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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In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," why does Peyton's watch tick so loudly?

In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Peyton Farquhar hears his watch ticking loudly and slowly because his perceptions are distorted and heightened in his final moments of life.

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As Peyton Farquhar prepares to die in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," he hears "a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil." These sounds become less frequent even as they increase "in strength and sharpness." This effect, the author tells the reader, is produced by "the ticking of his watch," though it is not clear that Peyton himself is aware of this.

Although this story, like any work of literature, can be interpreted in various ways, the most common interpretation is this: the entire story takes place in a few moments, and Peyton Farquhar's escape occurs entirely in his mind as he falls through the bridge, just before his neck is broken. In these last moments before death, his perception of time slows down, as his dreamlike state becomes extraordinarily vivid. His attention has been caught by the ticking of his watch, which is why this heightened perception makes the ticking sound louder, even as the effect of time slowing down makes the intervals between sounds seem longer. The length of time between sounds also intensifies their volume, as far as he is concerned.

There is no indication that anyone else hears Peyton's watch ticking. His perception that the sounds are growing louder is caused by his heightened and distorted perceptions in the moments immediately before his death.

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I am not sure if Farquhar is legitimately experiencing a preternatural acuteness of his sense of hearing as a result of his adrenaline or if he's only imagining hearing his watch. The narrator says, "What he heard was the ticking of his watch." It is unclear if Farquhar is aware that he hears his watch or if he fails to recognize the sound because of its unusual "strength and sharpness." I'm inclined to believe that he, alone, hears the ticking of his watch because he, alone, is in a life-or-death situation that increases the natural workings of his senses, though he may not be aware that it is his watch that he hears appearing to slow down. Therefore, it's not that the actual sound has risen in volume but, rather, that Farquhar's sense of hearing has become more sensitive as a result of his pumping adrenaline as he awaits the fall that will snap his neck.

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As was mentioned in the previous post, Peyton Farquhar stands in the middle of the Owl Creek Bridge and awaits his death by hanging throughout the short story. Moments before he is hanged, Peyton begins to think about his family, and his senses begin to heighten. Suddenly, the sound of a "metallic percussion," similar to the stroke of an anvil, distracts him from his thoughts. Initially, Peyton does not understand what is making the noise, and the sound gradually grows. The narrator compares the sound to the toll of a death knell and mentions that it hurts Peyton's ears like the thrust from a knife. The sound that Peyton hears is actually the ticking of his watch. The ticking of the watch illustrates the passing of time and represents Peyton's impending death. Peyton's acute sense of hearing and preoccupation with the sound of his watch reveal his anxiety and fear. Peyton is gradually running out of time, which is why the ticking of his watch sounds so loud to him. In reality, nobody but Peyton can hear the ticking. Peyton's acute senses amplify the sound of his watch, which depicts his awareness that time is running out before he dies. 

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In Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence as Owl Creek," Peyton Farquhar is being hanged for interfering with the railroad. At one point, when Farquhar is waiting to be hung, he begins to think about his family (his wife and children). Unfortunately for Farquhar, his thoughts of his family are interrupted by a "disturbance."

He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by-- it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each new stroke with impatience and--he knew not why--apprehension.

Unbeknownst to Farquhar, the sound he was hearing was his watch.

This illusion has been used may times in literature (perhaps the most renowned story which uses this overwhelming sound is Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart"--where the narrator hears his own heart beat).

That said, the ticking of the watch is not really loud (the soldiers cannot hear it, only Farquhar can). The watch is the one thing which keeps Farquar in the present. Ironically, the watch's ticking almost seems to hypnotize him (putting him into a dream state). This dream state allows Farquar to escape his hanging, escape gunfire, and return home to embrace his wife. Therefore, the ticking of the watch is used to represent Farquhar's journey into a world where he has escaped death. 

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