An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Questions and Answers

Ambrose Bierce

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge questions.

What is the significance of Farquhar's heightened attention to detail?

Readers are often shocked by the conclusion of Bierce’s story when they realize that Peyton Farquhar’s escape and journey home existed only in his mind. The abrupt conclusion jolts them, just as Farquhar’s body is jolted when the rope plays out, ending his free fall. The truth of what occurred at Owl Creek Bridge is confronted quite suddenly, even though Bierce provides plenty of clues to the illusory nature of Farquhar’s experience after he falls between the railroad ties.

Many specific details in Part III of the story describe that which simply could not have happened. After fighting his way to the surface of Owl Creek, Farquhar could not have observed the veins on each leaf of the individual trees by the stream. He could not have seen “the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig,” nor could he have seen the “prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass.” Also beyond the realm of possibility is Farquhar’s hearing, in the midst of the fast-moving creek, the “audible music” of gnats humming and dragonflies beating their wings or the sound of “the strokes of the water-spiders’ legs.” His head above water, he very well could have heard rifle shots and seen the Union troops at the bridge, but in the distance, the soldiers’ forms would not have appeared “gigantic,” and he could not have seen “the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle.” The rifleman’s eye is gray, Farquhar notes, another specific detail that indicates the illusory nature of his escape.

Numerous other details of Farquhar’s escape defy belief, especially toward the end of Part III as he makes his way home through a landscape both foreign and peculiar. The road he follows is “as wide and straight as a city street” but seems untraveled, and it takes him through a land with no signs of human habitation. The trees are black and form “a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective.” That his experience is surreal is emphasized when he sees “great golden stars” shining overhead, “looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations.” Reading Part III carefully makes it obvious that Farquhar’s escape is a fantasy.

Why, then, are readers so often shocked when they arrive at the final sentence in the narrative? Perhaps they respond to the conclusion of the story for reasons that have nothing to do with literary analysis. Many readers sympathize with Farquhar as he faces death. They identify with his love for his family and understand his desperate desire to go home. While reading Part III, they simply want Peyton Farquhar to survive. Consequently, many readers fail to consider, or choose to ignore, the evidence that his escape is not real. Thus the sight of Farquhar, his neck broken, swinging “gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge” shocks and disturbs, ending very abruptly what readers hoped for him, despite the impossibility of his escape.

How does Ambrose Bierce juxtapose Southern romanticism and Northern realism?

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a story of romanticism versus realism and as such is characteristic of Ambrose Bierce's cynical outlook on life in general. Peyton Farquhar is a Southern romantic. He has dreamt of doing something heroic for the Southern cause. He comes up against the reality of war and the reality of life. He falls for the lies of the Federal scout because he wants to believe he is being given an opportunity to do something heroic and noble. He loses his wife, his plantation, his children, and his life in attempting to sabotage a tiny bridge in the middle of nowhere. Bierce titles his story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" in order to suggest that this is nothing but an insignificant "occurrence" in a place nobody has ever heard of, not a romantic adventure with a heroic outcome. The reader is completely fooled into sharing the protagonist's delusion that he has miraculously survived the hanging and is making his way back to his loving wife and his beautiful home. Farquhar has dreams of glory and vivid fantasies about escaping from his terrible predicament, but in the end there is no escape from an ignominious death.

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

What is the significance of Part 2 of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

Ambrose Bierce's story has a marvelous opening. A reader could hardly stop reading after being captured by the first sentences.

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the ties supporting the rails of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners.

Bierce is able to open his story like this because he postpones the necessary exposition until Part 2, which works like a flashback. In Part 1 the man is waiting to be hanged. In Part 3 he imagines the rope has broken and he is in the surging creek trying to free his hands and escape. But Bierce never describes what the man actually did to get himself into that situation. Part 2 supplies the necessary information to enable the reader to imagine pretty vividly, without being told, what Peyton Farquhar actually did and how he got caught:

"The Yanks are repairing the railroads," said the man, "and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels, or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order."
The soldier reflected. "I was there a month ago," he replied. "I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tinder."

Part 2 of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" ends with the ominous words,

He was a Federal scout.

