What is the theme of conflict between illusion and reality in Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Ambrose Bierce's clever manipulation of point of view conveys artistically his disdain for the sentimental illusions to which human beings cling so desperately. Bierce's "An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge" skillfully depicts the cruel joke that warfare often plays upon man. With the Civil War as the setting, Bierce paints the conflicts between the two armies, but, more importantly, he examines closely the landscape of the mind, particularly the mind of a condemned man in which illusions occur and come into conflict with reality.

In the first section called only "the man," Peyton Farquhar as prisoner is presented against the setting of the bridge and its surroundings in the objective point of view creating a very visual scene, much like that perceived through a camera; certainly a most realistic scene. With more detail Bierce depicts the violence of the act about to be done to Farquahar. Then, the point of view changes to omniscient narrator and the prisoner becomes more personalized and, thus, more real to the reader.

Surreptitiously, then, Bierce changes point of view again into the internal perspective of Farquhar, subtly drawing the reader almost unconsciously into the mind of the protagonist. And, it is here in the mind of Farquhar that illusion occurs in an apparently realistic scene. Even here, though, Bierce changes from a first-person point of view to the third-person point of view in order to create Farquhar's surreal disassociation from his body:

"To be hanged and drowned," he thought, "that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair."

As Farquhar believes that he has freed himself from his ropes, he watches as his arms "floated upward...."

He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake. "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....But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command.

Further, Farquhar's perceptions and sensations are the pivotal point of the narrative and the description of these experiences lure the reader into the illusion of Farquhar's heroic, romantic escape: "He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert." Caught in the illusions of Farquhar, even the reader is led to believe that he has escaped until the cold splash of the matter-of-fact final sentence.

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