Through his technique of switching point of view in his story, Bierce relates two narratives that serve to generate a certain ambiguity suggested initially by the title of his story with the word occurrence. On the one hand, the story opens with an objective third person point of view that reports of a prisoner of war who is about to be hanged on an Alabama railroad bridge. Then, the point of view switches to omniscient and through it the readers acquire some sympathy for the prisoner who is treated with such detachment by a military whose code
...makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
This sympathy of the reader is aroused as the man contemplates his loss of wife and children as the ticking of his watch becomes, for him, a death knell. Yet, he is comforted by the thought that his family is "beyond the invader's farthest advance."
In Part II, the narrative flashes back to the history of what has occurred to bring Peyton Farquhar to this tragic position. A Union scout, posing as a Confederate soldier, stops at the plantation of Farquhar and asks for news; he, in turn, tells Farquhar that the Northern forces are repairing the bridge at Owl Creek in anticipation of pushing forward in their attacks. When the plantation owner asks how easily this bridge would burn, the soldier suggests, "It is now dry and would burn like tow."
Then, in Part III, Bierce's narrative returns to the present and the point of view alternates between first-person and third-person limited, a technique that conveys the dreamlike disassociation of Farqhuar from his body. Like those who face death, time seems to have slowed down and his senses are sharpened. This surreal quality of the narrative diminishes the urgency of Farqhuar's dire situation. For, Farqhaur believes that he is "now in full possession of his physical senses. Farqhaur sees the keen grey eye of the soldier looking through the sights of his rifle. When he hears "Ready!...Aim!...Fire!" Farquhar dives as deeply as he can into the water and hears the dull sound of bullets on the water. As he surfaces, he realizes that he is farther downstream, closer to home. There are more sensations that Farquhar feels, ones that are purely subjective: colors, transformations of shapes, giddiness. Then, he feels himself on the sand, and he rejoices; he travels all night and arrives at the gate of his beautiful home. As he meets his wife's outstretched arms, he feels "a stunning blow" on the back of his neck and a "blinding white light" flashes until all is dark and silent. Peyton Farquar is dead from a neck broken by a rope. His dreams of escaping and reaching home have betrayed his mind--all are but romantic illusions.
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is out of copyright and so available to read for free online, including here at eNotes. Here is a brief summary.
A man named Peyton Farquhar is going to be hanged. He is a Confederate sympathizer during the U.S. Civil War, and he attempted to sabotage Owl Creek Bridge, a key point in the Union advances. Payton had been inspired by speaking with a Confederate soldier, who turned out to be a Union soldier in disguise. As he drops in the noose, Payton feels a sharp pain in his neck, but then the rope comes free.
The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream... the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface...
(Bierce, ""An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," eNotes eText)
Payton escapes the stream and being shot by the Union soldiers, and flees into the woods. He travels all day, feeling the aftereffects of being hung; his throat and tongue are swollen, and he finds himself almost in a state of waking catatonia. He perseveres, traveling through the woods until he is near his family home. Seeing his house, he rushes up the door to greet his wife, and then feels a powerful blow on the back of his neck. In a famous twist ending, the narrative returns to Peyton Farquhar's body hanging from the bridge; he never escaped.
This story is one of the earliest and best-known examples of a twist ending in literature, and also explores the relationship between time and the mental states of consciousness.