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

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"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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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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