Why is plot so significant in Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?
In works of literature, the “plot” of a work is sometimes very different from the chronology of events in the story-line. John Milton’s Paradise Lost, for instance, opens with Satan in hell, after he has fallen; the poem then moves to describe God in heaven, looking down at Satan; it then moves to depicting Satan in the Garden of Eden, observing Adam and Eve. In Books 5 and 6, however, there is a very substantial “flashback” describing events in heaven before Satan’s fall. Thus, the “plot” or “structural design” of the poem is not at all the same as its chronology.
The same thing is true in Ambrose Bierce’s story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bride.” Indeed, in that work the distinction between plot and chronology is, if anything, even more important. Bierce’s story opens by describing a man, Peyton Farquhar, standing on a bridge, with a noose about his neck, who is about to be hanged. The story then “flashes back,” in a long section describing how Farquhar came to deserve hanging; then the story describes the hanging but also describes how the hanging apparently fails and how Farquhar seems to be escaping and making his way back home; finally, in the final sentence of the story, we learn that the dramatic escape has been merely a figment of Farquhar’s desperate imagination:
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
This sentence almost literally yanks us back to the very moment, earlier in the story, when Farquhar seemed to be (and, as it turns out, was indeed) hanged.
“Plot,” then, is exceptionally important in Bierce’s story. Without Bierce's manipulation of the chronology of the story, and particularly without the abrupt shift from apparent present to real present, the story would lack much of its punch and most of its appeal. Bierce “tricks” the reader at the end of the story, but the power and suspense of the third section of the story depend precisely on that trick. Indeed, there would have been no way to tell this story – and certainly no point in telling it – without Bierce’s clever manipulation of plot. In is in the manipulation of the plot that much of the artistry of the story lies.
Something extra: During the period in which Bierce wrote this story, “trick endings” were not uncommon and in fact had become (paradoxically) almost expected as a feature of popular short stories. Bierce, however, manages to pull off his trick with unsurpassed skill, even scattering clues throughout the story that a trick is taking place. Thus, when one reads the story a second time, one also sees exactly where and how one was deceived – a fact that makes one’s appreciation of Bierce’s artistry all the greater. Bierce is less interested in the trick itself than in fully exploring the psychology of Farquhar in his last split second of life. Bierce takes that split second and expands and expands it so that it consumes half the story and all the reader’s attention. Thus, the story is an exploration not only of Farquhar's psychology but also of the psychology of the reader.
This is a story that lends itself very well to interpretation from the perspective of Stanley's Fish's "affective criticism," which emphasizes that a story is not an "object" (like a painting) but rather a processs (like a piece of music).
(For different ways of viewing the story, see first link below.)