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...
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.