An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Essays and Criticism
by Ambrose Bierce

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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...

(The entire section is 3,741 words.)