While Ambrose Bierce often depicts characters who believe in the gallantry of war, he himself does not shy away from highlighting its horrors. For instance, consider his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge ,” which is about the United States Civil War. The main character, Peyton Farquhar,...
initially believes that war is a noble thing. He is a wealthy planter who owns slaves and is “ardently devoted to the Southern cause.” He wants to do whatever he can to help the war effort. In romanticizing the gallantry of fighting, he does not seem to grasp how brutal it really is. The narrator explains,
No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.
Here, we see that Farquhar thinks of himself as a soldier at heart who would be willing and able to endure anything for the cause. But he is a wealthy person who is removed from the fighting, which suggests that he has a limited understanding of what war is really like.
What Farquhar endures when he does go and try to help the cause shows that his understanding of war was deeply flawed. He is arrested for trying to burn down Owl Creek Bridge and is sentenced to death. Bierce describes his hanging in detail in order to underscore the brutality of war. He feels pain shooting throughout his body, a sense of suffocation, pulsing heat, and fading consciousness. In the end, he thinks he has escaped and gone home, but he has not. Bierce leaves the reader with a haunting description of Farquhar’s fate:
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
Farquhar’s naïve perception of war is quite different than the brutal reality. Bierce shows that war is not this noble thing that people should glorify. Instead, he shows that it is a purely violent activity in which life is not valued and death is seen as a casual, meaningless thing.