What is American about Ambrose Bierce's narrative "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" when it comes to language, characters, and setting? And has the work/the author impacted U.S. culture?

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favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The setting, the characterization of Peyton Farquhar, and the language of the story convey the author's expectation that his audience has a certain familiarity with this time period in American history (as one might expect, especially since the story was published in 1890, just 25 years after the end of the war), as well as with the details associated with the Civil War and those involved.  He uses specific words, in fact, that anticipate our knowledge as Americans, language that we should be accustomed to hearing in any discussion of this era.

The story takes place in Alabama, one of the states that is considered to be in the deep South and thus much more isolated from northern ideals, especially during the Civil War era because they didn't have all the technology that can contribute to communication then.  Bierce expects his audience to already have some familiarity with what it means to be a plantation owner in a southern state during this period.  

The character of Peyton Farquhar seems to be a sort of quintessential representative of the way of life for which the South believed it was fighting: he owns a plantation, and therefore slaves, and he is a secessionist, meaning that he wants the South (the Confederacy) to leave the Union. Farquhar is "ardently devoted to the Southern cause," willing to do any service to aid it: another signal for readers to access their knowledge about everything having to do with this cause.

As the narrator describes Farquhar, his home, and the events leading up to the crime for which he's being hanged, he continues to paint a vivid picture in terms that Americans should understand: he relies on our knowledge of which color each side wore, the various terms by which the two sides are called, what the conflict between North and South entailed, and so forth.  There's a certain Americanness to the language used, as if Bierce expects his readers to understand without explanation.

The work itself has impacted American culture by presenting such a negative view of war -- often, wars are painted as somehow glorious or they are romanticized -- but also because of its ending and the somewhat sympathetic characterization of Farquhar.  Readers are lulled by Part III, aware and perhaps somewhat suspicious that something strange is going on in terms of Farquhar's perception of his surroundings, but likely not expecting the abrupt end, with his neck snapping in the noose.  Equally as unexpected as the ending is the sympathetic depiction of Farquhar, a Southerner who would have chosen to retain slavery and break up the country.  Usually, these types of characters are presented as villainous in some way, especially by non-Southern authors (and Bierce is from Ohio); however, the narration does encourage us to have some sympathy for the protagonist, especially in Part III.  He thinks, really, only of the safety and happiness of his wife and family, and his determination to return to them at all costs is admirable and understandable.  It is difficult, then, to think of Farquhar as a slave-owning monster when Bierce shows us the better qualities of his heart instead.  He shows us the qualities to which just about any reader can relate.  We begin to feel his desperation and confusion, which makes the abrupt ending feel that much more sudden and unexpected.  The way Bierce disrupts our expectations of both character and plot in these ways has contributed to American culture: we like our twisted endings (think of M. Night Shyamalan's films!) and we enjoy finding out that the bad guy was actually kind of a good guy in the end, or vice versa.  

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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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