Introduction to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a short story by Ambrose Bierce. It was originally published in 1890 in the San Francisco Examiner, before being included in Bierce’s short story collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. It has gone on to become one of the most frequently anthologized and well-recognized short stories in American history, spawning several film adaptations.

Bierce was a veteran of the American Civil War, and much of his writing focuses on the unique political, social, and artistic ramifications of the war on American society. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a direct refutation of the common narrative that war was about glory or romance. Instead, Bierce crafts a narrative in three parts that details the disintegration of protagonist Farquhar’s relationship with reality in the face of his impending death. There is no honor or dignity in death for Farquhar; instead, Bierce showcases that no matter which side of a conflict someone is on, war is horrific enough to reduce the loss of a human life to a mere “occurrence.”

A Brief Biography of Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914) was an important American story writer working around the turn of the twentieth century. Born and raised in Ohio in a family of humble means, he developed an early love for the written word and worked as a printing apprentice at a newspaper. At the start of the American Civil War, the adolescent Bierce enlisted in the Union Army. He fought in numerous battles throughout the war and received an injury to the head. At the end of his military service, he found himself in San Francisco, where he then lived, on and off, for many decades. During his life, he was well known as a journalist, writing for the San Francisco Examiner and other publications.

Bierce’s literary legacy mainly rests on the strength of his short stories, though he also wrote a number of poems. Many of Bierce’s most celebrated stories, such as “The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) and “Chickamauga” (1889), draw directly on his experiences in the Civil War, which he conveys with grim realism and, in many cases, stylistic originality. Due to his unsentimental view of nature and death, Bierce’s work is often discussed in the context of naturalism. Bierce is also known for The Devil’s Dictionary (1911), a compilation of satirical definitions that he composed over the course of decades.

Frequently Asked Questions about An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

During the Civil War, it was common practice to execute any enemy who was caught performing hostile action while out of uniform. This often applied to spies and saboteurs. Ambrose Bierce uses this...

Latest answer posted August 8, 2021, 1:12 pm (UTC)

8 educator answers

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

One key literary device used in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is imagery. Ambrose Bierce describes the place of the hanging in vivid detail. He shows how the rope restrains Peyton Farquhar’s...

Latest answer posted August 9, 2021, 4:58 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

The story ends with the death of Farquhar. The ending comes as a shock, because readers are led to believe that he has escaped. Farquhar is being executed by Union soldiers for an attempt to...

Latest answer posted August 10, 2021, 11:27 am (UTC)

5 educator answers

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Foreshadowing in literature occurs when the author gives a hint of what is going to occur. An instance of foreshadowing occurs as Peyton Farquhar stands on the bridge in part 1, waiting to be...

Latest answer posted August 11, 2021, 11:50 am (UTC)

4 educator answers

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

After Farquhar seems to escape from the creek, he begins to travel through the forest toward his home, where he believes his wife and children still to be safe from the enemy's advance. He uses the...

Latest answer posted August 11, 2021, 12:05 pm (UTC)

3 educator answers

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

An external conflict in the story is the Civil War, which is the backdrop that sets the plot in motion. The union army has penetrated into northern Alabama, where Peyton Farquhar has a plantation....

Latest answer posted August 11, 2021, 12:19 pm (UTC)

2 educator answers

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is not a true story. The story's author, Ambrose Bierce, did fight on the side of the Union army in the American Civil War, participating in several well-known...

Latest answer posted August 8, 2021, 2:40 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

At first, Farquhar feels that it is "not fair" that he should be nearly hanged and nearly drowned and then, ultimately, shot and killed. In his fantasy, he believes that he has fallen into the...

Latest answer posted August 10, 2021, 11:52 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

This story is an example of realism in part because it presents characters in a way that is very much true to life: they are flawed, they are nuanced, and they make errors in judgment. In short,...

Latest answer posted August 11, 2021, 12:49 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

The Federal scout seems to be purposely trying to trap Peyton Farquhar into attempting to burn down the bridge so that the Union army will have a reason to execute him. In part 1, the narrator...

Latest answer posted August 10, 2021, 1:20 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Peyton Farquhar is executed by the Union army during the American Civil War for his apparent attempt to burn down the Owl Creek bridge, part of the railroad, as its destruction would have hampered...

Latest answer posted August 9, 2021, 12:43 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

No, Peyton Farquhar did not actually burn down the Owl Creek bridge. He was, essentially, set up by the Union army so that they were anticipating his attempt to do so, and he was—we can...

Latest answer posted August 9, 2021, 12:11 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

The main theme of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is death, both the way humans seek to avoid death and their own mortality and the nature and experience of death itself. In the moments before...

Latest answer posted August 8, 2021, 2:05 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

In part 3 of the story, Peyton Farquhar is described as the rope drops to hang him as swinging through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. This physically depicts what he looks...

Latest answer posted August 10, 2021, 11:44 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

A dignitary is a high-ranking official, often from another country, whose status means he has to be treated with a special measure of respect or dignity. "Death is a dignitary" is a metaphor that...

Latest answer posted August 11, 2021, 11:24 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

In the final scene he imagines, Farquhar believes he has arrived back at his plantation. It looks "bright and beautiful" in the early morning sun. Farquhar realizes he must have traveled all night...

Latest answer posted August 9, 2021, 11:27 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Irony occurs when events unfold that are the opposite of what the reader is led to expect. In part 2, the chief irony is that the man in the gray coat who comes and asks for water is not a...

Latest answer posted August 8, 2021, 11:54 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Bierce spends much of the opening of the story describing the scene of the execution. This includes the presence of sentries at either end of the bridge, the sergeant and soldiers who have charge...

Latest answer posted August 10, 2021, 12:22 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

There are several ways you can think about purpose in Bierce's story. Clearly, one purpose is to provide a visceral description of what it is like to be hanged. In this, his goal is a kind of...

Latest answer posted August 8, 2021, 12:58 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Ambrose Bierce fills his story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" with subtle symbols that enhance the story's depth and meaning. Let's look at some of these. The railroad bridge itself is a...

Latest answer posted August 9, 2021, 1:53 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer
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