(Short Story Criticism)

“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.

Major Themes

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.”

Critical Reception

“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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Tales of Soldiers and Civilians 1891; also published as In the Midst of Life, 1892

Can Such Things Be? 1893

The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce. 12 vols. (short stories, sketches, poetry, essays, and satire) 1912

Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California [as Dod Grile] (sketches) 1872

The Fiend's Delight [as Dod Grile] (sketches) 1873

Cobwebs from an Empty Skull [as Dod Grile] (sketches) 1874

The Dance of Death [with Thomas A. Harcourt under the joint pseudonym of William Herman] (satire) 1877

Black Beetles in Amber (poetry) 1892...

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Gerald R. Barrett and Thomas L. Erskine (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Barrett, Gerald R., and Thomas L. Erskine. “Language and Theme in ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” In From Fiction to Film: Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” pp. 69-75. Encino, Calif.: Dickenson Publishing Company, Inc., 1973.

[In the following essay, Barrett and Erskine offer a stylistic and thematic analysis of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”]

Although “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is commonly regarded as Ambrose Bierce's best and most famous short story, its “surprise ending” is not universally admired. Seeing obvious comparisons to O. Henry's “The Furnished Room,” Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn...

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James W. Palmer (essay date fall 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Palmer, James W. “From Owl Creek to La Riviere du hibou: The Film Adaptation of Bierce's ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” Southern Humanities Review 11, no. 4 (fall 1977): 363-71.

[In the following essay, Palmer investigates the similarities and differences between “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and its cinematic adaptation, Robert Enrico's La Riviere du hibou.]

Robert Enrico's fine film La Riviere du Hibou is based on Ambrose Bierce's short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Enrico's adaptation is particularly interesting for two reasons. First, the adaptation follows closely the immediate events of the story,...

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Harry M. Geduld (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Geduld, Harry M. “Literature into Film: ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, no. 27 (1978): 56-8.

[In the following essay, Geduld considers the nature and problems of film adaptation through a study of Robert Enrico's La Riviere du hibou, a film adapted from Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”]

The workshop on literature into film was prefaced by a screening of Robert Enrico's 1964 film adaptation of Ambrose Bierce's short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Separately, the story and the film version are usually viewed as one or more of the following: an anti-war...

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Ursula O. Ulrich (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Ulrich, Ursula O. “‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’: The Short Story and its Cinema Adaptation.” In Proceedings of the 7th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, edited by Eva Kushner and Milan V. Dimic, p. 421. Stuttgart: Erich Bieber, 1979.

[In the following essay, Ulrich outlines the differences between “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and its film adaptation and asserts that the surprise ending “is even more effective in the film than in the story.”]

Ambrose Bierce's short story is clearly divided into three parts: the first gives an outside observer's minute and objective description of the preparations for...

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Kingo Fabó (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Fabó, Kingo. “Ambrose Bierce: ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” Acta Litteraria: Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 24, nos. 1-2 (1982): 225-32.

[In the following essay, Fabó examines the structuring principles in Bierce's story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”]

Every one of Ambrose Bierce's short stories is about death; so is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in a cumulative way: the protagonist, Peyton Farquhar dies three deaths rather than just one—he is hanged, shot and drowned in rapid succession. The real protagonist of the story, then, is death or, since death cannot be experienced, the last instant preceding it. This, of...

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James G. Powers, S.J. (essay date summer 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Powers, James G., S.J. “Freud and Farquhar: ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’?” Studies in Short Fiction 19, no. 3 (summer 1982): 278-81.

[In the following essay, Powers applies a Freudian interpretation to “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”]

Much has been written of Ambrose Bierce's predilection for bizarre topics—his penchant for “gratuitous horror and meaningless annihilation,”1 his cynicism rooted in an idealism which collided with the “crudities of the Gilded Age” at the turn of the century2; his love-hate relationship to war; finally, his pioneer treatment of the “clock of consciousness” in a relentless...

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George Cheatham and Judy Cheatham (essay date fall 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Cheatham, George, and Judy Cheatham. “Bierce's ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” Explicator 43, no. 1 (fall 1984): 44-7.

[In the following essay, Cheatham and Cheatham probe the origins of the name of the protagonist, Peyton Farquhar, in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”]

Peyton Farquhar—no reader of Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” fails to note the oddity of the name. Any one having taught the story has no doubt had students find the name humorous. Why then did Bierce, who could have given the character any name, choose the one that he did? Is Peyton Farquhar simply one of those old names, familiar to the...

