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 are some examples of irony in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

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An irony in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is that Peyton Farquhar, who believes that "all is fair in love and war," is tricked into capture by a Yankee scout because he falls into the trap of believing the scout is a Confederate. A second irony is that at the moment we believe Peyton has escaped and returned home, we realize it is all a fantasy and that he is about to die.

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The main irony in this story is situational irony. Situational irony occurs when some kind of difference is exposed between what is expected to happen and what really happens. In other words, what happens is not what the audience was expecting to happen. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a wonderful example of this, and Bierce absolutely does a wonderful job of controlling reader expectations.

This is one reason why this story is so much fun to teach year after year. I know what happens at the end of the story, but my students do not. It's wonderfully amusing to have students read the story out loud in class and watch their reactions as the final lines of the story hit. They are completely caught off guard because Bierce does such a great job of convincing readers that Farquhar has actually escaped and is making his way back to his house and wife. There is huge situational irony in believing that Faquhar is actually escaping rather than imagining all of his escape in the time it takes for rope to snap tight.

The story does contain a brief moment of dramatic irony in section two. Farquhar and his wife believe that the soldier is a Confederate like them; however, readers are told that the man is actually a Federal scout:

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.

The reader now knows more about a particular situation than characters in the story, and we know that Farquhar was deviously set up.

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Some further examples of irony in Ambrose Bierce's story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" are the following:

It is ironic that Peyton Farquhar is being hanged for a crime he did not succeed in committing. He is being hanged from the bridge he intended to burn down.

It is bitterly ironic that he imagines he is escaping and goes through a whole series of hopes and fears but ends up having his neck broken by the hanging rope just when he thinks he has reached the safety of his home.

It is ironic the way Ambrose Bierce leads the reader to believe that the "gray-clad soldier" who stops at Farquhar's plantation and tells him how easy it would be to burn down the bridge turns out to be an enemy soldier. The very last words of the second section are: "He was a Federal scout."

It is ironic that Farquhar should imagine that he is living for a long period of time while falling with the noose around his neck, when he only has a matter of seconds to live. The length of his life was measured by the amount of slack in the rope.

A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees.

There are many different views of what constitutes irony. Typically irony seems like something that would be a joke if it were not so painful or tragic. Ambrose Bierce had a sour, sardonic, pessimistic, cynical nature, as is shown in the grim humor of the definitions in his book The Devil's Dictionary. He savored irony.

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The irony in this short story lies in the presentation of thje character of Peyton Farquhar in the second section of this story. There is a deliberate discrepancy between Farquhar's notions of what war is all about the messy, brutal reality of war. Note how Farquhar is presented in this section after the reader has been told how he was unable to become a soldier in one conflict:

...he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction.

The narrator goes on to express that Farquhar agreed on the whole with the "frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war." Clearly Bierce is creating a character who has romantic notions concerning war that bear no resemblance to the reality of what war is all about. He easily swallows the idea that such an important bridge would lie unguarded and could easily be burnt down, and even when he is on the point of being hung, his desperate desire to be a hero causes him to imagine a daredevil escape rather than the ignomonious reality of his death. The irony in this story thus lies in the discrepancy between the reality of what war really is and Farquhar's romantic notions of war as an "opportunity for distinction" and "the larger life of the soldier." All is not fair in love and war, and this is a truth that Farquhar ironically evades until his very end.

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What is the irony in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

Irony occurs when events unfold that are the opposite of what the reader is led to expect. In part 2, the chief irony is that the man in the gray coat who comes and asks for water is not a Confederate. Though the narrator never identifies him as a Confederate, Peyton Farquhar and his wife believe he is, and the reader goes along with their assumption. The Confederates wore gray, rather than dark blue like the North, and the man acts like a Confederate, thanking the wife "ceremoniously" for the water and "bowing" to the husband as if he is a Southern gentleman. Ironically, however, we find out that "he was a Federal scout." His goal is to lure Farquhar into trying to burn down the bridge so he can be arrested—and Farquhar falls into the trap. A further irony is that Farquhar has

without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.

Ironically, he is the one who falls victim to the credo that "all is fair in love and war."

The ironic incident in part 3 is that that while we are privy to a long sequence in which Farquhar is described escaping from the hanging and returning safely home to his wife, the second we believe he has fallen into his wife's arms, he dies from being hanged. The whole sequence is the fantasy of a dying man in the instant between the choking sensation of the noose tightening and the moment of death.

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What is the irony in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and is there an epiphany?

The irony of the story is that the reader thinks that Peyton Farquhar has escaped hanging and is trying to get back home. However, at the end of the story, we find that Peyton has been imagining his escape during the time when

"the sergeant stepped aside"

to the last line of the story which reads,

"Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge."

The only epiphany comes for the reader because Peyton, unfortunately is dead. We realize that there were clues throughout the story that told us Peyton was really dying. For instance, when the constant references to how difficult it was to breathe and the fact that from the river, Peyton could,

"saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf--he saw the very insects upon them. . ."

His eyesight is too keen for a man swimming in a river to see such details. He sees that the sharpshooter firing at him " has grey eyes" Finally, as he gets closer "to home", 

"His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen . . .he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!"

Thus, the reader suddenly discovers that Bierce has been indicating all along that Peyton is dying, and yet, the reader's hope has sustained him with the belief that Peyton just might free himself. 

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