silhouette of a man half submerged in water wiht a noose around his neck

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Ambrose Bierce
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What happens at the end of the story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

At the end of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Peyton Farquhar daydreams about reuniting with his family before he is hanged. The story ends with his lifeless body swinging beneath the rafters of the Owl Creek Bridge.

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Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” ends with the revelation that Peyton Fahrquhar is dead, victim of the hanging to which he had been condemned by the Union forces that had taken him captive.

Bierce’s story is about a Southerner, a planter committed to the Confederacy but unable to participate in the Civil War as a combatant due to, as the story’s omniscient narrator states, “circumstances of an imperious nature,” the details of which are unnecessary to relate. Bierce, as is common to such stories, is meticulous in his descriptions. Peyton is to be hanged as a Southern sympathizer who, the Union officer fears, could confront his own forces at some point as an active combatant or spy.

The details of the preparations for the hanging are provided in minute detail, as are the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations experienced by the condemned man. When Peyton’s body hits the water, therefore, and begins his journey home, the reader is led to believe that the hanging was a failure and the intended victim was able to escape. As the story progresses, Peyton struggles to regain his consciousness while evading capture by Union soldiers. He is determined to reach home, where his wife and children will lovingly accept him.

Throughout his narrative, Bierce has made a point of acknowledging Peyton’s love for his family. As “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” reaches its denouement, Peyton arrives home. Bierce describes the scene as follows:

He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence! Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

Peyton’s fall into the creek and escape from captivity and execution is revealed as a dream—the final mental images from the subconscious brain of a man as he passes from life to death.

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The protagonist of the story, Peyton Farquhar, daydreams of reuniting with his wife and family moments before he is hanged from the Owl Creek Bridge. The story ends with Peyton's lifeless body swinging gently above the fast-moving water.

In the first part of the short story, Peyton experiences heightened senses as he awaits certain death. Bierce foreshadows Peyton's vivid fantasy by mentioning the way he focuses his "last thoughts upon his wife and children," notices the intricacies of his surroundings, and likens the sound of his watch to "the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil." The reader recognizes that Peyton is beginning to hallucinate and allowing his imagination to run wild.

In the third part of the story, Peyton imagines the rope breaking around his neck as he falls from the bridge and crashes into the water beneath. Bierce provides a graphic account of Peyton's frantic escape, but an astute reader can tell he isn't experiencing reality from the unnatural description of his surroundings. After Peyton dodges bullets, swims ashore, and travels through the forest, he begins his long journey home.

In Peyton's imagination, he returns home, reunites with his beautiful wife, and suddenly sees a blinding white light the moment he experiences a stunning blow to the back of his neck. The story ends with an objective description of Peyton's lifeless body swaying beneath the Owl Creek Bridge, which is an ironic twist and surprising ending. The reader realizes Peyton's impossible escape was nothing more than a daydream or hallucination moments before his inevitable death.

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Throughout the short story, Peyton Farquhar is waiting to be hanged by the Union soldiers stationed at Owl Creek bridge. While Peyton is getting ready to die, he reflects on his life and dreams about escaping. Ambrose Bierce presents Farquhar's dreams of escaping to be reality and the reader believes that Peyton has amazingly found a way to escape his fate. In Peyton's daydream, he falls through the bridge, loses consciousness, and is able to avoid being shot as he swims to freedom. However, Bierce ends the story with a twist. In one short, declarative statement, he writes,

"Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge" (6).

It turns out that Peyton Farquhar was simply imagining his escape and ends up being hanged. Bierce slows down time throughout the story which leads the reader to believe that the events taking place happen over a longer period of time than they do in Peyton's mind. Peyton Farquhar's hanging actually happens in minutes and he ends up dying at the end of the story. 

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The entire story leads up to the tragic end where Farquhar dies.  The story wanders rather slowly through different events in his life.  Thus, the story is ultimately a flashback, because Farquhar begins by standing on the scaffold.  The end is where he is actually hanged.  His hanging happens when he is in a dreamlike sequence where he is running towards his home and his wife.  One can assume this to be his most recent memory.

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The story ends with the death of Farquhar. The ending comes as a shock, because readers are led to believe that he has escaped.

Farquhar is being executed by Union soldiers for an attempt to destroy a strategic bridge, but the moment he is hanged, he imagines that the rope around his neck has broken, that he falls into the creek below, and that he is able to swim to safety. This escape is made to seem all the more real because of its detail. Farquhar imagines clearly the sensation of drowning, the burning pain in his neck, the desperation of struggling to free his hands. Similarly, the sensation of acute observation once he breaks his bonds and is able to swim to the surface and the eerie way he is able to elude the Union bullets fired at him by diving below the surface of the water have a hyperrealistic quality.

These sensory details make what is being described seem real. What Bierce has done, however, is a clever kind of narrative trick. The narrator has shifted point of view. While the beginning of the story was told from an external point of view, with the facts of Farquhar's execution being clearly and dispassionately described, in part 3, we find ourselves, without warning, inside Farquhar's head, and the narrator's description, written in such a way to seem to match the rest of the story, is in fact a description of Farquhar's mental state at the moment of death. His escape is "flashing before his eyes," a final, desperate delusion.

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