“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” contains three distinct sections: a matter-of-fact opening scene, a flashback to provide some necessary history, and a fast-paced conclusion. The story begins with clear, simple, declarative sentences:A man stood upon a railroad bridge in Northern Alabama, looking down into the swift waters twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope loosely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head.
In the next sentence, it becomes apparent that this man is about to be executed by a unit of the Union army. The preparations for the execution are described in clinical detail. The narrator seems to be a dispassionate spectator who is unfamiliar with any of the participants in this grim event. The physical setting and movements of the Union company are rendered with such calm accuracy that the scene comes to life clearly and vividly. The condemned man is judged to be “about thirty-five years of age” and is “evidently” a southern “gentleman.”
“The preparations being complete,” the focus narrows to the condemned planter; the objective description yields subtly to a more subjective point of view, which allows the reader insight into the Southerner’s thoughts. The man is calm but, as might be expected, somewhat disoriented; he imagines that the “swift waters” are “sluggish.” He is disturbed by “a sharp, distinct, metallic precussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil. . . . [W]hat he heard was the ticking of his watch.” As he stands alone awaiting his death, he imagines throwing off his noose, diving into the water, and escaping to his beloved home and family. As these thoughts pass through his brain, the sergeant steps off of the back of a board on which the man is balanced over the water, and the condemned planter falls toward the stream, the noose tight around his neck.
The second section discloses who the man is and what events lead him to his desperate plight. His name is Peyton Farquhar, and he is a member of “an old and highly respected Alabama family.” Peyton, who was “ardently devoted to the Southern cause,” was prevented from joining the army by circumstance and was eager to serve the South in any way possible. One evening, while he was sitting with his wife, a grey-clad soldier rode up, asked for water, and told them that the Northern army was preparing to advance once the bridge over Owl Creek had been repaired. The soldier indicated that the bridge was poorly guarded and that a brave man could easily burn it down. Farquhar undertook the challenge of destroying the bridge and was captured. The last sentence of section two reveals that the planter never had a chance, because the grey-clad soldier was, in fact, a “Federal scout.”
The third section returns abruptly to the present: “As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge, he lost consciousness and was as one already dead.” His agony as the rope snaps tight is briefly described; “then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. . . . [H]e knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream.” He struggles desperately to free his hands and rises to the surface, frantic for air; his miraculous escape fills him with such intensity that he can see “the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf”; he can hear “the beating of the dragon flies’ wings, the strokes of the water spiders’ legs.” The joy of his resurrection is short-lived, however, for the Union troops immediately open fire on him, and Farquhar is forced to dive deeply and swim furiously in order to escape the ignominy of being shot after having avoided death by hanging and drowning. The troops fire at will and even artillery is brought to bear on the fleeing prisoner; but with the help of the current, the man evades cannon and rifle shot and plunges into the forest.
He drives himself relentlessly through the rest of that day and all through the night toward his home. He apparently falls asleep while walking, for when he awakens “he stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all is bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine.” His wife “stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy. . . . As he is about to clasp her, he feels a stunning blow upon the back of his neck.” The story ends brutally with this final sentence: “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.”
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is by far Bierce’s most widely read story, and it may also be his best. It focuses on Peyton Farquhar, a Southern planter and part-time Confederate conspirator, who, as the story opens, is about to be hanged on the Owl Creek bridge for having attempted to burn it. As Farquhar is being hanged, the reader is told, the rope breaks and he plunges alive into the water below. The rest of the story recounts his escape down the creek and then through the forest toward his home. Just as he reaches his house, where his wife awaits him, he feels a sharp blow to the back of his neck. In reality, he is not home at all: He hangs dead, of a broken neck, beneath the Owl Creek bridge. The rope has not, in fact, broken. Farquhar’s escape has been only a momentary illusion.
What makes this plot so successful, as it lures the reader into the story, and what makes the whole story so captivating, is the technical brilliance of the narration. Bierce begins the story, for example, with a very objective, unadorned, strikingly dispassionate, and minutely detailed description of both the soldiers and Farquhar on the bridge as the former prepare for the latter’s execution. The objectivity of the prose lends an official air to the narrative, almost as though it were not a piece of fiction at all but a military report. This objectivity combines with the detail with which the scene is set, including everything from an explanation of the various postures of the soldiers to the exaggerated ticking of the prisoner’s watch, to lend a profound degree of realism to the story. The reader is thus led to believe from the beginning of the story that what is being told is minutely accurate.
Once Farquhar is in the water, the tone is far less dispassionate, however, as the narrator enters the head of the fleeing prisoner, focusing on Farquhar’s reactions both to the soldiers who pursue him and to the task of escape. Details abound here as well, though, ironically, it is through these details that the reader is provided with hints (extremely subtle ones, almost certainly imperceptible to the first-time reader) that Farquhar’s escape is but a dream and not real at all. Farquhar’s senses as he escapes, for example, are heightened beyond those of a normal human being, as he can even see the insects on each leaf of the trees on the creek bank from his position in the water.
Later, Bierce’s description of the forest as Farquhar heads homeward becomes dreamlike. The reader is told that the road Farquhar takes “was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled.” Elsewhere, the narrator reports that the forest “on either side was full of singular noises, among which—once, twice, and again—he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.” As Farquhar gets closer to home, he feels pain and swelling in his neck. While much of this description may be attributed to a prisoner actually fleeing from his near execution by hanging, some of it is plainly nonrealistic in nature. The reader thus has the information necessary to decipher the story but is, in all likelihood, unable to do so, lured into Farquhar’s compelling tale of flight.
Another element of the story’s presentation that merits mention is its structure. Bierce divides the story into three numbered sections, the content and division of which serve to intrigue the reader. The first section describes the setting of the execution right up to the point when the plank below Farquhar’s feet is removed. The second section abruptly shifts to background information on Farquhar and how he came to commit the act for which he is being executed. The narrator reveals that a Confederate soldier had told Farquhar of the vulnerability of the bridge, thus planting the seed for Farquhar’s action. The last line of the section reveals that the Confederate soldier was, in fact, a Federal scout. The third and final section picks up where the first section left off, with Farquhar apparently plunging into the water, and it concludes with the abrupt and surprising ending.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is, in both content and presentation, a tour de force, a story that lures, captivates, and surprises its reader. It is a perfect Biercean story in that it is an intense and detailed narrative that mixes both real and unreal and ends in violent death and cruel irony. Whether Bierce is a master of the short story genre is debatable. This story, however, is undoubtedly a masterwork.