“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” Ambrose Bierce
(Full name Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce; also wrote under the pseudonyms Dod Grile and William Herman) American short story writer, journalist, poet, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents criticism of Bierce's short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which was initially published in 1890 and later appeared in the collection of short stories titled Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891).
Regarded as one of the best-known short stories in American literature, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was initially published in the San Francisco Examiner on July 13, 1890 and then appeared in Bierce's collection of short stories, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891). Commentators describe the story as an exploration of a condemned man's psyche during execution. Although ostensibly a war story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is sometimes included in supernatural anthologies for its depiction of abnormal phenomenon and has been cited as an early and significant exploration of psychology in fiction.
Plot and Major Characters
Critics divide “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” into three sections. The first is the description of a static scene: a Confederate sympathizer, Peyton Farquhar, is about to be hanged from the Owl Creek Bridge by Union soldiers for his unsuccessful attempt to blow up the bridge. In this first section, critics note that Bierce utilizes a myriad of details and military terminology to create an almost handbook description of how to hang a man. As the noose is placed around Farquhar's neck, Bierce describes the dispassionate actions of the Union soldiers in preparation for the hanging and Farquhar's last-minute desperation to escape. As the moment of his execution arrives, Farquhar perceives the external world slowing down and can hear the ticking of his watch pounding in his ears. The second section is a flashback to the events that led up to the hanging. Farquhar is revealed not as a hero, but as an arrogant, self-serving plantation owner from a respected Alabama family. Despite his pro-slavery leanings and secessionist beliefs, he never joins the Confederate army and instead remains on his plantation, dreaming of being a soldier and a hero. When a Federal scout rides up to his plantation disguised as a Confederate soldier, Farquhar confides his far-fetched plan to sabotage the Owl Creek Bridge and kill Union forces. Farquhar's implausible mission ends in his capture and death sentence. In the third section of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” the scene shifts forward to his execution: as Farquhar's body drops and is assumed dead, the rope breaks and Farquhar regains consciousness in the creek. As he escapes the Union forces and finds the road home to his plantation, his neck hurts him and the road disappears from underneath his feet. The narrative shifts from past tense to present tense as Farquhar returns home, greeted by his beautiful wife. As he embraces her, he feels a stunning blow to the back of his neck as it breaks. It is revealed that Farquhar's escape from the hangman has been the final fantasy of a dying man.
Critics identify the major theme of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” as the human need to escape death. As the moment of his execution arrives, Farquhar deludes himself into believing—albeit for just a few seconds—that he has escaped the hangman's noose and has arrived home to his loving wife. Therefore, self-delusion is perceived to be another key thematic concern of the story, which is illustrated not only by Farquhar's escape fantasy, but also by his distorted view of himself as a courageous patriot and freedom fighter. Commentators contend that Bierce makes his contempt for Farquhar very clear, particularly for his avoidance of military duty and his inflated sense of importance. In fact, the unreliability of information is acknowledged as a central issue in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” as Bierce utilizes irony, an untrustworthy narrator, and shifting perspectives to show that the mind can create its own realities and its own escapes. In the story, Bierce does not overtly inform the reader that Farquhar's escape is a hallucination but expects that the careful reader will realize the impossibility of events described in the final section of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is regarded as one of the most famous and frequently anthologized stories in American literature. Much of the critical discussion about the story focuses on the story's surprise ending and investigates clues throughout the piece that reveal that Farquhar's escape was only a hoax. Several critics have derided the surprise ending, regarding it as a perceptual trap and an unjustified trick. Others praise Bierce's manipulation of time, language, and perspective in the story as masterful and contend that the author placed several clues within the narrative to show Farquhar's fallibility. Psychological interpretations have been applied to the story, particularly allusions to Freudian and dream theories. A few reviewers have found parallels between “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and O. Henry's “The Furnished Room.” Moreover, commentators have compared Bierce's story to cinematic adaptations of the story, particularly Robert Enrico's La Riviere du Hibou. A few critics have investigated the origins of the story and the actual location of the bridge by examining events from Bierce's own Civil War experience. Others consider “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” to be an influential story that anticipates the work of later writers of psychological fiction.