An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Critical Overview
by Ambrose Bierce

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge book cover
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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

Critical reaction to "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'' has been mixed. While it continues to be a popular and frequently anthologized story, it has not received much serious scholarly attention. Some critics have dismissed it for what they consider its contrived ending, blatant sentimentality, reliance on sensationalism, and trivialization of death. Others have criticized Bierce for deceiving and playing with his readers. More recent critics, however, have reexamined the story and have concluded that it has often been misunderstood and misinterpreted and that it is, in fact, complex and innovative. F. J. Logan wrote in American Literary Realism 1870-1910 that ''the story has languished in anthologies, chiefly those used in secondary schools, perhaps because it has been so frequently offered as an action tale of extreme power written by an otherwise unfamiliar Civil War writer." He went on to say: "I am contending that 'Owl Creek Bridge' is not ... some sort of hysterical gothic horripilator; it is, on the contrary, as tightly controlled and meticulously organized as any story is likely to be." In response to the accusation that Bierce played games with his readers, Harriet Kramer Linkin wrote in 1988 in The Journal of Narrative Technique that "Bierce manipulated the reader throughout [the story] but never lies outright.... The clues exceptional readers require to share Bierce's perspective are always available." Recent critics have also praised Bierce's focus on psychology and human cognition, particularly hallucinations and dreams.

Bierce's literary reputation is based primarily on his short stories of the Civil War, particularly "Chickamauga," "The Death of Halpin Frayser," and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Bierce's narrative methods have sometimes caused critics to view his works as little more than technical exercises. "Too many of his stories," David Weimer has stated, "lean too heavily on crafty mechanics, on a kind of literary gadgeteering." Yet, according to H.E. Bates, the structure of Bierce's stories is significant because "Bierce began to shorten the short story; he began to bring it to a sharper, more compressed method." While critics have both condemned and praised Bierce's imagination as among the most vicious and morbid in American literature, his works are counted among the most memorable depictions of the precarious, ironic, and futile condition of human existence.