At a Glance
- Peyton Farquhar: An Alabama planter who longs to defend the South. His romantic illusions regarding the war lead to his execution at Owl Creek Bridge. Farquhar is hanged by Union forces after trying to burn Owl Creek Bridge to stop their advance into Alabama. As he is about to be hanged, he imagines escaping and returning to his family.
- Farquhar's wife: She brings water to a gray-clad soldier “with her own white hands,” demonstrating her love of the Confederacy and her social position as the wife of a slave owner.
- Union scout: Disguised as a Confederate soldier, a Union scout stops at the Farquhar plantation. He gives Peyton Farquhar false information that encourages him to burn Owl Creek Bridge.
- Sergeant, captain, and lieutenant: In hanging Farquhar, a sergeant, a captain, and a lieutenant play specific roles, illustrating military discipline and the chain of command.
Peyton Farquhar is a Southern planter of about thirty-five years of age who has been apprehended by the Union Army for attempting to destroy the railroad bridge at Owl Creek. It is this crime for which he is about to be hanged. Farquhar is a prosperous farmer and slave owner from an old and respected Alabama family. While he has been prevented from becoming a Confederate soldier for unknown reasons, it is nonetheless stated that there was "no service too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake." Because he dies at the end of the story, Farquhar is sometimes considered a sympathetic and brave character, but many have found him to be callous, foolhardy, and obsessed with honor.
Themes and Characters
Bierce uses a complex narrative structure to advance the theme of time in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." He distorts the reader's sense of time by revealing at the end of the story that Farquhar imagined his escape in the few seconds before he died, even though the escape takes up a great portion of the narrative. Be doing so, Bierce addresses the ways time can be portrayed and manipulated in fiction, a medium in which the reader must rely on the author to represent or create reality. Bierce also stresses that time is subjective and phenomenal, especially during times of mental or emotional duress.
Peyton Farquhar is the sole defined character in this story. A southern planter of about thirty-five years of age who has been apprehended by the Union Army for attempting to destroy the railroad bridge at Owl Creek, Farquhar is to be hanged for this crime. From Farquhar's perspective, Bierce also examines the human desire to escape or cheat death and speculates on what occurs physically and psychologically at the time of death. Although Farquhar's situation is quite grave—he is standing on a bridge with a noose around his neck as numerous Union soldiers stand guard—a part of him holds out hope that he can escape the situation and, therefore, mortality. By not allowing Farquhar to escape, Bierce emphasizes that death is unavoidable no matter how much we long to avoid it. Bierce also provides a detailed description of what a person could experience at the moment of death. Farquhar transfers the physical realities of his hanging—the falling from the bridge, the snapping of his neck, the swinging of his body on the rope— to an imagined scenario. In this hallucinatory state, his senses are heightened to such a level that he believes he can hear spiders gliding across the water, see a million blades of grass, and hear the beating of dragon flies' wings. It is unclear,...
(The entire section is 777 words.)