Why as readers are we meant to have sympathy with the man and the predicament he's in?

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At the beginning of the famous short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce, a man is bound and about to be hanged from a railroad bridge by soldiers of the Union Army during the Civil War. The man, who appears to be a civilian and a gentleman, has a kindly expression. As the soldiers prepare for the execution, he thinks of his wife and children. The man considers his fate as the plank that will send him downward to his death is loosed. This is the end of the first part of the story. Bierce has created the situation of a lone man at the mercy of an army who thinks of his wife and children before he dies. We don't yet know why he has been condemned to death, but already readers sympathize with his plight because he is one person alone, helpless against many and missing his family.

The second part of the story initiates with some background information about the man, whose name is Peyton Farquhar. We learn that he is a planter from an Alabama family. Although the sympathy of readers is compromised by the fact that he is a Confederate and a slave owner, Bierce explains that it is the circumstances of location and heritage that make him an avid supporter of the Southern cause. A man dressed in Confederate gray approaches Farquhar's plantation and coaxes him to attempt to destroy Owl Creek Bridge. Farquhar does not realize that the man is a Union scout. Because Farquhar is deceived, and also because he is only doing what he supposes is his duty, reader sympathy increases for him.

The third part of the story brings us back to the present. Farquhar imagines that the rope breaks and he plunges into the river. He manages to free his hands, swim away, and somehow avoid the bullets of the sentries on the bridge. He makes it to shore and runs into the forest. All day and into the night he journeys, his only thought being to get home to his wife and children. He nears his home, opens the gate, and sees his wife. By this time, readers are fully sympathetic with Farquhar. His background and political leanings don't matter. The story has come down to a man, who could be any man, struggling to escape death and return to his wife and children. It appears that he has succeeded, and readers, out of sympathy, cannot help but feel joy for him.

This makes the denouement of the story all the more effective. Bierce builds sympathy for Farquhar throughout the story, and then snatches away his victory by showing that his escape was all a pre-death fantasy.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
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