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

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Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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."

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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