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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Comment on the shifts in the point of view in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

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You are right to identify that Bierce uses narration in a very interesting way in this famous story. For example, in section 3, the point of view shifts to the third-person-limited point of view seconds before the actual death of Peyton Farquhar. This of course is appropriate given the way that this section explores Farquhar's desperate flight of imagination. Such a detached perspective allows the narrator to maintain a realistic stance, even as Farquhar's mind is obviously running away from reality.

You might like to think how the story starts by being written in the omniscient point of view. In addition, the beginning of the story is well known for the way that it presents the opening scene almost as a film might present it:

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached toa stout cross-timber above his ead, and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners--two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff.

Note the very visual nature of this description and how the scene is set, introducing the main character and providing us with lots of detail. Of course, as the story progresses, as previously noted, the point of view changes as we zoom in on Peyton Farquhar, and his feelings and emotions, combining flashbacks that describe how he managed to arrive in this situation with his own delusory flight of fancy before he dies.

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What point of view is used in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

In Part 1 of the story, a third-person limited omniscient point of view is employed. This means that the narrator can only report the thoughts and feelings of one character, and that character is the man about to be hanged. In addition, the narrator is not a participant in the events of the story. The narrator describes the actions of the other characters, but he only reports what would be visible to an observer. We learn, of the man about to be hanged, that "He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children." We learn that he became aware of "a new disturbance," as he listened to the ticking of his watch as it appeared to slow down. The narrator even reports the man's thoughts about how he might "throw off the noose and spring into the stream" if only he could free his hands, and his gratitude that his home "is as yet outside [enemy] lines."

In Part II, the narrator reports a tiny amount of Mrs. Farquhar's feelings, that she "was only too happy" to serve the young gray-clad soldier who showed up at their gate. The narrator also reports on Peyton Farquhar's thoughts and feelings,...

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that he is "ardently devoted to the Southern cause," that he felt his opportunity to distinguish himself would come soon, that he was "at heart a soldier" who believed that "all is fair in [...] war." Therefore, this section is written from a third-person omniscient point of view.

In Part III, the focus returns to Peyton Farquhar's thoughts and feelings alone; however, he does not narrate, himself. The point of view is returns to the third-person limited omniscient. In the end, he imagines the sight of his wife and home, "all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine."

Because the revelation of Mrs. Farquhar's feeling of happiness at serving the soldier she believes to be Confederate is so minor, and one could argue that her feeling would have been visible to an observer, if you were pressed to choose one point of view to characterize the whole story, third-person limited omniscient would be my suggestion. Certainly, the vast majority of the text focuses on Peyton Farquhar's thoughts and feelings, and seems designed to draw him closer, emotionally, to the reader, which is often why the third-person limited omniscient is deployed. Therefore, it best characterizes the entire story.

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What point of view is used in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

In Part One of the short story, Ambrose Bierce uses third-person limited narration to describe the formal setting of the execution, as well as Peyton's thoughts. In third-person limited, the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of one person. In Part One, Peyton's feelings are described as he panics after hearing the ominous ticking of his watch and contemplates his escape.

In Part Two, the narration switches to third-person omniscient. The background information leading up to Peyton's execution is presented as a soldier informs Peyton about the Union's proclamation concerning the Owl Creek Bridge. However, the reader is told that the soldier speaking to Peyton is actually a Federal scout. This information creates dramatic irony, which is one advantage of using third-person omniscient narration.

The narration switches again to third-person limited in Part Three of the short story. Peyton's thoughts, feelings, and emotions are described in detail as he dreams of his escape. No other character's perspective is provided in the last section, which makes this third-person limited narration.

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What point of view is used in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

The story opens with the 3rd person omniscient point of view.  Its effect is a colder and more emotionless tone to the story.  The narrator knows everything that is happening and is simply presenting the facts to the reader.  There is a guy on a bridge.  There are some soldiers there.  The guy is about to be hanged. 

