silhouette of a man half submerged in water wiht a noose around his neck

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Ambrose Bierce

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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Characters

The main characters in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" are Peyton Farquhar, Mrs. Farquhar, and the federal soldiers and scout.

  • Peyton Farquhar is an Alabama planter whose romantic illusions about the Confederate cause lead him to attempt to burn Owl Creek Bridge to stop the Union advance into Alabama. As he prepares to be hanged, he imagines escaping and returning to his family.
  • Mrs. Farquhar brings water to a gray-clad soldier “with her own white hands,” demonstrating her love of the Confederacy.
  • The federal soldiers and scout, members of the Union army, are responsible for luring Peyton into his crime and then executing him for it.

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Characters

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Peyton Farquhar

The protagonist of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Peyton Farquhar, is an ambiguous, mysterious, and ultimately human character. Flawed and morally compromised, Peyton is nevertheless arguably worthy of empathy. As the story describes his execution, the reader is forced to identify with his crisis and peril. In this sense, he represents the individual battered by institutions too powerful to control. At the onset of the story, little is known about Peyton but the fact that his handsome, genteel appearance makes him seem like an improbable candidate for death as a Confederate agitator. 

As the story progresses, it is revealed that Peyton is privileged and wealthy and may not be prepared for the reality of war. More damningly, Peyton is blind to the injustices which support his plantation lifestyle. He thinks of himself as morally superior, without thinking through the broader implications of his views. Because unspecified circumstances prevented him from serving in the Confederate army, Peyton is keen to prove his worth as a soldier at any cost. He romanticizes the Confederate cause, the enterprise of war, and the idea of military glory. These fatal notions make Peyton vulnerable to the trap set for him by the disguised Northern scout. Peyton’s involvement at the bridge is completely unnecessary and driven by his thirst for honor. Thus, he is established as a man with a skewed sense of reality. 

As the story enters its third act, Peyton’s heroic and impossible escape presents a different side to him. At this stage, he can be seen as representing humanity more broadly, fighting to escape confinement and death. His attempts to slow down time and seize the moment resonate with the reader, painting him as a sympathetic figure. Thus, the narrative shows empathy towards Peyton’s character. His imagined escape symbolizes the desire to reverse time, but his death indicates that this is impossible. Like war, time is ruthless. Peyton cannot exist in the reality of the antebellum world. It is worth noting, too, that there is an irony in Peyton’s struggle for freedom, given his complicity in the enslavement of others.

Mrs. Farquhar

The only woman character in the text, Mrs. Farquhar is presented largely through the eyes of Peyton. She represents the feminine ideal for her husband, symbolizing domesticity, delicacy, and sweetness. Though she appears as a one-dimensional character, she is given some agency, as when she is shown to be only too happy to bring the Confederate soldier water with her own hands. This shows she harbors firm loyalties, like her husband. These loyalties and the description of her white hands make her complicit in her husband’s plantation lifestyle and dubious politics. Like Peyton, she enjoys her life of convenience and privilege, though it is at the cost of supporting and practicing slavery.

Despite her agency, Peyton himself is shown as regarding her through a gendered lens. He asks the scout for news only when Mrs. Farquhar goes away to get water, thus cutting her off from what is considered a more important conversation. When Peyton decides to go on his reckless mission, it is suggested that he does not consult Mrs. Farquhar or even consider her in the scheme of things. Thus, she is shown as a sufferer of gender bias.

The Federal Soldiers and Scout

The numerous Federal soldiers are described by rank, such as the sergeant and the captain; by function, such as the marksman and sentinel; and by other details, such as the gray eyes of the sniper. Yet they largely remain a static, homogenous entity. In this, they represent an impersonal institution that turns humans into mechanical cogs. The soldiers are described as standing in unnatural positions, being cut off from each other, and robotic. The fact that they meticulously plan and execute the hanging—and without feeling—shows that they are inured to violence.

While Peyton is given a name and his wife a title, the soldiers remain unnamed. Their uniforms symbolize their lack of individualism. Thus, they are the manifestation of the dehumanizing military ethos. The depiction of the soldiers emphasizes the antiwar leanings of the story. One soldier or Federal agent in particular stands out in this regard: the scout dressed in Confederate colors who visits Peyton’s home. Deceptive and unfeeling, the scout deliberately baits a civilian into committing a crime for which the punishment is hanging. He represents the moral degradation that is sanctioned in wartime.

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