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 the differences and functions of the three sections in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

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Ambrose Bierce divides his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek” into three sections, which apply different points of view and levels of consciousness to the same event: the hanging of Peyton Farquhar.

In the first section, a removed third-person narrator describes a man being prepared for hanging. Specific details—who the man is, how he is being tied up, the set-up, the bridge, the surrounding environment and people—are presented as if by an onlooker observing the scene. The first two paragraphs appear like a long shot in a film, but by the third paragraph, readers gain a more close-up view of Farquhar, the condemned man. We see his features and “kindly expression.”

In the fourth paragraph, Bierce seems to zoom back out with a description of the mechanics of the hanging. Suddenly, readers see the river from Farquhar’s point of view. The final three paragraphs of part I bring readers into Farquhar’s head as last-minute thoughts of his wife, children, and possible escape develop parallel to external sensations, like his ticking watch. Part I functions as exposition that transitions into part II.

In part II, the narrative shifts to a time in the past when Farquhar and his wife encountered a person they thought was a Confederate soldier. Farquhar becomes more than merely the condemned man of part I. He is given a background (a wealthy slave owner who could not join the Confederate army) and shown to be eager to help out the Confederate cause in any way. Chafing under whatever restriction prevented him from joining the military, he jumps at a chance for glory and distinction. Therefore, he becomes easily duped by a Federal scout into trying to burn the northern military’s stockade at Owl Creek Bridge. Part II thus functions as the ironic backstory to Farquhar's hanging.

Part III brings readers back to the present, when Farquhar descends into water as he is hanged from the bridge. The rope seems to have broken and dumped his body into the stream. An omniscient narrator describes Farquhar’s thoughts as he sinks. Farquhar feels physical pain and near-drowning sensations, but then shoots back up to the surface, evades bullets, and flees back to his home. The story ends with Farquhar reaching out to his wife, but the narration suddenly returns to the removed, third-person observation of Farquhar’s dangling body. Part III presents Farquhar imagined escape; this section functions to demonstrate that his escape fantasy was as far from reality as his belief in the words of the Federal scout.

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The three sections of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" differ in their points of view: the first section is in Omniscient point of view, the second is in Objective point of view, and the third in Third-person Limited which includes stream-of-consciousness.

1. Omniscient point of view

In this section the Realistic elements of Bierce's writing are evinced. With great detail the depiction of the military protocol adds a certain impact as it denotes a tenor that is richly suggestive to the reader with the repetition of silence. For instance, the description of the execution details this silence:

The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captains stood...silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign.  Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette, silence and fixity are forms of deference. 

The solemnity of the protocol of the military in deference to Death also helps to magnify the irony that prevails throughout Bierce's narrative as Farquhar's death is a less than glorious condition of war.

2. Objective point of view

The move from Omniscient narrator to Third-person Objective narrator enhances the sense of reality in the story as there is a detailed report on Farquhar and his background and motivation, as well as the circumstances which led to his capture. This narration also refines the element of irony as in the last paragraph the reader learns that the soldier to whom the Farquhar's extended their courtesy is, in fact, a Federal scout.

3. Third Person Limited point of view

From the realistic details of the first two sections, the third section moves to the random thoughts of stream of consciousness.  Time is slowed down and there is an intricate fantasy woven with Farquhar's reverie; in fact, this intricacy plunges the reader into the figments of Farquhar's thoughts, a condition which certainly produces the shock of the brutal, matter-of-fact ending, It also magnifies the irony of Farquhar's name--Gaelic for manly, or brave--along with the delusions of the glorious condition of war.

In his critical essay, "Something Uncanny: The Dream Structure in 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,'" Peter Stolchaff, while acknowledging the clever change of narrators, writes of Bierce's other purposes:

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.

In the first section, there is the silence that seems indeterminate, as well as Farquhar's glance at the driftwood that appears to move slowly.  In the second section, there is a hint of a desultory life as Farquhar and his wife sit one evening on a hickory bench. Finally, in the third section, the reader is placed inside the consciousness of the main character.  There is, indeed, a dreamlike structure that develops and reaches its crescendo at the end.

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