What is the significance of Mrs. Farquhar's character?
Mrs. Farquhar plays a significant role in the story even though she speaks no lines of dialogue. Interestingly, she serves to make Farquhar both a more sympathetic character and a less sympathetic character.
The fact that Farquhar wants to "fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children" makes him a sympathetic character. Readers understand that he loves his family and immediately feel sorrow for the widow and fatherless children that this hanging will leave in its wake. Similarly, in section II, when Farquhar is sitting "on a rustic bench" with his wife, he seems domestic and harmless, which again makes readers want to take his side. In the final section, when he sees his wife, "looking fresh and cool and sweet," stepping off the veranda to meet him, readers welcome that reunion with relief. His evident joy at seeing his lovely wife again tugs at readers' heartstrings.
However, upon further reflection, readers may come to like Farquhar less when they consider his wife. Readers may perceive just how much Farquhar risked when he conducted the operation against Owl Creek Bridge. He is "ardently devoted to the Southern cause," owns slaves, and longs for "the opportunity for distinction." These dubious motivations take precedence over the wife and children that he ostensibly holds in such high esteem. From that perspective, Farquhar was a foolish man indeed, and with this knowledge, readers may feel less horrified to know that he does not escape his fate after all.
The inclusion of Farquhar's wife in the story adds depth to Farquhar's character and may make the reader either more or less inclined to sympathize with his punishment.
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Peyton Farquhar's wife is a minor character, but Ambrose Bierce felt the need to introduce her and give her a small part to play in the story.
Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.
It is ironic that this aristocratic Southern lady should be bringing water to the man who will be responsible for her husband's hanging and for her own destitution when the Yankees reach their plantation, loot all the food and valuables, free the slaves, and leave her with no means of surviving. The author has the lady leave the two men while she fetches the water. This is to get her out of the way so that the men can have the conversation that ensues. Peyton Farquhar would not be able to show his interest in sabotaging the Owl Creek Bridge if his wife were present. She would plead with him not to risk his life and the security of herself and their children on such a wild enterprise.
The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away. An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.
Ambrose Bierce introduces Mrs. Farquhar because she will symbolize everything that her husband wants to return to when he thinks he has a chance of escaping from the Union soldiers. His wife is a bit like Penelope in Homer's Odyssey. She symbolizes home, family, comfort, and contentment. Bierce cannot introduce Mrs. Farquhar without giving her something to do. This explains why the author has her go personally to fetch the water for the soldier. She is honoring him as a brave Confederate soldier by serving him "with her own white hands." The word "white" is intended to suggest that the lady has plenty of black house-slaves whom she would customarily order to bring water or anything else she wanted. At the very end of the story Farquhar has almost made it into his wife's outstretched arms.
Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!
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