An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge Theme

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

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" contains two themes regarding time and reality. In all, these themes advance Bierce's message that war is unnatural.

Ambrose Bierce liked to have a twist at the end of his stories.  He also likes to write about the Civil War. When the reader embraces...

See
This Answer Now

Start your subscription to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your Subscription

"An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" contains two themes regarding time and reality. In all, these themes advance Bierce's message that war is unnatural.

Ambrose Bierce liked to have a twist at the end of his stories.  He also likes to write about the Civil War. When the reader embraces “The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” he gets the best of both from Bierce.  Serving as a topographical officer, Bierce received a serious head wound in battle in 1864.  From this experience, Bierce understood the traumatic injury and how a life could be lost in the “blink of an eye.”

The story is divided into three parts

First part- The story begins with a group of silent figures standing on a railroad bridge.  The time is the Civil War.  A man dressed in Civilian clothes is about to be  hanged.  As the man waits the time of his execution, he imagines that he could escape and find his way home to his wife and children. 

Second part- The man is Peyton Farquhar, a wealthy slave owner.  Determined to help the South’s cause, Farquhar had been tricked into trying to damage the railroad.

Third part- Farquhar falls through the bridge.  For some reason he is able to  free his hands, remove the noose, and push to the surface.  The soldier’s began to shoot at him as he continually dives underneath the water.  Finally, he is flung upon the sand. 

Farquhar runs toward his home, travelling all day through a wild forest.  By nightfall, he reaches the gate to his home.  He sees his wife walking toward him; just as he is about to grab her, he feels a powerful blow on the back of his neck.  Suddenly, everything goes completely dark.

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge

The story advances more than one theme.  The first explores the idea of time.  Time is fluid in the story. When certain things are happening, time races along quickly, and in others, time moves in slow motion.  Examining how a person handles the passing of time and how it is experienced depends on what the person is going through.  Regimented military time makes it seem as though there is the time to break free when actually the hanging happens much quicker.

The company faced the bridge, staring motionless. The sentinels might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates… Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.

Nothing moves the military until it is ready.

Another theme examined is reality. The story works to fool the reader into accepting one reality when something entirely different is really occurring. The perception of reality is important in life.  Bierce asks the reader to examine what is real and what is only an illusion in life.  If a man who is to be hanged can imagine that he has been freed by a broken rope, then anything is possible to be imagined.

The author is not a big fan of war.  In his war stories, Bierce describes the circumstances in terms of death, suffering, violence, and inequality.  Even civilians suffer the hardships of war, as in the case of Peyton Farquhar.  Despite his being a civilian, Farquhar still has to suffer the consequences of military law.  Bierce wants the reader to understand that war is unforgivingly hard and an unnatural state.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A theme in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is the juxtaposition between being confined and escaping from confinement. Farquhar is a condemned man for attempting to destroy a Union stockade. Farquhar is able to escape at the last moment and makes his way back to his awaiting family, except he never quite makes it home and his consciousness pulls him back to the bridge where he is confined, awaiting death. It appears that the miraculous escape only occurred in his own mind, reflecting the human desire to be free from restraints both physically and figuratively. Interestingly enough, Farquhar, as revealed in the story, is a slave-owner who confines others and prevents their freedom. The story almost seems to say that humans continue to hope even in dire and hopeless circumstances. Just as the slaves longed to be free and to be with their own family, Farquhar wishes to be go back to his own family, even while knowing that he will not be able to escape his fate.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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. 

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I think the theme has a lot to do with appearance vs. reality. Peyton so desperately wants to be home with his wife and children that he focuses completely on that unrealistic expectation. In doing so, he is able to recreate his hopes in the last minutes of his life. Of course, his imagined escape and homecoming are full of clues that his experience is not real. The escape from the volley of shots fired at him, the idea that he can see the color of the eye of the sharpshooter and the insects on the trees are all clues that his imagination is more real than reality. The final blow comes when we realize the entire sequence of events in not real, they only appeared in Peyton's imagination.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a tough nut to crack. It would be easier to identify the subject of the story, that being the fragility of life and the subjective nature of our interpretation of it.

A theme by definition is a complete statement, and usually takes a stand in one way or another. To transcribe the above subject into a theme, one might formulate the same idea in this way: 

'One of the basic qualities of life is its fragility, but this transient aspect is one of the most difficult ones for people to accept.'

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The strongest theme in the story is the power of interpretation. Human beings can receive infinite amounts of input, but if anything directly effects ourselves, we twist and contort this information to reach the conclusions we desire. It woudl seem it is impossible for us to be objective in matters concerning ourself.

The mind sees what it wants to. Of all the sensory input he contorts throughout the story it first starts with the scout. He believed that he was encountering a chance to prove his worth and dedication to the cause. Instead he is duped by a spy seeking to expose partisans.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I would say the main theme is appearance vs. reality.  In this story the theme develops in Farquhar's dream of escape that takes up the bulk of the story.  The details of the story make it seem like it is really happening, but in the end you discover that it is merely a dream that passed through the man's mind in a matter of seconds.  It causes the reader to wonder if the protagonist recognized it was only a dream.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on