State the situation Peyton Farquhar faces in Part 1 of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

2 Answers

bullgatortail's profile pic

bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Alabama plantation owner Peyton Farquhar literally has his neck in a noose in Part 1 of Ambrose Bierce's classic short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." He has been caught trying to set fire to and destroy a railroad bridge over Owl Creek and is about to be hanged as a spy. Perhaps fittingly, he is to be hanged on the same bridge that he was trying to destroy, and he awaits his upcoming execution by Union army soldiers. Farquhar stands on one end of a loose plank on the bridge while a Federal sergeant stands on the other end. At his captain's signal, the sergeant will step off the plank, and the unsupported plank will fall, leaving Farquhar to be hanged by the rope attached to wooden supports above. Time slows for Farquhar, who notices the "sluggish stream" below and an extremely loud noise--like a "blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil"--that turns out to be the ticking of his own watch. Death seems inevitible, and he thinks one final time of his wife and children. Yet Farquhar still has hope:

"If I could free my hands," he thought, "I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home."

As Farquhar awaits his imminent death, the sergeant receives the order to step aside 

Sources:
sciftw's profile pic

sciftw | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

If the reader focuses on Part 1 and only Part 1, we don't actually know that the man on the bridge is Peyton Farquhar. We find out that information from reading Part 2 of the story, and we learn that he is a Southern plantation owner who gets caught for trying to sabotage the Owl Creek bridge.

Because Peyton Farquhar was caught trying to sabotage the bridge, he has been sentenced to death. When readers begin reading the story, we are immediately told that Farquhar has his hands bound behind his back and has a rope tied around his neck.

The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees.

The method of Farquhar's execution is ingeniously simple. At first, my students tend to have a tough time visualizing how exactly Farquhar is on the bridge, so I'll explain it in a bit more detail. The initial setup is very similar to pirates making a man "walk the plank"; however, instead of the victim having to literally walk off the end of the board, Farquhar is not in control at all. Farquhar stands on the end of the board that is jutting out over the side of the bridge. The other end of the board is held in place by another soldier standing on it. When the soldier steps off of the board, Farquhar's weight tips the board, and he falls down until the rope around his neck pulls tight and breaks his neck.

These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties.

I've provided a link below that shows the setup. It is a shot taken from the 1962 film adaptation of the story.

Part 1 ends with Farquhar thinking about the possibility of freeing his hands in order to make an escape. He isn't given the chance because at that moment, the soldier steps off of the board.

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.

Sources: