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 setting of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

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Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" takes place during the Civil War on a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, where Peyton Fahrquhar awaits his death by hanging as he stands on a plank twenty feet above the river. In Part Two of the short story, the reader learns that Peyton Fahrquhar's plantation is about thirty miles from the Owl Creek Bridge, which he plans on destroying to halt the Union soldiers' advance, after being manipulated by a Union spy. The specific time and date of which the events take place are never explicitly mentioned in the text. However, the reader is told that Peyton could not participate in the "disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth," which historically took place in late May of 1862. Therefore, one can surmise that the short story takes place sometime around late spring or summer of 1862. Overall, the setting of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" takes place on a bridge in northern Alabama around the summer of 1862 during the American Civil War.

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Generally speaking, the setting of a story is the time and physical location.  

The text of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" never gives an actual date to the story. The reader is able to know that the story must be taking place between April 1861 and April 1865, because those are the dates of the American Civil War. Interestingly enough, Bierce's original text opened the story by stating that it took place during the summer of 1862.

As for the physical location of the events in the story, the reader is told that the story happens in northern Alabama. 

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below.

As the story continues, the reader learns that the bridge that Farquhar is standing on is a relatively short distance away from his plantation. In part two of the story, the Federal scout tells Farquhar that Owl Creek Bridge is "about thirty miles" from the house.

"How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?" Farquhar asked.

"About thirty miles."

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The setting of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is the Southern United States, during the U.S. Civil War. This allows a clear delineation between two sides, allowing the reader to choose sympathies. The titular bridge is one that serves a railroad track, allowing Union soldiers better access to strategic points. When Payton Fahrquhar, a Confederate sympathizer, tries to sabotage the bridge, he is caught and sentenced to be hanged off the bridge itself as an example.

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below.
[...]
A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!

The first sections of the story are mild and slow, contrasting the relaxed atmosphere of the American South with the war effort waged across it. The "sluggish" stream is in counterpoint to the trains that cross the bridge, bringing rushing activity and death.

At the end, Payton is suddenly free to escape, and enters the woods around his plantation:

The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman's road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.
(Quotes: Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," eNotes eText)

Although this is all a dying dream, Payton can be said to feel the strangeness and isolation of his homeland, one he thought he knew but now finds alien. Before his attempted sabotage, he lived in peace, with only the news of the war and little interference; his hubris in trying to help instead of standing back brought him to his doom, and the bridge -- which acts as both a literal bridge and the "bridge" between life and death -- destroys him as completely as he wished to destroy it.

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There are two settings here.

The first is the literal, physical setting. The story takes place on a railroad bridge in Alabama (over, as the title indicates, Owl Creek). All the physical action happens there.

However, there is a second setting, which is inside the mind of the man who is being hanged. In the last instants of life, he moves off into a blend of wishes, dreams, and memories to envision himself swimming home. He remembers his past life and his plantation home, creating virtual settings…before death takes him.

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In part 1, we find out that this story is taking place in northern Alabama, in the deep South; more specifically, it takes place on a railroad bridge over a body of water called the Owl Creek. In part 2, the narrator tells us that the main character, Peyton Farquhar, owns a plantation and slaves and that he is "an original secessionist [who is] ardently devoted to the Southern cause." In other words, Farquhar very much supports the Confederacy and wants to maintain the practice of slavery. This tells us that the story is taking place sometime during 1861 and 1865, the years of the Civil War. Farquhar is being hanged for attempting to burn down the Owl Creek bridge in order to disrupt the Northern war effort. The reason for burning down the bridge indicates that the war is still going on, and so we can narrow down the timing to those four years.

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