What is the theme of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce?

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One the theme of the story is how powerful the mind is and how it can transport people outside of their own reality, and create what seems like actual experiences and memories in just a few seconds. In the story, Peyton Farquar, being hanged for sabotaging a bridge during the Civil War, allows himself to believe that the noose has broken and that he is able to break free. In his mind, he jumps into the water below and swims away. We are shocked when we realize at the end that the swim to freedom was purely a figment of Peyton’s imagination. The noose held tight as the Union soldiers tightened it around his neck and hoisted him up to be hanged.

On another level, the theme is war and its impact on people who would otherwise be leading ordinary and presumably happy lives. Peyton was not able to join the Confederate Army, but he wanted to do his part to help the South win the war. He sees his chance in the opportunity to help blow up a bridge that is a lifeline for the Union army's supplies. The author was a Union soldier himself, and a story about the hanging of a Southern sympathizer would seem to show where the author’s sympathies are. However, Bierce shows the reader the complexity of the situation, as Peyton is seen as more than just a saboteur.

We are shown glimpses of his family life, his thoughts and love for his family. The author even describes Peyton in terms that humanize him and evoke the reader’s pity. For instance,

“...his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin.”

He is from “an old and highly respected” family. Moreover, by describing the setting in such peaceful tones, using phrases like “touched to gold by the early sun” to describe the water below the bridge or even “the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream,“ the author conveys the ordinariness—in fact, the pleasantness—of the day in which a man’s life is to end.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 25, 2020
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Ambrose Bierce addresses the impact of a drastic situation on an individual's perception. An overarching theme that pulls together the author's exploration of various facets of this subject is that a crisis interferes with one's ability to separate reality from illusion. For Peyton Farquhar, sensory perception of objective reality becomes unreliable. The stress of awaiting his execution distorts his sense of time so much that he is momentarily catapulted into an alternate time frame. While the author does not dwell on the physical effects of the hanging, he manages to convey the urgency with which Peyton clings to his last moments of breath and life. The reader cannot fully determine what happens before and after he feels the impact. The raging speed with which his final breath propels the impulses through his consciousness is communicated through the multitude of sensations that Peyton manages to process in those final brief moments.

Bierce manipulates the reader into making them mistrust their own sensations. It is rarely apparent what is actually happening, or which experience is supposed to be real and which is invented or in Peyton's imagination. In this way, the author creates a shared identification between the reader and the character, and a separation from the author.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 25, 2020
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I think there is a main theme about time and how the perception of its passage is fluid. I'm quite certain most people have experienced how time seems to "fly" at certain times and "crawl" at others. The same occurs in this story. In the moments between the officer stepping aside and Farquhar's death, time slows dramatically. Farquhar experiences hours and hours of time in the fractions of seconds that exist before his neck snaps.  

I think another theme is the theme of imagination/ dreams/ illusion vs. reality. When readers first meet Farquhar, we are told that he longs to fight for the Southern cause. He has dreamed up a romanticized version of what war is.  

Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with that gallant army which had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. 

Unfortunately for Farquhar, the reality of war isn't as glorious as he imagines it is. The reality of the situation is that war is dangerous and brutal. Farquhar longs for distinction, but the reality is that no southerner will know what he tried to do. There will be no glory in his success (because he failed), and no one will celebrate his failed attempt because no one knows he went to try and sabotage the bridge. 

The reality vs. non-reality theme continues in other parts of the story, too. The Union scout (reality) presented himself as a southern soldier (illusion). Farquhar imagines the information obtained is genuine only to discover that in reality it was all a trap. Farquhar also imagines a miraculous escape only to wind up dead in real life from hanging. 

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