damage he is willing to inflict on others as a result of his belief that "all is fair in [...] war."  This leads me to believe that Bierce is less interested in pointing fingers about who is most responsible for the war and instead blaming anyone who supports war (or at least the dishonorable tactics we use against one another in war), as a method of problem solving at all.

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