At what point in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" does the reader get the first hint that the escape is a hallucination?
In Part III with the distortion of time and the illusionary nature of the narrative, the reader begins to suspect that Peyton Farquhar merely imagines his escape.
Certainly, the break from the typical realistic style of Ambrose Bierce's narrative in Part III of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" alerts readers that the story may be taking a different direction. In fact, there is a direct change from the matter-of-fact tone of Part II to the stirring plunge into the stream-of-consciousness narrative in Part III. For instance, in this section of the story, Farquhar seems to be merely an observer of his own hands that struggle to free the rope around his neck. Then, when he is freed from the noose, he believes that he has called out to his hands to put the rope back.
"Put it back! Put it back!" He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire; his heart...gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish!
In reality, this is probably the point at which Peyton Farquhar has been hanged.
There are other incidents in this section which seem unrealistic and hallucinatory. For instance, after Farquhar comes to the surface of the water, he sees the bridge and the soldiers standing upon it, particularly the captain, the sergeant, and the two privates that have been assigned as his executioners. When these soldiers spot him, they behave oddly. The captain draws his pistol "but did not fire," and the other soldiers "were unarmed."
Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.
Certainly, this description of the soldiers seems unrealistic, and it creates a credibility gap with the first part of the narrative. This gap should also suggest to the reader that the escape is merely Farquhar's hallucination.
There are two hints in Part I of the story that Peyton's mind is playing tricks on him seconds before he dies. Standing on the bridge, his hands tied and the rope around his neck, Peyton looks down into the waters of Owl Creek "racing madly beneath his feet." He fixes his attention on a piece of driftwood moving downstream with the swift current. Peyton's perception is distorted, however, because the driftwood appears to him to be moving very slowly: "What a sluggish stream!" It is not a sluggish stream, as we were just told.
The second hint that Peyton is not thinking rationally follows quickly. As he waits to die, Peyton "became conscious of a new disturbance." He hears a strange sound he can't identify:
. . . a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality . . . . Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell.
As Peyton continues to listen, the sounds grow "in strength and sharpness" until he barely can endure them: "They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife . . . ." Peyton is listening to the sound of his own watch ticking. These two examples of Peyton's distorted mental processes serve as hints that we cannot trust his perceptions of reality. The rope breaks only in his terrified mind.