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

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge book cover
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In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," what is the function of the flashback in section two and why is it placed there?

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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is neatly divided into three sections, the first and last longer and the middle one shorter. Section two provides the explanation of how and why the protagonist, Southern civilian and self-appointed saboteur Peyton Farquhar, has come to be standing on Owl Creek Bridge, waiting to be hanged. Strictly speaking, an explanation is not necessary—the story would still work if we knew nothing more than that Farquhar is a Confederate being executed by Federal soldiers—but it deepens the reader's appreciation and understanding of Farquhar's situation and therefore increases the emotional impact of the brutal surprise ending.

However, while the background is important, it would have been a mistake for Bierce to follow chronological order and place it at the beginning. To do so would have drastically reduced the impact of the story. To begin in the middle of the action, so to speak, with Farquhar's neck already in the noose, grabs the reader's attention and...

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The function of the flashback in section two is backstory. Without it, the reader would never learn what, exactly, Peyton did to get arrested. Plus it sets the scene for section three, his "escape." It also adds to the irony of the story, in that the reader learns that Farquhar was tricked by Northern soldiers into trying to destroy the bridge. Without section two, the reader would never know why he was being hanged. They also wouldn't know he had a family, that he was a plantation owner, or where he was headed when he "escaped". It also explains why he tried to destroy the bridge, which is because he could not fight in the war for reasons Bierce felt weren't worth mentioning in the story.

The flashback scene in section two of of the story is placed where it is for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest is for appeal. The way the story starts out, in medias res (which means it starts in the middle of the story), grabs the reader's attention with a lot more strength than it would have if he kept the timeline intact. By starting in the middle of the story, it makes the reader start to wonder what this man did and why he is at the end of a noose.