Why is the stream-of-consciousness technique particularly appropriate for "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

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Stream of consciousness is a literary technique that focuses on the flow of thoughts within the minds of characters rather than objective linear narrative. The term was first described in The Principles of Psychology by William James.

Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself as chopped up in bits. Such...

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Stream of consciousness is a literary technique that focuses on the flow of thoughts within the minds of characters rather than objective linear narrative. The term was first described in The Principles of Psychology by William James.

Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself as chopped up in bits. Such words as "chain" or "train" do not describe it fitly... It is nothing jointed; it flows. A "river" or a "stream" are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.

The short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce tells of a Confederate sympathizer during the American Civil War who has been captured by the Northern army and is condemned to be hanged as a spy. As he stands upon a railroad bridge with his hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck, he thinks back to the circumstances that have brought him to this moment, and he even fantasizes that the rope breaks and he escapes. In the end, though, as the rope tightens around his neck, he realizes that only moments have passed and it all has taken place in his mind.

The nonlinear stream of conscious technique is perfect for this story because it immerses the reader in the thoughts of the man who is about to die. A traditional step-by-step plot would not work because the entire story takes place in just a few seconds. Bierce instead takes us into the flow of thoughts that the protagonist experiences up until the moment of death.

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What is particularly unusual and interesting about Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is the subjective aspect of time, which explains why the story had to be told via a stream-of-consciousness technique. The first suggestion that time is slowing down for Peyton Farquhar is contained in the following:

A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!

The narrator has already noted "...the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet." This means that the piece of dancing driftwood is moving at a high speed but appears to the condemned man to be moving slowly in a sluggish stream.

The slack in the rope attached to Farquhar's neck "fell to the level of his knees." In other words, there was only about a yard of slack, which was sufficient to break his neck when he dropped. Obviously it would only take a couple of seconds for the slack to be taken up by his fall and for him to be killed, and yet everything that seems to happen to him from the time he drops between the ties to the time he reaches his home and is about to embrace his beautiful wife takes place in those two seconds. The reader shares the condemned man's thoughts and emotions throughout most of the story because he is placed directly inside Farquhar's consciousness.

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"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is styled as the encapsulated thoughts and memories of a man doomed to die. The common phrase "his life flashed before his eyes" shows to great effect here, as Payton first reflects on his surroundings, then on the circumstances that led to this fate, and finally an elaborate fantasy where he escapes and returns to his wife. Most of the story is not an unedited stream-of-consciousness as is so popular in literary fiction, but simple, short sentences that describe events. Only at the end does the story flow into the almost random style that typifies stream-of-consciousness:

As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms.
(Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," eNotes eText)

This is contrasted with the sharp and sudden ending that shows his escape to be fantasy. By lulling the reader into a false sense of security with glamorous prose, the ending is able to convey a legitimate sense of shock, instead of feeling like a cop-out.

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