"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce ranks as one of the masterpieces in American literature. It has all of the ingredients for an excellent read; and along the way, the reader might learn something about the the Civil War.
Why is this story great?
The protagonist Peyton Farquhar plays his part well. He stands for the Southern cause in the Civil War. Everything about Farquhar represents the Old South: slavery, arrogance, gentility. He even claims to be an expert in hanging. His "imperious nature" [basically bossiness and arrogance] prevent him from serving in the war, but he still supports the south in whatever way he can.
The element of time encases the story much like Poe's "Masque." Southern time moves at a slow pace so that the person can enjoy his life. Army time finds the main character moving with the drum beat and at a more staccato pace. When the reader thinks that Farquhar has escaped and is running for home, the pace build like a musical crescendo until at the last moment: Farquhar falls to his death by hanging.
The ending of the story surprises the reader. Just as he sees his wife and runs toward her, Farquhar's noose snaps his neck. The entire second half of the story has been an illusion for the reader.
As Stuart C. Woodruff, one of the story's closest analysts, puts it, "somehow the reader is made to participate in the split between imagination and reason, to feel that the escape is real while he knows it is not."
Bierce's style qualifies as both descriptive and ambiguous. Providing detailed information but also withholding important aspects of the story gives the reader a false sense of just another "man escapes" story. Here are just some of the story's components that are described in great detail:
- Farquhar's appearance and history;
- the appearance of the bridge;
- the military protocol of the hanging;
- Farquhar's thoughts before his execution; and
- the process of his escape
The story requires a second reading to find what clues were missed indicating the hanging was in progress rather than a dream sequence in the mind of Farquhar. This story like other classics that have the surprise waiting at the end of the story will find this a delicious read.