How does "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce develop its genre(s) as it addresses particular social, cultural and historical topics related to the United States?
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a short story that is difficult, if not impossible to categorize. Certainly, there are elements of the literary movements of Realism and Naturalism and the genre of satire, but at the same time, there is a manipulation of language, perspective, and time in the narrative that evince elements of psychological fiction.
- Realism and Naturalism
In Part I of Bierce's narrative, there is very close attention to realistic detail as the story opens with an objective point of view. There is a journalistic reporting of the setting and action, of the instruments of war, and of the men who attend to military etiquette in "silence and fixity."
Furthermore, with the description of death as a dignitary, Bierce emphasizes the insensitive military efficiency and the detachment of the scene. The use of the word "body," rather than man, also conveys the insensitivity of war and the indifference of nature to what transpires as is characteristic of Naturalism.
As third-person narrator, Ambrose Bierce, who himself served in the Civil War, takes rather caustic aim at the "well-to-do planter" who has not enlisted in the army, but now wishes "to perform in the aid of the South." Bierce depicts without sentiment Peyton Farquhar's having been so easily deceived by the Northern soldier who tempts him to sabotage the bridge, thereby ridiculing those who feel themselves socially superior. Also, through his characterization of Farquhar, Bierce satires the romantic illusions that some held about war. The man's romantic escape from death is cynically terminated with the matter-of-fact ending:
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
- Psychological fiction
At the end of Section I, Bierce changes the realistic reporting of the narrative as the narration slows time and amplifies sound, thus moving the narration into Farquar's perspective. Then, Sections II and III become more psychological narratives as they are revelations of Farquar's thoughts and sensations. Interestingly, in Section III Bierce vacillates between a first-person and third-person limited narration that conveys Farquar's dream-like state as he disassociates himself from his own body:
He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible!....He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome.
Here in this passage, as in subsequent passages, are allusions to Freudian dream theories and Freud's contention that man is adept at self-deception. For, Freud held that when faced with a reality that is too difficult to accept, man's mind escapes into fantasy.
- Social, cultural, and historical topics
The interpretation of the Union soldier's trick invites various responses. While some readers may feel that Bierce is sympathetic to the Confederates, others may think that Bierce ridicules the naive complacency of Southern aristocrats. Also, some may interpret the story as an examination of the waste and brutality of war. Certainly, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" points to the tragic rift which occurred between the North and the South, a rift which has never entirely healed from a war that destroyed the innocence of a nation.