silhouette of a man half submerged in water wiht a noose around his neck

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Ambrose Bierce

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What are Bierce's views on war in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

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Ambrose Bierce's views of the war as reflected in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” appear to be that war should not be romanticized. He seems to understand the futility of war and the insanity of people killing one another. Nevertheless, he also seems to understand the importance of fighting for a just cause, even while he recognizes that the other side feels equally impassioned about their views and retains their humanity even though the opposing side views them as the enemy. This is evident in the description of Peyton Farquhar, who spends his last dying moments thinking about his family, hoping his wife and children know how much he loves them and wishing he could bid them a tearful and loving goodbye. It would also seem that this shows Bierce’s views about the futility of war.

In fact, Bierce himself was a soldier during the Civil War. The violence that he witnessed and experienced first-hand made him think twice about the nobility of war. According to the New York Times, he enlisted in the Union Army and participated in “some of its bloodiest battles,” and he “was shocked by the carnage.” He subsequently wrote essays about one of the battles titled, “What I Saw of Shiloh.” In the short story, “The Coup de Grace,” he also described the horrific sights he witnessed, which included men being burned alive in brush fires.

Bierce experienced “almost constant harassment from Southern guerrillas determined to sabotage Union supply and communication lines,” according to the New York Times. In turn, this led him to write “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Although he condemned the southern sabotage efforts, he nevertheless displays some sympathy for Peyton, while simultaneously showing how one dimensional Peyton's view of war is. Peyton is disappointed that he is ineligible for active duty as a Confederate soldier. He longs for “the larger life of the soldier,” romanticizing it and thinking of the honor of serving a cause in which he believes, and the glory of being a military man. Bierce is telling us with this story that there is no glory, nor romanticism behind war—just bloody, dehumanizing combat.

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The famous short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce takes place during the American Civil War. A civilian planter caught while attempting to sabotage a bridge is condemned to be hanged. He imagines that the rope breaks and he escapes and flees home to his wife and children, only to find that it is an illusion as the rope tightens around his neck at the end.

In the story, Bierce is ambivalent about his own feelings concerning the war. He is clear about certain violent aspects of war, but at the same time, he describes the nobility inherent in someone fighting for the side that he believes in. The story is related mainly from the viewpoint of Peyton Farquhar, the planter who is caught and subsequently hanged, and Bierce makes it clear that Farquhar has honorable ambitions when he gets involved.

Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in war time.

In this passage, Bierce provides justification for the protagonist's involvement in the conflict, so he does not present Farquhar as an innocent victim. The war is rather presented as background for the metaphysical statement that Bierce wants to make about the difference between reality and illusion at the moment of a person's death. In the end, though, Bierce accentuates the futility of martial conflict, as all of Farquhar's noble intentions cannot save him, and he is unable to return safely to his family.

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This question is a question of tone. Tone is a literary device in which the author's attitude toward a subject is conveyed to readers. Generally, tone can be inferred through the author's word choice. Tone is different than mood, because mood refers to the emotions that are being evoked in readers. Since tone is conveyed through word choice, it is advantageous to look for specific quotes that might carry the author's attitude. I like the following quote for this discussion:

No service was too humble for him to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.

This quote doesn't show its true colors until the last bit. The word "villainous" is a great adjective, which gives away Bierce's attitude regarding war. He feels that the dictum/principle of all being fair in love and war is villainous. That's not exactly a positive attitude. In general, I would probably describe Bierce's attitude as cynical and bitter. He might say that Farquhar's actions were brave, but Bierce likely sees the entire situation as wasteful. Men may perform brave acts, but ultimately, the entire concept of war is a waste of human lives.

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Ambrose Bierce seems to feel that all war is wasteful, unnecessary, and brutal.  His narrator's subtle judgment of Peyton Farquhar's assent "to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war" lets us know that he, perhaps, feels that such a belief is savage.  To believe that all is fair in war is to believe that people can behave in absolutely unconscionable ways, as long as there is a war on to justify their actions.  Something that might be considered dishonorable when there is no war being fought can seem somehow justified during a war, and this, to him (or to his narrator, at least) seems villainous.  

However, this judgment doesn't apply, in isolation, to Peyton Farquhar but to anyone who would adopt such a position.  Although Farquhar would seem, especially to a 21st-century reader, to be on the "wrong side" of the war -- he's a plantation- and slave-owner, one who supports the idea that the South should secede from the Union -- Bierce does not appear to judge him for this.  Instead, Bierce judges him for what damage he is willing to inflict on others as a result of his belief that "all is fair in [...] war."  This leads me to believe that Bierce is less interested in pointing fingers about who is most responsible for the war and instead blaming anyone who supports war (or at least the dishonorable tactics we use against one another in war), as a method of problem solving at all.

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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.

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In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," how does Bierce express his view on militaries and wars?

This is rather an unusual question because I am not actually sure that Bierce wrote this story expressly to state his view about war and soldiers. Certainly this no-punches-pulled story is set in the Deep South during the Civil War, and yet it seems to me that the horrors of war serve as only an external setting for the landscape that really interests the writer. That landscape is the inside of the mind of a man condemned to death.

Peyton Farquhar's illusion of escape and freedom implies that the terror of death heightens the senses, distorts perceptions of time, and creates fantasies of escape. It is this that is so excellently explored in this short story, rather than a particular view on war. Therefore I am afraid that the focus of your question was wrong - clearly Bierce like many other authors was keen to focus on the damage done to ordinary lives, like Farquhar's, through the horrors of war, and yet this story has a somewhat more specialised scope as it focusses in on the last precious seconds of a man's life and what can happen internally to him.

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