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.