We can picture Farquhar riding north, leaving his horse hitched to a tree some distance from the bridge, sneaking up silently in the dark with his matches and kerosene. Everything is perfectly quiet. He reaches the dry driftwood and pours his kerosene, then strikes a match and gets ready to run back to his horse. By the light of his own fire, plus the lights of dozens of suddenly uncovered dark lanterns all focused on him, he sees that he has walked into a trap. He is surrounded by Union soldiers, who are all witnesses to his arson attempt and who will be prepared to hang him tomorrow morning.

None of this is expressed in the text, but it is so obvious that it speaks for itself. There is something a little uncanny about the way Ambrose Bierce creates a sort of fourth-dimensional scene.

How is the Owl Creek Bridge significant to the narrative?

The bridge is important to the story for many reasons, including the following:

  • The bridge is the target, the objective, the bone of contention. It provides the motivation for the protagonist, Peyton Farquhar. Momentarily it seems to be the focal point of the entire Civil War.
  • Farquhar is being hanged from it because it is the most simple and convenient place for a hanging. A hanging requires a certain elevation, which the bridge easily provides.
  • The bridge is also the most conspicuous place for the ceremony. Every soldier can see it from wherever he is stationed.
  • Farquhar is being hanged because he tried to burn it down. It is ironic that he is being hanged from the bridge he tried to burn down and that he is being hanged for trying to burn it down.

The bridge exists because of the creek. The creek enables the prisoner to seem to escape in the following ways:

  • The water seemingly revives him when he falls into it, and he is able to evade the rifle bullets by swimming under the water.
  • The creek is flowing very rapidly, which seemingly enables him to get swiftly carried out of gunshot range.
  • There is a lot of water in the creek at this time of year. This is helpful to the escaping prisoner. It also explains why there would be a lot of driftwood piled against one side, tempting him to set it afire in the first place.
  • Farquhar does not really escape, but the sight of the rushing water helps to create the hallucination that he falls into the creek and is quickly carried downstream to safety.

Although Farquhar seems to make it all the way back to his plantation and into the waiting arms of his wife, the story ends back at the bridge:

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

How does Ambrose Bierce present the theme of war in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

Ambrose Bierce starts his story as if it is only a single trivial incident taking place at an unimportant wooden bridge that does not even span a river but a creek that nobody has ever heard of. He chooses not even to give the name of the man who is about to be hanged, and he has nothing to say about what the man did to get himself into this situation. This is just an incident in a war that eventually claimed the lives of some 620,000 soldiers. Why should this man's experience or his final fate be of any special importance?

Then, in Part 2 of the story the author identifies the doomed man and shows the reader his lovely wife and his beautiful, peaceful plantation. We are beginning to realize that this man was not just a number but a real human being with all the same feelings as ourselves. And in Part 3, when we are led to believe that Peyton Farquhar might have a chance to escape back to his home and his wife and children, we not only know his name and his status, but we are made to identify with his hopes and fears and all his other feelings. The story tells us that each of the men who died in the Civil War was a real human being just like ourselves. All of them wanted to live. None of them wanted to die—and most of them did not expect to die. Most of them were motivated by patriotism, a sense of duty, and a desire for glory.

The plan of Ambrose Bierce's story is to move from the general to the particular, from the formal ceremony of a military hanging into the mind and heart of a single hapless, misguided individual. By the time the body hangs below the Owl Creek Bridge, swinging slowly back and forth, we know this man and have lived through his experiences with him right up to the point where he almost clasps his wife in his arms. We realize the horror and insanity of war.

What is the significance of Mrs. Farquhar's character?

Peyton Farquhar's wife is a minor character, but Ambrose Bierce felt the need to introduce her and give her a small part to play in the story. 

Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.

It is ironic that this aristocratic Southern lady should be bringing water to the man who will be responsible for her husband's hanging and for her own destitution when the Yankees reach their plantation, loot all the food and valuables, free the slaves, and leave her with no means of surviving. The author has the lady leave the two men while she fetches the water. This is to get her out of the way so that the men can have the conversation that ensues. Peyton Farquhar would not be able to show his interest in sabotaging the Owl Creek Bridge if his wife were present. She would plead with him not to risk his life and the security of herself and their children on such a wild enterprise.

