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 which sections of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is an outside person narrating the action? In which sections of the story do we get to hear Farquhar’s thoughts?

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In unfolding "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Ambrose Bierce narrates action through both outside observation (third-person narration) and Farquhar’s own thoughts (interior monologue). Bierce effectively switches between outside narration and Farquhar’s thoughts to establish the story’s setting and context, move the action along, and present readers with visceral detail of Farquhar’s experiences.

In part I, paragraphs one to three, an outside or third-person narrator introduces “the man” (Farquhar) who is being prepared for hanging by soldiers of the Federal army. The action is told to readers as if an impersonal observer is simply reporting the facts. The fourth paragraph begins with a description of actions that will occur to carry out the hanging (sentences one to seven). The eighth and ninth sentences shift to man’s actions. In the last two sentences, the reader is taken into his thoughts as he observes the water flowing below his feet: “How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!” By the fifth and sixth paragraphs, the reader has entered his head and directly hears his thoughts about his family, his ticking watch, and plans for escape. Part I’s last paragraph shifts back from the man’s thoughts to outside narration as the actual hanging begins.

In part II, Bierce mixes both direct characterization of Farquhar and allusions to Farquhar’s thoughts. In the first paragraph, the reader learns about Farquhar’s past, social status, and lack of service in the war effort. Nonetheless, the reader also learns–but does not necessarily hear–Farquhar’s thoughts, like that he felt the opportunity to serve and earn glory in some way “would come.” He helped out in whatever way he could because “no service was too humble for him to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake.” The action in the rest of part II, however, is told by an outside person (an omniscient narrator) observing and reporting the Federal scout’s visit and conversation with Farquhar.

In Part III, all paragraphs but the last one–the story’s closing sentence–are Farquhar’s thoughts because they are his hallucination. In the first paragraph, he feels strangulating and sharp pains. Then the “power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream.” As he rises to the water’s surface, “'To be hanged and drowned,' he thought, 'that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair.'” In the second paragraph, he observes his hands freeing himself; “He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced.” Paragraphs three to nine seem like actions narrated by outside observer. Paragraphs ten to eleven emphasize Farquhar’s thoughts: “His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning.” Paragraph twelve switches back to narration by an outside observer reporting the soldiers’ gunfire. Paragraph thirteen relates Farquhar’s thoughts of how the enemy will try to capture him. Paragraph fourteen seems to switch back to an outside person narrating Farquhar’s escape to dry land until the last sentence: “He had not wish to perfect his escape—he was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.” Paragraph fifteen switches back to a physical, external description of him fleeing. Paragraphs sixteen to nineteen reveal his thoughts, observations, and physical sensations as he finds his way home.

The final sentence–“Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge”–is obviously an observation by an outside person and not from the mind of Farquhar himself.

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Parts of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" are narrated from a strictly objective point of view by what is customarily called a third-person omniscient narrator, presumably the author Ambrose Bierce himself. Other parts are narrated from the point of view of Peyton Farquhar and could be called an interior monologue, although the omniscient narrator might be said to have the power to go inside Farquhar's mind or anywhere else, as well as to go backwards and forwards in time.

The first section of the story begins with a completely objective description. For example:

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord.

After describing the entire setting, including Farquhar himself, the narrator moves subtly into the protagonist's mind. The exact sentence where this transition occurs is:

He looked a moment at his "unsteadfast footing," then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet.

The narrative remains in Farquhar's mind and his point of view almost to the end of the first section. Then the last short paragraph moves back into an objective point of view.

As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.

Section II is short. It is a flashback in time to explain how Farquhar came to be standing on the railroad bridge with a noose around his neck. It is told from an objective point of view, i.e., from the outside. Much of the section is dramatized. Most of the dialogue is between Farquhar and the man masquerading as a Confederate soldier. The section ends with the ominous words:

He was a Federal scout.

Section III is told almost entirely from Farquhar's point of view. It is not literally what happened but what he is imagining. He imagines that the rope broke and he fell into the creek. Bierce has established that the creek is flooded, swirling, and moving swiftly. This would explain how Farquhar could be carried out of rifle range so quickly and would be hard to hit. The entire long section describes his thoughts and feelings and could be called "an internal monologue," but it could also be considered the prerogative of the omniscient narrator who can go backwards and forwards in time and into the mind of any character.

Section III delivers the shocking ending.The reader has been beguiled into believing that Farquhar has escaped hanging and is on his way back to his home, wife, and children. Then at the very end, when he is "about to clasp" his wife "he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck..." And the narrative move backwards in time to the Owl Creek bridge, where the end is told from a dispassionate, objective point of view.

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

Everything that Peyton Farquhar had imagined, from the time he fell from the bridge to the time that his neck was broken by the rope, had gone through his mind in the few seconds it took for him to fall through the air before the slack in the rope was taken up and his dream of freedom came to an abrupt end. The words "swung gently from side to side" seem to emphasize the objectivity of the omniscient narrator, who is just describing the sight dispassionately.

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