In part two of the story the narrative point of view shifts from third person omniscient to third person limited.  The story focuses on Peyton Farquhar. Not only Peyton, but also Peyton's thoughts and emotions. The reader doesn't know what the Union soldier is thinking. The reader doesn't know what Peyton's wife is thinking either. What the reader knows is what Peyton does, says, and thinks. This narrative shift causes the reader to be much more sympathetic to Peyton. The reader cares about him and wants to see him succeed. The reader feels that it was a rotten trick to get him on that bridge. The reader shares Peyton's joy as the rope breaks, and his fears as he tries to complete his escape. The reader feels close to Peyton, because he is the only character that we really know anything about. It's a fantastic point of view shift, and the amazing thing is that the reader hardly notices that it has occurred.  

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What point of view is used in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

You have two kinds of narration, first person and third person. In first person, a character in the story is telling it, giving the reader only his/her thoughts and feeling about the other characters and the events. Third person is when you have a narrator who is not a character in the story telling us the story. Third person can be limited or omniscient. Limited third person allows the reader to know the thoughts and feelings of one of the characters. Third person omniscient gives us the thoughts and feelings of more than one character, but not necessarily all of them. It can be as many characters as the author feels is necessary in order for the story to be told.

This celebrated short story is divided into 3 sections, with each one having its own narrative technique. In the first section, it is told from the third person point of view where the narrator is an objective outsider telling the story. It describes the setting of the execution. The second section is third person limited because it gives us some of Farquhar's thoughts and feelings. It provides us with the background information on the events leading up to Farquhar's hanging. The third section starts where the first one ended, back on the bridge when Farquhar falls into the water. Now the viewpoint becomes first person because the reader is told how Farquhar feels as he tries to escape and get back to his home thirty miles away. At the end of the third section, narration switches back to third person, telling us Farquhar is dead.

By switching the narrative technique of each section, Bierce creates confusion in the reader to reflect what the main character is feeling, allowing us to take part in his hallucinations.

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What are the objective viewpoints in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

Bierce begins Part 1 of the story in what is normally referred to as third person objective point of view.  In the first four paragraphs of "Occurrence," the narrator describes Peyton Farquhar (known only as the man on the bridge at this point) with a rather detached, observant tone.  The narrator notes that

"the man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age."

The word "apparently" in the sentence above demonstrates that narrator is not familiar with Farquhar and is simply relating to the reader what he sees.  However, at the end of the fourth paragraph, the story abrubtly changes from a third person objective point of view to a third person limited narrator.  This narrator begins to tell the reader exactly what Peyton is looking at, hearing, focusing on, and eventually what he is thinking.

Later, especially in Part 3, the story again changes to a stream-of-consciousness narration where readers are inside Peyton's mind during his fantasy escape.  And then, finally, the story ends once again in third person objective point of view with its brief last paragraph.

Bierce most likely uses this shifting point of view technique not only to create a the sense of one's life flashing before his eyes, but also to show that if one is willing to look at a situation from several different perspectives, he might have a more realistic idea or objective view of real-life "occurrences."

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What point of view is employed in each section of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

For every section of this story, the point of view is third person limited omniscient. In Part One, we know this because the narrator knows Peyton Fahrquhar's thoughts and feelings but no other character's. In the last few paragraphs of the section, he thinks about his wife and children and he considers what would happen if he found himself suddenly able to escape. We get a sense of the man himself, but this section also gives us some clues about what's going on in his head so that we can understand the final section, once we get there.

In Part Two, still, the narrator knows only Peyton Fahrquhar's thoughts. The narrator tells us that

he chafed under the inglorious restraint [of not being able to serve as a soldier], longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction [....].  No service was too humble for him to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.

Thus, we learn Fahrquhar's motivation in attempting to burn down the Owl Creek Bridge. We need to be able to know his thoughts in order to understand why he did what he did and what it meant to him. Otherwise, it might be very easy for modern readers to dismiss him as some unscrupulous, unrelatable villain. Understanding his wounded pride helps us to see why he would have wanted to make a difference in the war effort (even if we disagree with him).

Part Three is also written from a third person limited omniscient perspective because, literally, almost every single thing that occurs in this section happens in Fahrquhar's mind. Part of the shock at the end of the text is that we actually don't realize that everything is happening in his head until his neck snaps and Fahrquhar hangs dead in the last few sentences.

Thus, all sections are written in third person limited omniscient but for different reasons: to introduce the character, to help us relate to the character, and then to shock us utterly when that character dies suddenly and unexpectedly (even though we probably should have expected it!). 

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