Ambrose Bierce

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How does Ambrose Bierce effectively use realism, supernatural elements, and shifting perspectives to convey the horrors of war in both “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “Chickamauga”?

Both “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “Chickamauga” by Ambrose Bierce combine realism (especially in their vividly detailed descriptions) with supernatural or at least mysterious and surreal elements (like Fahrquhar's vision and the wounded at Chickamauga) to reveal the horrors of the war. The stories also shift perspectives to capture the rapidly changing nature of wartime events.

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Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “Chicakmauga” are both haunting stories that combine realism with touches of the supernatural, or at least the mysterious, to convey the horrors of the Civil War. Both of these stories also make use of shifting perspectives that are...

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Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “Chicakmauga” are both haunting stories that combine realism with touches of the supernatural, or at least the mysterious, to convey the horrors of the Civil War. Both of these stories also make use of shifting perspectives that are sometimes quite abrupt and startling (on purpose to reflect the quickly shifting nature of war). Let's explore these features in both stories.

We'll start with “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” As the story opens, a man is standing on a railroad bridge with a rope around his neck. Bierce provides plenty of vivid, realistic details that tell us all about the positions and activities of the federal soldiers who are getting ready to hang this man. The level of detail gives us a prime picture of the horror of war, especially this aspect of it, the execution of a saboteur.

For that is what this man is. Just as the sergeant steps back, we flash back and learn the story of Peyton Fahrquhar, the Alabama planter who talked about his plans for the Owl Creek bridge to the wrong person, a federal scout. This shift in perspective gives us important information that helps us understand both the narrative and the realities of war.

The perspective shifts again, and we see from the point of view of Fahrquhar as he falls downward from the bridge. The story takes on a surreal, mysterious aspect as we wonder what is going on. There are bright lights, pulsating fire, and some kind of luminous cloud. Then all becomes clear, and Fahrquhar struggles to escape. He experiences a magnificent “superhuman strength,” and his senses are strangely heightened. Guns fire, and canons roar, but Fahrquhar manages to dodge all.

Just as Fahrquhar springs toward his wife's waiting arms, however, the scene shifts again, and we see Peyton Fahrquhar hanging dead from the Owl Creek bridge. We are left to wonder if we have just witnessed the last vision of a dying man.

Chickamauga” also presents a highly dramatic story, but this time, the protagonist is a young child with a vivid imagination. This little boy is playing war one day. Holding his wooden sword aloft, he leads his imaginary soldiers through all obstacles and continues to push forward into enemy territory until he is scared by a fearsome creature: a rabbit. The little boy dashes away in terror and gets lost. Exhausted, he curls up between two rocks and goes to sleep.

When he wakes up several hours later, the child's whole world has changed, but he doesn't realize it at first. A battle has taken place while the child has slept, and when he wakes, something is approaching him out of the mist. It is a monstrous sight, creatures crawling along toward him. They turn out to be men, but they cannot walk. These are the wounded left after the battle, and Bierce describes them in all their horrifying detail. His combination of realism in the description and a nearly supernatural atmosphere is stunning and rather disturbing.

The child, however, does not understand what he is witnessing. To him, this grisly procession seems like a game, and he leads the wounded with his wooden sword extended. Bierce continues to include graphic details about the appearance and actions of the wounded, bringing home with gruesome specificity the horrors of war. He even speaks of the men who cannot lift their heads back out of the stream after they drink water; they drown.

The child soon recognizes where he is, but again, something has drastically changed. He is home, yet this is not his home. The house is on fire. His father is nowhere to be seen. But his mother lies dead, killed by a shell. Bierce describes her in vivid detail, the realism of her wounds striking the reader full on as the child stands motionless, gazing on the scene.

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