What are the themes in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek" Bridge"?  

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Greatly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce depicts a protagonist whose interpretation of reality in his mind differs greatly from what actually occurs. Bierce's clever use of narrative techniques in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," such as various points of view and stream of consciousness, display his scorn for the sentimental illusions to which many people cling. Two themes in this story deal with the complexities of human cognition and the illusions of time.

Perception as reality

With the ironic title that suggests keen perception--the bridge is named after a bird of great vision--and the use of first-person narrator in one section, readers are deluded into believing that Peyton Farquar has made his escape from the Union Army and returned safely to his family. With the use of the technique of stream of consciousness and great detail, Bierce takes readers inside the mind of the man condemned to death so cleverly that they do not realize their narrator is unreliable.  Having been taken inside the mind of the narrator, readers perceive events as this narrator interprets them, and, therefore, are deluded by Farquar's illusionary perception that he has escaped in Section III and made his way up the lane to his gate. However, the man who "felt himself whirled round and round"...and caught in a vortex and "flung upon the gravel at the foot...of the stream," is only in Farquar's imagination. 

The nature of time

Since time is a manmade concept, Bierce manipulates Farquar's sense of time so cleverly that readers do not realize that all that happens to Farquar takes place in just seconds before he dies. Yet, in Farquar's attempt to forestall death he perceives a "deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant" of the lieutenant as his mind slows down time.  In this distortion of time, he looks down upon a ''stream racing madly beneath his feet" noting at the same time how slowly a piece of driftwood that is caught in the current appears to flow. Further, the report of the rifles, the bits of metal that meet him in the water, the "rising sheet of water" that curved over him, "the sudden arrest" of his movement while he simultaneously spends a long time digging with his into the bank and hysterically throwing it over himself all suggest the distortion of time in his mind as Farquar deludes himself during the last seconds of his life.

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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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