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 major events occur in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” follows the hanging of Alabama planter Peyton Farquhar, who was caught planning to burn Owl Creek Bridge. Farquhar drops from the bridge and into the water, swimming rapidly away as the soldiers fire, then pulls himself up onto land and runs for home. At the end of the story, however, Farquhar's body hangs from the bridge, and readers are left to decide what really happened.

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As Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” opens, we see a man standing on a railroad bridge with his wrists bound and a rope around his neck. He is about to be hanged by Union soldiers. The narrator describes the prisoner, a man about thirty-five years old, as a planter and a civilian with a “kindly expression.” Yet this man is about to drop to his death, and we readers wonder why. As the soldiers make their final preparations, the narrator describes the man's thoughts. He looks down at the stream so far below and remembers his family. He hears the loud ticking of his watch and thinks that if he could only free his hands, he might have a chance to escape. With this thought, the narrator plants a seed in readers' minds.

Just as the Union sergeant steps aside, ready to complete the hanging, the story flashes back, and we learn that the man on the bridge is Peyton Farquhar, an Alabama planter who has had the misfortune to hint at his plans to burn the Owl Creek bridge in the presence of a Union scout.

The story then shifts back to the present, and readers watch as Farquhar drops from the bridge and straight into the river. Something has happened. The rope around his neck breaks, and after a few moments of near drowning, he surfaces in the water. Then the soldiers on the riverbank see him and open fire. They miss, and Farquhar begins to swim rapidly away. But then the cannon opens upon him. He whirls around in the water before catching the gravel on the shore and pulling himself up onto land, running flat out toward home as the cannon shot whizzes above his head.

Just as Farquhar reaches home and sees his wife, running toward her with arms outstretched, he feels a “stunning blow upon the back of the neck” and sees “a blinding white light.” Then all is dark and silent, and Peyton Farquhar's body swings from the Owl Creek bridge.

Readers are left to interpret these events and to decide for themselves whether Farquhar really escapes only to be recaptured and hanged a second time or whether the whole thing is the desperate final vision of a dying man.

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Ambrose Bierce's short story "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is justly famous for its twist ending and use of misdirection.

The story begins with the main character, Peyton Farquhar, a saboteur and large slave owner, is about to be hung for trying to destroy a railroad bridge.

The next major event is Peyton remembering that a Confederate soldier asked him to sabotage the bridge. He later turned out to be a Union soldier in disguise.

Then the rope around Peyton's neck breaks and he falls into the creek. He frees his hands and swims to avoid shots from US troops.

He then leaves the creek and walks through the forest. At night, he begins to see and hear things.

The next morning he finds himself back at his plantation. He runs to his wife.

Then he feels a blow upon his neck. There is a loud noise and a flash of light. Peyton never escaped. He imagined everything between falling from the bridge and the noose breaking his neck.

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In Part One, Peyton Farquhar is standing on loose boards with a rope around his neck waiting to be hanged by Union troops. Bierce describes the position of the Union troops on the bridge and depicts the solemn atmosphere of the moment. As Peyton awaits his death, he has a "kindly expression" on his face and begins to experience time slow down. Peyton then looks down upon the water and begins to formulate a plan of escape.

In Part Two, Bierce provides information on Peyton Farquhar's background as a wealthy plantation owner, who is deceived by an undercover Union soldier. The Union spy tells Peyton Farquhar that the Union troops are stationed at the Owl Creek Bridge, which is a strategic railway for their southern advance and is poorly guarded by a single sentinel. The soldier suggests that Peyton could easily destroy the bridge and aid the Confederacy's cause, which intrigues Farquhar.

In Part Three, Peyton Farquhar images the noose breaking when he is dropped from the bridge and falling into the river below. Peyton then imagines himself avoiding the rifle fire from Union troops and swimming to freedom, where he climbs onto an embankment and travels home. As soon as he returns home to his plantation to greet his family, the reality of the situation returns and Peyton is executed.

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In Part I, we are introduced to Peyton Farquhar, a plantation owner and secessionist very much devoted to the Southern cause, just as he is about to be executed by some Union soldiers.  Just when he is about to be hanged, he tries to "fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children," and he begins to feel as though time is slowing down.

In Part II, we get more background on Farquhar, including what it was that led to his death sentence: a Federal scout told him how important the railroad lines, especially the bridges, are to the Union and gave him some information about how easy it would be to burn one particular rail bridge down.  He also mentions that the penalty for interfering with the lines is death.  We can assume that this is the crime for which Farquhar has been sentenced.

In Part III, Farquhar imagines that the rope snaps, he gets away, walking through the woods day and night, until he is just about to reach his wife's arms.  Suddenly, his neck snaps in the noose, and Farquhar hangs dead.

Those are the key events of each part in a nutshell.

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One of the most important events in the story is Peyton Farquhar's execution. He's hanged from a bridge by Union soldiers for conspiring to commit an act of sabotage, a very serious crime in wartime. Peyton was lead to commit this capital crime by a man who he believed to be a Souther soldier, who urges him to destroy the bridge in order to hold up the advance of the Union army.

The Southern soldier turns out to be no such thing, of course; he's a Union trooper in disguise. But because Peyton is such a loyal supporter of the Confederacy, he's willing to do whatever it takes to assist the cause, no matter how risky. One could argue that his fateful decision to try and blow up the bridge is the most important event in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," as it leads directly to his death by hanging, which is the story's main dramatic focus.

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The story's main event is revealed at the end when Peyton Farquhar is hanged "from the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge." The rest of the story's events are either the reminiscences of Farquhar or his desires expressed as a fantasy, such as the reunion with his wife in the moments before his death.

The story opens with the event of soldiers standing sentry at either end of the bridge while officers oversee the preparations for a hanging. The event that led up to Farquhar's condemnation is replayed: a Union scout in the guise of a Confederate comes to the house, and the fateful conversation between the soldier and Farquhar regarding the bridge takes place.

The event of Farquhar escaping the noose and being fired upon in Owl Creek does not actually take place; it is the detailed fantasy that Farquhar creates to distract himself from the agonizing truth of his imminent execution.

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