The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank. He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away. An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.

Ambrose Bierce introduces Mrs. Farquhar because she will symbolize everything that her husband wants to return to when he thinks he has a chance of escaping from the Union soldiers. His wife is a bit like Penelope in Homer's Odyssey. She symbolizes home, family, comfort, and contentment. Bierce cannot introduce Mrs. Farquhar without giving her something to do. This explains why the author has her go personally to fetch the water for the soldier. She is honoring him as a brave Confederate soldier by serving him "with her own white hands." The word "white" is intended to suggest that the lady has plenty of black house-slaves whom she would customarily order to bring water or anything else she wanted. At the very end of the story Farquhar has almost made it into his wife's outstretched arms.

Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!

How is Farquhar's perception of the Sergeant significant?

Ambrose Bierce uses a lot of specific details in his story in order to make the incident seem vivid and real. Bierce is able to do this because he had extensive military experience during the Civil War. Bierce fought in many of the war's bloodiest battles, including the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862).

One of the many specific details in the opening paragraph is that the sergeant “in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff.” This suggests that there was an acute shortage of soldiers and that a man who had any kind of government experience in civilian life would find it easy to get promoted to the highest non-commissioned rank. It suggests a shortage of soldiers because the Civil War was such a bloody affair. Approximately 620,000 Federal and Confederate soldiers died during the war.

The overall implication seems intended to suggest that all the troops, including the sergeant and captain, are not professional soldiers but civilians absorbed into the military by an agrarian nation not accustomed to having a standing army. Thus Peyton Farquhar’s “escape” seems more plausible. The officers do not know what orders to give the soldiers. The soldiers are poor marksmen.

Bierce was noted for being a bitter, pessimistic man, an agnostic, and a cynic. His story is about the dispassionate cruelty of war and the cruelty of mankind in general. The men engaged in hanging Peyton Farquhar are going about the job in a routine, mechanical fashion. They are only obeying orders. And the sergeant is in charge because he has had a little more experience in obeying orders and can be trusted to do the job correctly. The fact that the sergeant might have been a deputy sheriff suggests that he likes discipline and regimentation. He might have been an early volunteer when the war started, giving him more time to rise in the ranks.

There is no other significance in Bierce’s statement that he might have been a deputy sheriff in civil life. It is just guesswork on the narrator’s part, but it shows Ambrose Bierce's shrewdness and experience. Most Civil War soldiers were farm boys and still looked and acted like farm boys when they put on their blue or gray uniforms. The sergeant probably has just a shade more of military mentality and officer quality about him, though he would never rise to being a lieutenant.

Bierce wrote a number of stories about the Civil War based on his own battlefield experience. No one who did not possess such experience could have written with such authority and in such convincing detail. Bierce must have participated in actual hangings such as the one he describes. The fact that he writes about the hanging from the point of view of the Confederate sympathizer Peyton Farquhar suggests that he had an ambivalent opinion about the war. He could see the justice of the Union cause and understand the feelings of the Southerners. He could appreciate the wrongness of a war in which men were killing other men they had nothing against, sometimes fathers killing sons and sons killing fathers.

What is the effect of the narrator remaining unnamed until later in the story?

Ambrose Bierce's story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" has an unusual form. The man being hanged is not identified in Part I. Then in Part II, after the man has fallen from the bridge with the noose around his neck at the end of Part I, Bierce uses a flashback to fill the reader in on all the important questions. By not identifying the condemned man in Part I, Bierce gets stronger reader identification with the his thoughts and feelings. The story opens with these significant words:

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below.

If Bierce had identified Peyton Farquhar in Part I, as he does in Part II, the reader would feel that this hanging was happening to someone else. But by making him anonymous, Bierce makes the reader feel that he or she is the person being hanged. Then when the exposition, which makes up all of Part II, reveals all the necessary information about the protagonist, the reader stays strongly identified with Farquhar in spite of the fact that the reader may have no sympathy for the Confederate cause or for slave-owners. This would have been a more important consideration at the time the story was published, which was over a hundred years ago. The reader remains identified with Farquhar to the very end because he or she shares his motivation to stay alive and get back home and is held strictly in Farquhar's point of view.