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 is the effect of the shift into the present tense in paragraph 36 in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

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The shift to the present tense in the penultimate paragraph gives a sense of immediacy to Peyton Farquar's experience. But it's not the immediacy of reality; instead, it's the immediacy of a dream. Farquar imagines himself standing at the gate of his own home; all is as he left it,...

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The shift to the present tense in the penultimate paragraph gives a sense of immediacy to Peyton Farquar's experience. But it's not the immediacy of reality; instead, it's the immediacy of a dream. Farquar imagines himself standing at the gate of his own home; all is as he left it, bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. To top it all off, he's tickled pink to see his lovely wife descending the steps of the veranda to greet him.

But just before they embrace, Farquar feels a sudden blow to the back of the head. Reality has impinged upon his dream; far from being at home with his wife, he's experiencing his last few moments on earth before dangling lifelessly beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge. There was always something decidedly unreal about his predicament, and this was reflected in the use of the past tense; it was as if none of this were really happening to him. But the dream, with Farquar's beautiful Southern mansion and equally beautiful wife, was so much more real to him and could only be rendered effectively in the present tense.

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Author Ambrose Bierce uses several narrative shifts to convey the various emotional states that his protagonist, Peyton Farquar, undergoes in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." He begins in a straight forward third-person narration in Part I, and continues this form in Part II; however, there are some revelations about what Farquar is actually thinking in the second section. In Part III, Bierce shifts to what can best be described as a modified first-person narrative, in which part of the story is told from an omniscient narrator, and part comes from Farquar himself. The final shift in the last two paragraphs, back to a third-person narrative, is meant to serve two purposes. First, in the next-to-last paragraph, it is meant to confuse the reader, much in the same way that Farquar is disoriented from his experience. Secondly, it shows that Farquar's life has ended--he is dead and can no longer describe the action from a first-person perspective.

In the previous paragraph I addressed your question as one that questioned the various narrative shifts (from third-person to first-person and back again), rather than as the tenses used (from past to present tense). Now, about the tenses, Bierce apparently wanted the next to last paragraph to show that Farquar is still alive, but barely--the things he describes are his final, fleeting thoughts during his last second(s) of life, between the time he falls between the railroad planks until his neck snaps or he suffocates. The final paragraph reverts back to past tense, for he is now dead.

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I think you may have your question confused somewhat - this short story actually contains no shift in tenses, as your question seems to suggest. Instead it includes very interestingly a shift in the point of view of the narration, which I am guessing your question should actually refer to, and which I will focus on. Consider this following example that contains the shift in point of view that is characteristic of this somewhat confused tale:

The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning.

"The officer," he reasoned, "will not make that martinet's error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!"

What is interesting about this extract is the coherent thought and clarity displayed in the thinking of the main character - we shift from the omniscient narrator to being able to see directly into his mind and to be able to trace his thinking. This clearly creates the effect of demonstrating how distorted Farquhar's perceptions are - the author is wanting to hint at the unreality of these events as we press on as readers to the shocking finale of this story.

Hope this helps you to analyse other parts of this excellent short story.

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