An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Analysis

Ambrose Bierce

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bierce’s mastery of technique is the source of the success of this story. He carefully and skillfully builds a convincing set of realistic circumstances and establishes an atmosphere of grim intensity; then he subtly begins to introduce the subjectivity and unreality on which the plot hinges. The opening section is basically objective and naturalistic. The language is clear and unemotional; the sentences are straightforward. The reader has no reason to question the authenticity or veracity of the story. In the third paragraph, Bierce very deftly begins to interweave a subjective point of view with the heretofore exclusively objective one. The first insight into the condemned man’s mind indicates that he is himself objective and reasonable; he finds the plan for his execution to be “simple and effective.” The gulf between physical reality and the prisoner’s perception of reality is presented with such calm detachment that the reader believes that he or she is simply being given access to Farquhar’s mind by an unemotional, omniscient narrator. In the final paragraph of the first section, the prose returns to the objectivity and precision of the opening lines: “the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.”

In section 2, the impassive narrator reports the events that lead up to Peyton Farquhar’s execution. He knows how the planter felt about war as well as the true intentions of the “grey-clad soldier.” Again the reader has no reason whatsoever to doubt the accuracy of the story. As surely as the Union scout deceived Peyton Farquhar, Bierce has led the unwary reader into a trap that he springs almost immediately in the third section. The reader has come to expect a faithful account of the facts from this narrator and consequently has little reason to question the genuineness of the tale of Farquhar’s escape.

Bierce has very carefully prepared the reader to trust him and consequently to ignore all the indications in the final section that Farquhar’s escape is imaginary. Numerous technical differences exist between section 3 and sections 1 and 2, each of which suggests that the events are phantasmal. The verbs, “seemed” and “appeared” are used in four of the first five sentences, signaling the story’s movement into fantasy. Exclamation marks begin to appear with regularity (two in the first paragraph and seven in the second), calling attention to the improbability of the events being described. Only two exclamation marks were used prior to the third section; they are in section 1 and serve to point up the condemned man’s distortion of reality: “What a sluggish stream!” he says of water “racing madly beneath his feet.” The explicit, journalistic prose of the first two sections yields to language characterized by abstraction, vagueness, or exaggeration: “inconceivably,” “unthinkable,” “unaccessible,” “magnificent,” “superhuman,” “preternaturally,” “interminably,” “ineffable.” Farquhar’s supposed actions are obviously beyond the realm of human possibility, but Bierce presents them with such authority and conviction that readers, having been conditioned to expect the truth, are cleverly lured into believing in Farquhar’s fantasy. Bierce’s skillful manipulation of language and point of view makes “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” a minor masterpiece.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The anonymous protagonist stands on a railroad bridge, awaiting execution. The preparations are meticulously described. As he awaits death, his thoughts carry him back in time.

The man, we learn, is Peyton Farquhar, a well-to-do Southern planter. A civilian, he wanted to do something to help the Southern cause. A stranger passing through his property stops for water and mentions that the Owl Creek Bridge is crucial to the advancing Northern troops. The reader understands that Farquhar is being hanged because he attempted to destroy the bridge.

He is hanged; the sensations of the hanging are told in precise detail. He seems to survive the hanging, a freak accident sending him into the river below where he manages to escape the soldiers’ bullets, as well. He seems to find his way home again after the ordeal on the bridge and in the river. But, at the end, we discover that he is dead, that he never actually escaped from the hanging. Everything so carefully described occurred only in his mind, in the split second before he ceased to live.

Bierce was the master of closely observed, meticulously related detail. The power of the tale derives from this straightforward technique. Even the understated title helps to seduce the reader into a false sense of security. The photographic description of the scenes and locations builds up a basis of naturalistic realism that is in direct contrast to the dramatic conclusion of the tale.

The ironic tale, influenced by the brothers Goncourt and Gustave Flaubert, was a particularly apt vehicle both for Bierce’s technical skill and for his bleak view of life.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" was published in 1891, though it is set during the Civil War. This war, which was fought from 1861 to...

(The entire section is 328 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"Owl Creek" is set on a railroad bridge in Alabama during the American Civil War, which was fought from 1861 to 1865 and claimed 525,000...

(The entire section is 300 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" centers on Peyton Farquhar, a southern farmer about to be hanged by the Union army for attempting to...

(The entire section is 864 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is divided into three sections, each with its own distinct structure and narrative technique. In the...

(The entire section is 783 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Although the story was written in the late 1800s, the narrative is set during the American Civil War, which was fought from 1861 to 1865. The...

(The entire section is 178 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1860s: After the Civil War, the United States officially abolishes slavery in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.


(The entire section is 179 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Research realism, naturalism, and romanticism in American letters and discuss how "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" relates to these...

(The entire section is 77 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Compare and contrast the film adaptation of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" with the actual short story.

2. How does "Owl...

(The entire section is 41 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" was adapted for film in 1962. Produced by Janus, directed by Robert Enrico, and distributed by...

(The entire section is 165 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" was adapted for film in 1962. Produced by Janus, directed by Robert Enrico, and distributed by...

(The entire section is 82 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Stephen Crane's 1895 Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage realistically depicts the psychological complexities of fear and courage...

(The entire section is 145 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"Ambrose Bierce: 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.'" In Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the...

(The entire section is 224 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Bates, H. E., The Modern Short Story, The Writer Inc., 1956, p. 231.

Linkin, Harriet Kramer,...

(The entire section is 335 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Berkove, Lawrence I. A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002.

Blume, Donald T. Ambrose Bierce’s “Civilians and Soldiers” in Context: A Critical Study. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2004.

Davidson, Cathy N. The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Davidson, Cathy N., ed. Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

Fatout, Paul. Ambrose Bierce, the Devil’s Lexicographer. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951.

Gale, Robert L. An Ambrose Bierce Companion. New York: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Grenander, Mary Elizabeth. Ambrose Bierce. New York: Twayne, 1971.

Hoppenstand, Gary. “Ambrose Bierce and the Transformation of the Gothic Tale in the Nineteenth-Century American Periodical.” In Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Kenneth M. Price and Susan Belasco Smith. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

McWilliams, Carey. Ambrose Bierce: A Biography. 1929. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1967.

Morris, Roy, Jr. Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. New York: Crown, 1996.

O’Connor, Richard. Ambrose Bierce: A Bibliography and a Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967.

Schaefer, Michael W. Just What War Is: The Civil War Writings of De Forest and Bierce. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997.

West, Richard. The San Francisco Wasp: An Illustrated History. Easthampton, Mass.: Periodyssey Press, 2004.