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Cathy N. Davidson (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Davidson, Cathy N. “The Process of Perception.” In The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce, pp. 45-55. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Davidson explores the perceptions of Peyton Farquhar, the protagonist of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” focusing on how they are affected by his inevitable execution.]

Bierce's protagonists are usually known by their failures, failures that show the limits and the limitations of a particular character's particular perspective. In this respect the test passed sometimes proves nothing. Survival becomes an accident of obtuseness in a few stories such as “A Watcher by the...

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Clifford R. Ames (essay date spring 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Ames, Clifford R. “Do I Wake or Sleep?: Technique as Content in Ambrose Bierce's Short Story, ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 19, no. 3 (spring 1987): 52-67.

[In the following essay, Ames argues that the popularity of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a testimony to Bierce's technical skill, particularly his ability to manipulate perception and suspend disbelief.]

What evidence could be applied to, supposing we were asked at this very moment whether we are asleep or awake—dreaming all that passes through our minds or talking to one another in the waking state.1


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William Conlogue (essay date fall 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Conlogue, William. “Bierce's ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” The Explicator 48, no. 1 (fall 1989): 37-8.

[In the following essay, Conlogue finds a connection between Peyton Farquhar and a medieval band of hemp-eating Moslem assassins.]

In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” Peyton Farquhar grows hemp. These tree-like plants, used in making rope, grow to over 15 feet in height. The narrator of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” tells us that Farquhar is a “student of hanging”; he studies rope (12). The American Heritage Dictionary gives as one definition of rope, “death by hanging” (1071). Farquhar's “gyration,” his...

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Peter Stoicheff (essay date summer 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Stoicheff, Peter. “‘Something Uncanny’: The Dream Structure in Ambrose Bierce's ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 3 (summer 1993): 349-57.

[In the following essay, Stoicheff considers Bierce's utilization of dream theory in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” maintaining that through his “intuitive employment” of Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury's and Sigmund Freud's dream models Bierce “generates and sustains the uncanny impression of unconscious reality.”]

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” has received more critical attention than any other single work by Ambrose Bierce. This is probably because...

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David M. Owens (essay date spring 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Owens, David M. “Bierce and Biography: The Location of Owl Creek Bridge.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 26, no. 3 (spring 1994): 82-9.

[In the following essay, Owens provides a biographical context for “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and investigates the actual location of Owl Creek, finding it to be an amalgamation of Alabama and Tennessee locales.]

“A man stood on a railroad bridge in northern Alabama,” begins Ambrose Bierce's most famous short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Set in the American Civil War, the story describes the hanging of Peyton Farquhar, a Southern planter caught attempting to sabotage a railroad...

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Lawrence A. Walz (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Walz, Lawrence A. “Mary Henry's Journey from Owl Creek Bridge.” Literature/Film Quarterly 23, no. 4 (1995): 262-65.

[In the following essay, Walz addresses the use of the “Owl Creek Bridge Plot” in the 1961 film Carnival of Souls and contrasts the protagonists of the movie and the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”]

Ambrose Bierce's short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) has long been celebrated for its classic surprise ending. Peyton Farquhar, being hanged as a Confederate saboteur at Owl Creek Bridge, is reprieved when the rope breaks. He plunges into the river below the bridge, swims to shore, and makes...

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Donald T. Blume (essay date winter 2002)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Blume, Donald T. “‘A Quarter of an Hour’: Hanging as Ambrose Bierce and Peyton Farquhar Knew It.” American Literary Realism 34, no. 2 (winter 2002): 146-57.

[In the following essay, Blume explores Bierce's knowledge of executions and the physiological effects of hanging and argues that the hallucination sequence in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” takes place in a fifteen-minute period after his neck was broken.]

When “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” first appeared in William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner on 13 July 1890, it became the eleventh Civil War story Ambrose Bierce, the locally famous author of “Prattle,” a...

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Lawrence I. Berkove (essay date 2002)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Berkove, Lawrence I. “‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’: Nothing Better Exists.” In A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce, pp. 113-35. Columbus: The Ohio State University, 2002.

[In the following essay, Berkove ranks “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” as one of the most accomplished literary hoaxes ever written, contending that Bierce manipulates the readers of the story by allowing them to project their expectations into the story and “letting those expectations blind them into not reading carefully and thoughtfully enough.”]

To Bierce, reason, although imperfect, remains humanity's best hope for preventing a needless...

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