An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge Theme

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

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"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.

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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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