Bierce did not write a case study of the workings of Peyton Farquhar's mind. He wrote a compelling story with a dramatic and largely unexpected conclusion. In dealing with the psychological aspects of Peyton's facing his own death, Bierce developed Peyton's character, drew us into his experience, and very effectively structured his story so that its conclusion is especially powerful--and realistic.
Bierce's focus is not upon the psychological workings of the human mind, in general, or in Peyton's specific case. In its full context, the story focuses upon the death of one man during war, thus showing the nature of war itself. The title is ironic and points to Bierce's theme. In the wider context of the war, Peyton's hanging at Owl Creek Bridge is only "an occurrence." War is a force that overwhelms individuals and negates the value of individual human lives. To the Union soldiers who execute Peyton, he is just another casualty of war, and hanging him is another of the jobs they are expected to perform. By taking us inside Peyton's mind, however, Bierce makes him a husband and a father who loves his family and tried to protect his home. This was Bierce's intent: to humanize Peyton, to make his death meaningful and sad, and to show the nature of the force that destroyed him.
Bierce's "An Occurrence at owl Creek Bridge" has a very clear and important theme: We can think about an entire lifetime of thoughts in our mind while in reality only a fraction of a second has gone by. This is the central idea played out through the backdrop of the Civil War.
Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" contrasts the real passage of time with our human perception of time. It is centered in the consciousness of the central character, Payton Farquhar, except for the dramatically rendered section beginning with paragraph 8. Also, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a wonderful suspense story, because as the narrator moves into Farquhar’s mind the reader is led to believe, at least temporarily, in the details of the escape. The story is therefore a virtuoso piece in the use of point of view.
The story takes place in northern Alabama during the Civil War. Union forces are in control and martial law prevails. There are no civil rights for enemies of the Union, and no trials beyond those of a military court. From Section II, we infer that Farquhar, almost literally the only character, was lured or even entrapped into an attempt to blow up Owl Creek Bridge. We assume that he had tried to overcome the guard and then had been arrested, summarily tried, and condemned to death by hanging from the bridge which he had tried to destroy.
In addition, the present tense makes the situation of his escape dramatic (in mere seconds of his mind), thereby making his death both more brutal and more poignant.
Haven't you sat down next to someone who you thought was good-looking and then daydream what it would be like dating, then marriage, then a family, with the other person only to realize that you dreamed all that in only one or two bus stops?