How does "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" fit into the literary movement of Realism?

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rmhope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ambrose Bierce's story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," was written in 1890 when American authors were creating works that embraced Realism. Several characteristics of Realism are present in the story, including the characters, settings, point of view, and the outcome. Realistic literature presents characters who are ordinary people involved in the regular activities of life. Peyton Farquhar, the protagonist, is a citizen in the South during the Civil War; he has been captured by Union soldiers and is being hanged for sabotage and possibly murder of a Federal guard. These are realistic actions that a Southern civilian might have taken, and the response by the Union Army is realistic as well. Settings reflecting Realism are true-to-life as well; in this story, the setting is a bridge separating the territory under control of the Union Army from territory recently held by the South. The bridge and countryside and Farquhar's home are all described realistically. Realistic works often use either first person narration or third person limited point of view. This story uses third person limited, which allows us to understand the action from the protagonist's perspective only. An exception is the flashback section, which is told from an omniscient perspective, allowing the reader to know what Farquhar doesn't, namely, that the rider who has come to his home is a Federal scout, not a Confederate soldier as his uniform would suggest. Finally, the outcome of the story's action is the strongest indicator that the story fits the Realism movement. Realistic stories often have unhappy endings; characters typically do not reform or change during the story. Farquhar remains committed to life, escape, and the Confederate cause throughout the story; in no sense does he exhibit regret for his "crimes" that have brought the noose around his neck. Beyond that, however, is the realistic outcome of the hanging. Farquhar, despite his imaginary escape, dies at the end of the rope, swinging "beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge." The fantastical escape Bierce treats readers to remains just that: the terminal fantasy of a condemned man. In this way, Bierce even enters the subgenre of "psychological realism," whereby he seeks to access the inner workings of a person's mind in a true-to-life fashion. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" definitely fits nicely into the Realism movement of American literature. 

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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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