Are there any symbols in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce?

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Ambrose Bierce ’s short story “Owl Creek Bridge” draws much of its eerie power from the way it uses universal symbols. Bierce takes deeply evocative symbols—such as the bridge, the water, the forest, the noose, the clock, and the color grey—to layer the text with fresh meaning. The bridge on...

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Ambrose Bierce’s short story “Owl Creek Bridge” draws much of its eerie power from the way it uses universal symbols. Bierce takes deeply evocative symbols—such as the bridge, the water, the forest, the noose, the clock, and the color grey—to layer the text with fresh meaning. The bridge on which the condemned protagonist is standing to be hanged represents both the universal passage between life and death, imagination and reality, and being and non-being as well as the historical divide between the Confederate and Federal forces during the American Civil War. The water into which Confederate-leaning Peyton Farquhar stares during his hanging are the actual waters of Owl Creek, symbolizing possible escape as well as age-old themes of change, flow, and transition.

As Farquhar awaits the plank of the bridge being lowered and taking him from life to death, the ticking of his clock reminds him of the passage of time. The clock symbolizes both the inexorable, unforgiving nature of time and the different speeds on which clock-time and dream-time cruise. Farquhar can only escape real time through lapsing into the flights of dream-time, as the story goes on to reveal. As he swims through the river, dodging the bullets of the soldiers hunting him, we are briefly lulled into believing the creek is carrying him to safety. However, we soon learn it is only the current of dream-time which carries him onward.

In its universal interpretation, the forest Farquhar repeatedly finds himself observing throughout the story symbolizes exile, journeys, and quests, as seen in myths across the world. However, in the particular world of “Owl Creek Bridge,” the forest comes to symbolize something more sinister: losing one's way and the possible journey towards death.

The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman's road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.

Further, the noose, referenced several times in the story, represents the universal symbol of death but also the inescapable nature of reality. In this, the noose is conflated with a closed circle, a motif which recurs in the story in the form of the whirlpool Farquhar gets briefly caught in, as well as the black mark of the rope around his neck—the “circle of black where the rope had bruised it”—that he feels as he lurches through the forest.

Finally, the story repeatedly notes that the color of Farquhar’s eyes is grey, as is the color of his coat and the uniform of the Confederate army. The marksman whose eyes Farquhar glimpses across the creek are also grey, “the keenest” eyes. Grey is the color of ambiguity and change, and in Bierce’s story, it can be said to symbolize the ambiguity between fantasy and reality, as well as the treachery of the Federal scout who tricks Farquhar into presumable action and his eventual arrest. Lapsing into death’s final shadow, Farquhar’s identification with the color grey is complete.

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Owl Creek is symbolically significant throughout the story. As Peyton Fahrquhar stands on the beam of the bridge waiting to be hanged, he looks down into the moving water as a piece of driftwood freely floats down the creek. The flowing creek acts as a boundary separating two land masses and can be symbolically representative of separating two spiritual, imaginary realms. In Greek mythology, the River Styx formed the boundary between the Earth and the Underworld. In the short story, Owl Creek symbolically represents Fahrquhar's transition from reality to the world of imagination as he dreams of escaping death and swimming home.

The owl is also symbolic in the story and foreshadows Peyton Fahrquhar's death. According to Greek mythology, owls were associated with wisdom, prophecy, and mystery. Since owls are nocturnal birds that inhabit dark, lonely places, they were once believed to be ominous portents. The name of the creek and the creek itself both serve as symbols of Peyton Fahrquhar's experience and fate throughout the short story.

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Peyton Farquhar's wife is a symbol that is present in his mind, a reminder of what he has sacrificed as he stands disorientated and terrorized on the bridge, "engaged in being hanged." Water, also, is symbolic in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

Through the veil of his disorientation and fear, Farquhar imagines that he has escaped from his hanging by throwing off the noose and diving into the river where he swims to safety. A vision of his wife is continually in his mind as he makes his way to his beloved home, representing for him the safe domain which he has forsaken to set off on a heroic mission to foil the Northern soldiers.

Water, too, can be considered as symbolic since it represents freedom from death, a baptism back into the contented world which he has forsaken in his temptation to become a hero. For instance, as he thinks he looks into the water, Farquar imagines that his senses are keen and he is able to perceive the "dancing driftwood" in the short time before his death.

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Ambrose Bierce uses the bridge as a symbol in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."  The bridge in question is a "railroad bridge in northern Alabama" and serves as a focal point of the story.  Bridges often represent transitions in literature, because they are used as natural connectors, joining pieces of land together.  The bridge in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is symbolic on multiple levels. 

On the surface level, the bridge represents a tangible connection between the north and the south in the Civil War.  When Fahrquhar was visited by a scout, the man tells him "the Yanks are repairing the railroads," said the man, "and are getting ready for another advance." The Owl Creek Bridge is the intermediary between the two, and the north will use it to gain access to the south.  The bridge represents the opportunity of advantage in battle for the two opposing sides. 

For Peyton Fahrquhar, the bridge also comes to symbolize the moment of transition between life and death.  Held on a thin slab of wood over the rushing stream, Farhrquhar is to be hanged by the north for tampering with the bridge.   The bridge and the thin slab are the final connection that Peyton has to life:

"As Peyton Fahrquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead."

Bierce uses the symbolism of the bridge as a symbol of transition and change in his story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

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