An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Essays and Criticism

Ambrose Bierce

The Portrayal of a Character's Inner Psychology

(Short Stories for Students)

Ambrose Bierce may very well have been a man out of time. He was a cynical journalist writing at a time when social thought was dominated by optimism. He was the writer who introduced psychological studies in fiction into an American literary scene dominated by realism, naturalism, and regionalism. He was uncompromising in his refusal to bend to the requests of his publishers. Some people have seen his flight to Mexico in 1913 as his deliberate escape from living in that wrong time period. After finishing the preparation of his twelve-volume Collected Works, Bierce gave up writing to join with Pancho Villa's revolution as an "observer." He never returned from this last adventure. His disappearance in Mexico has rendered his death as one of the most celebrated among literary people of letters, captivating the imaginations of people throughout the world.

The legend of "Bitter Bierce" grew after his disappearance (his fate was even envisioned in Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes' award-winning novel The Old Gringo), leading some to focus more on his adventurous life than on his writings. Many critics do feel that Bierce's work was overlooked and rejected by his contemporaries. One of the reasons for this may lie in Bierce's handling of his own work: he turned down offers of popular magazines to publish his stories because he did not want them to undergo editing; his work was published by small presses in California, not the big East Coast firms, to ensure that Bierce had complete authorial control. While these practices may have preserved his writing in their pristine form, they certainly did nothing to gain Bierce national attention. Despite these obstacles, Bierce did have significant claims to the literary world during his lifetime. Mark Twain numbered among the members of Bierce's California circle of writers, and William Dean Howells referred to him as one of the leading men of letters in America. In the Midst of Life, the volume which includes "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," drew favorable commentary on both sides of the Atlantic upon its publication. Some reviewers even ranked Bierce with such masters of the short story as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

In the words of critic Cathy Davidson, Bierce has staked his claim as "the precursor of postmodern fiction." In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," his best-known story, Bierce displays many of the literary techniques that show the modernity that was ahead of its time. He was one of the first American writers to hold up the act of war and show it, not humorously or as picturesque, but for what it was: murder. He shortened the short story and made its elements sharper by using compressed methods of description. Most importantly, perhaps, and what would be most influential for twentieth-century writers, he "invented" many literary techniques: the close examination of time; an attention to mental fictions in order to avoid real life; the blending of fantasy and reality. Stories by the Latin American postmodern writers Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar are clearly indebted to Bierce, both in narration and style. Though fanciful, there is a grain of truth in the reasoning behind one critic's hypothesis that Bierce did not die in 1914, but that he waited in the Andes until the rest of the world caught up with him and then reemerged in South America to write under the name "Jorge Luis Borges"!

In an essay from 1941, H.E. Bates writes, "Bierce is the connecting link between Poe and the American short story of today." Bierce carries on this tradition dramatically and skillfully in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," in which a Southern gentlemen, Peyton Farquhar, is about to be hanged for sabotaging a Union railroad bridge during the Civil War. Like many of Poe's stories, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" has been seen as a work of terror replete with moments of black humor. Other critics have found its early exploration of Farquhar's psychology as a forerunner to the theories of Sigmund Freud. The story has even spawned the fiction of "post-mortem consciousness," in which, at the moment of death, the hero futilely struggles to impose his or her will on the universe, creating another temporary reality and escaping death; Ernest Hemingway, William...

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Something Uncanny: The Dream Structure in Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"

(Short Stories for Students)

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" has received more critical attention than any other single work by Ambrose Bierce. This is probably because it combines into one text the best ingredients distributed among much of Bierce's fiction—satire, irony, manipulation of the reader, the exposure of human self-deception, a surprise ending, and a stylistic compression and tautness. It may also be because something of the story still eludes its commentators, leaving a residual and "uncanny" (to use Bierce's convenient term in the text) sense of revelation hovering just beyond one's grasp. Peyton Farquhar's death at the end is a surprise, so carried away are we by his desire for escape; yet it seems somehow presaged by the very description that keeps it, until the story's last paragraph, obscure and unanticipated. As Stuart C. Woodruff, one of the story's closest analysts, puts it, "[s]omehow the reader is made to participate in the split between imagination and reason, to feel that the escape is real while he knows it is not" (Woodruffs emphasis).

The premise of the third section of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'' is that Farquhar imagines his escape in the brief interval between the removal of the plank that supports him and his actual death by hanging. That time is somewhat indeterminate in the story, as it is for at least two reasons in actuality. Some hanging victims die immediately, while others struggle for several seconds—death in these cases becoming a more gruesome and gradual process. More significantly for Bierce's purposes, though, is that "time" itself, when employed to calibrate human experience, seems to become indeterminate at points of maximum emotional disturbance. Though the time it takes for Farquhar to die by hanging is indeterminate, Bierce goes to some length to imply that at the unknowable threshold of death itself time becomes crucially altered and even paradoxical, resistant to commonplace reciprocities of sensation and duration. (The distortion is mirrored in the narrative itself, whose "time" is suspended at the end of the first section and reversed in the second—bold anachrony and analepsis, which are literally impossible and at the same time perfectly acceptable to the reader.) His account in the third section suggests that, within a short time period, sensation does not become effaced, but instead divides itself into infinite units of experience, saturating the mind with stimuli. From this perspective, "time" becomes vertiginous, the span of a second dilating to reveal ever increasing interior units of time, which themselves repeat the process of fractal division. Thus it may take "only" a "split second" for Farquhar to transform from a sensate being to an insensate one (for Farquhar is "as one already dead" within that short time, after all), but that moment itself encounters the threshold of time's erasure, in effect turning time inside out to reveal Blake's eternity in an hour.

The third section...

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Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"

(Short Stories for Students)

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 nineteenth century, which falls strangely on modern ears, or does its oddness serve some function in the story? A close look at the name suggests the latter point and, further, that Bierce chose the name carefully.

Peyton, first, is a variant spelling of Payton, the Scottish form of Patrick (from the Latin, meaning a patrician, a person of noble descent). Farquhar derives from the Gaelic Fearachar, meaning manly or brave, the name of an early Scottish king. Such a pair of names, of course, well suits a ''well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family," who is "at heart a soldier."

The name itself, moreover, reinforces the central irony of the story, that Peyton Farquhar is the satiric butt of the story rather than the sympathetic figure he has often been called. Bierce subtly and ironically delineates Farquhar's naively unrealistic view of war, contrasting it with warfare's harsh truths. Bierce reveals Farquhar's past life, for example, through the empty martial abstractions a civilian like Farquhar might use: "gallant army," "inglorious restraint," "larger life of the soldier," "opportunity for distinction," "no adventure too perilous," and so on.

Farquhar's escape also, as he imagines it both before and during the hanging, is the stuff of a civilian's dream of war. Before he begins to drop, noose around his neck, Farquhar outlines his plan:

"If I could free my hands," he thought, "I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the...

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