An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Questions and Answers
by Ambrose Bierce

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge book cover
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What are some examples of characterizations in Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

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Ambrose Bierce's Civil War stories are well known for their shocking endings, and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" provides such an ending. His characterization techniques vary according to the story but, on the whole, he applies the three most common types of characterization—(a) description and action, with authorial commentary; (b) action alone, with no authorial commentary on the action; and (c) through depiction of a character's inner self through the thoughts and feelings the character expresses. Of the three, Bierce focuses on developing his character through the man's inner self.

When we first encounter Farquhar, he is introduced only as "a man" who is standing on some planks, with his hands behind his back and a rope around his neck, about to be hanged by some Federal troops who are themselves only characterized by their actions in connection with the hanging. In a brutal war, these men are silent and stone faced because death is both common and expected.

Bierce first characterizes Farquhar—still referred to a "the man"—with his observable characteristics:

He was a civilian, if one might judge by his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good...his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp.

Bierce's observation of the man's "kindly expression" is a subtle, but important, observation that immediately creates some sympathy for the as-yet unnamed victim of war.

The characterization moves from the outside world to within the character when Bierce notes that the man "closed his eyes in order to fix his last thought upon his wife and children," another slice of this man's life that creates sympathy in the reader. From this point to the end, Bierce includes Farquhar's interior life in the characterization—we know how and what Farquhar feels and sees because we see the action through his eyes and are privy to his interpretation of events.

Perhaps the most effective and startling use of Farquhar's inner self is, appropriately, at the end when Farquhar's brain, starved of oxygen because of the hanging, is still sending signals to his consciousness:

His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them; his tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from beneath his teeth into the cold air...he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet.

In Farquhar's last moment of consciousness, he is sensing the consequences of the hanging—protruding eyes; tongue protruding from the mouth; no roadway to be felt. Bierce's choice to maintain Farquhar's inner dialogue is a masterful touch of irony. Rather than simply describing Farquhar's physical being at the point of death, Bierce has made us feel, as if we are inhabiting Farquhar's body, his last sensations.

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