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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How might the impact of the story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" be different if Bierce revealed the events in chronological order?

If Bierce revealed the events of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" in chronological order, the story would have lost much of its dramatic impact, tension, suspense, and surprise.

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Ambrose Bierce's story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" features a fascinating narrative structure. The story's first section presents a man about to be hung. This man is already standing on a railroad bridge with a rope around his neck. The soldiers around him finish their preparations as the man thinks of his family. He thinks that if he could only free his hands, he might have some chance to escape. Then the sergeant steps aside as a sign to let the man drop.

This beginning in media res, in the midst of things, is effective for its drama and its mystery. It pulls readers into the story and gives them just enough information to understand a little of what is going on. It also allows readers to feel the emotion of the main character even though they do not yet know his name or anything about him. They are already caught up in his story, and they want to know what will happen next.

But Bierce doesn't continue the story just yet. The second part of the tale flashes back to formally introduce readers to Peyton Farquhar and to show how he ended up standing on the bridge. He said too much to a federal scout, and he was caught in a plan of sabotage. This little sequence provides necessary background information but also heightens the suspense of the story. Now that readers know about Peyton Farquhar, they are even more interested in what happens to him and they understand better why he is on the verge of being hanged.

The next section returns to the present as Peyton Farquhar falls down from the bridge and loses consciousness. Readers follow with interest as Farquhar seems to escape, swimming away under a hail of gunfire and returning home. But just as Farquhar is ready to run into his wife's arms, he feels a blow to the back of his neck and sees a white light. Then the scene shifts back to reveal Peyton Farquhar hanging dead from the Owl Creek bridge.

This narrative structure, which breaks chronology and seems to blend the real with the imagined and desired visions of a dying man, is effective for enhancing the story's drama. Had Bierce chosen a straight chronological approach, readers would have missed out on the buildup of tension that the first scene and the flashback provide. His chosen structure packs a much more dramatic punch and leaves the reader almost gasping for breath by the end of the tale, which is a surprise for most on their first read. Indeed, Bierce is a master of suspense, and his narrative choices contribute to his success in that area.

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By presenting the story in the order he does, and by changing the perspective of the narration, Bierce skillfully draws readers along so that he is able to trick them into believing that the action of Part III is real, rather than imagined. Using Part II as a flashback interrupts the present time scene of the preparation of the hanging. It allows readers to understand Peyton Farquhar's motivations as well as the Union Army's motivations for hanging him without getting bogged down in information that isn't the point of the story. Starting with the hanging scene immediately draws readers into the drama. It creates emotional involvement as well as curiosity, making the reader want to keep reading. Breaking away from the intense scene to a calmer background story gives readers time to decide how they feel about this hanging, and many may come away rooting for Farquhar because he was the target of a "sting" operation, having been deceived into trying to destroy the bridge by the "Federal scout."

Now that Bierce has enticed readers emotionally and further cemented their commitment to the main character, he can maintain their buy-in through the next section, despite the implausibilities it presents. The objective narration of the second section seems to carry over to the third, and readers assume the detached third person point of view is continuing, when in fact readers are experiencing Farquhar's thoughts rather than reality.

It is possible the same effect could have been achieved by changes in narrative point of view only, even if the story had been related sequentially. However, the flashback puts readers off balance, making the trick of narration more difficult to detect. The story would have been less emotionally engaging and the surprise ending would have been less effective if the story had been written in chronological order.

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Bierce shifts his narration throughout the story as well as presenting the story out of order.  His narration shifts from a conventional third person point of view to a more revealing third person point of view in the second section.  We learn more about Farquar's feelings and his perceptions as well.  The third section then turns into a first person point of view and we are able to piece the story together.  Bierce does this to disorient the reader.  He wants the reader to hallucinate along with him and he wants the reader to be as disoriented as he is.  This helps to push the themes of time, deception and death and dying.

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