An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge Realism

What are some examples of literary realism in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

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Literary realism describes reality through details that include mundane items and everyday experiences as they occur in the real world. The genre seeks to stay as close to the truth or accurate description as possible. Literary realism also seeks to eliminate dramatic or romantic flourishes.

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Literary realism describes reality through details that include mundane items and everyday experiences as they occur in the real world. The genre seeks to stay as close to the truth or accurate description as possible. Literary realism also seeks to eliminate dramatic or romantic flourishes.

In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” we can see an example of this style in the way author Ambrose Bierce introduces the reader to the condemned man, Peyton Farquhar. Bierce provides details about the noose around Farquhar's neck which enable the reader to clearly visualize what the hanging scene looks like. Bierce says:

“[Peyton's] hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the ties supporting the rails of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners…”

Bierce then describes the sentinels that guard the exits from the bridge in the unlikely event that Farquhar escapes the noose and tries to get away. Bierce tells us that each sentinel “stood with his rifle in the position known as "support." He then proceeds to describe exactly what he means by “support,” supplying a level of detail intended to convey an accurate picture of the two military men. This is another example of literary realism.

We are told that the rife each man carries is “vertical in front of the left shoulder.” The rifle’s hammer rests on the sentinel’s forearm, which is “thrown straight across the chest.” We get a clear and detailed picture of how the sentinels stand. The level of detail is so precise that it is almost as if he has provided stage directions in a play.

We get similar details about the spectators to Peyton’s hanging. For instance, we learn that “the butts of their rifles [were] on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock.” This is a significant amount of detail to portray the authenticity or realism of the scene.

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One example of literary realism occurs when the story opens with the narrator's description of the setting. We get very straightforward images of the "swift water" some twenty feet below the railroad bridge, the placement of the hanging rope, the boards that have been "laid upon the ties supporting the rails of the railway [that] supplied a footing for [Farquhar] and his executioners," the officers and sentinels, and so forth. There are no artistic flourishes or figurative language; instead, these descriptions are, well, realistic, and lack any embellishments that would make the objects and people describe seem anything other than relatively ordinary.

Part of what makes literary realism interesting, however, is its portrayal of regular people whose lives are still filled with drama and interest. As Farquhar is about to be hanged, he opens his eyes and looks down at the water, thinking, "'If I could free my hands . . . I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home.'" These thoughts, the narrator says, "flashed" through Farquhar's brain, indicating the rapidity of his thought in this moment. His thoughts in this moment help to prepare us for Part III of the story, where Farquhar appears to escape in almost the exact way he imagines.

There is nothing overtly supernatural or very strange at work in the fantasy he creates as his body falls from the bridge. Farquhar seems to see things in a less-than-realistic way—in extreme detail, presented in a dreamy kind of manner—but that's because these observations are taking place within his imagination and not in the real world. People who think they are about to die often feel that their lives "flash before their eyes," and this is almost what happens to him, except that his imagined escape is what he sees. This portrayal of Farquhar's imagination running away with him, moving so fast (probably as a result of his adrenaline), is dramatic, to be sure, but somewhat realistic nonetheless.

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The way the story unfolds is indeed realistic, but the literary genre seems to be an example of  naturalism more than anything else. The heightening discrepancy between the way things seem and the way they really are and the manner in which the protagonist's own senses are foiled reinforce this stance.

Some critics even classify this work as being gothic, with a focus on the morbid, sinister side of nature.

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In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," obvious examples of realistic detail are the setting of the Civil War with the enmity existing between the two sides fighting.  This description of the setting told from the third person point of view is conventional realism, of course.  However, with the switch to first person point of view and then back to third person, there is a disorientation of the reader as to what is actually happening.  But, ironically, through this change in point of view, Bierce creates his most brutal realism:  the horrors and ugliness of war.

The character of Faquhar, whose name conquers romantic tales of adventure, entertains the romantic idea of an "opportunity for distinction" by sabotaging the railroad bridge.  But, Bierce satirizes this romantic idea in Faquhar's being a prime target for entrapment by the Union soldier.  Even with the rope around his neck, Faquahar cannot accept reality, imagining that he escapes.  The return to third person point of view underscores the cold reality of the ugliness and brutality of war:  Faquahar, is, indeed, dead.

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