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Some of the confusion surrounding this story is Bierce's use of various points of view and the shifts between present and past. That being said, if you consider the basic events of the story (a man who longed to fight for the Southern cause is misled by a Union scout into giving away information on how to sabotage the Union advancement into the South and is summarily sentenced to death by hanging), it makes it a little easier to comprehend.
As Peyton Farquhar stands on the plank of the bridge with a noose around his neck, the important elements of his life flash through his head. He even fantasizes about escaping and returning home safely to his wife and children. Bierce devotes quite a bit of the story to Farquhar's fantasy which advances the idea that when someone is in a near-death experience, time seems to move in slow motion. The exaggerated ticking of the watch adds to this effect. The story's ending which is shocking to many first-time readers precisely mirrors Bierce's realistic style--in this case, reality conquers illusion, and Farquhar hangs for his "crime." If the story were told from the earlier American Lit. era (Romanticism), you would not see a realistic portrayal of a life-or-death situation. Most likely, the hero would make an incredible escape and return home to protect his innocent family.
A similar story to Bierce's is Jack London's "To Build a Fire." London, also a realist, writes about a character who dreams of his rescue from the cold elements before he drifts off to his death. Both stories demonstrate that most humans cling to life until the very end and cope with the seemingly inevitable coming of death by dreaming of ways to escape it.
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