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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How are the condemned man's perceptions of time and motion distorted in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

Quick answer:

As he waits to be hanged, the condemned man's distorted perceptions of time and motion emphasize slowness in the water's motion and lengthening intervals and unknown distance in his watch's ticking.

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Ambrose Bierce emphasizes the condemned man’s distorted perceptions of time and motion as he waits on the bridge with the rope around his neck. The man, who we later learn is Farquhar, begins to feel the slow progress of time. He gains this impression as he looks down at the stream that flows under the bridge. Although the unnamed third-person narrator describes the water as "swift" and "racing madly," to Farquhar the motion seems very slow, or "sluggish."

Another impression of slowed-down time is conveyed by Farquhar's listening to his pocket watch, which he never recognizes. At first he thinks it is a hammer hitting an anvil and cannot tell if it is "immeasurably distant or near by." The intervals are initially regular but then seem to lengthen. The "progressively longer … delays" madden him as they seem to become less frequent but stronger and sharper.

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Farquhar's perceptions of time and motion begin to become distorted while he is waiting to be hanged. He is looking down at Owl Creek, which is described as "racing madly," but to him it seems "sluggish." He sees a piece of driftwood which should be moving swiftly in the "swirling water," yet to him it is drifting slowly.

       How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!

Then when he falls between the ties with the noose around his neck, he has only a few seconds to live, and yet in his imagination he experiences a whole series of events which could take hours. When he finally imaginies that he has reached his home, which we are told is about thirty miles from the Owl Creek bridge,

          All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in

          the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the

          entire night.

His perception of time has been so altered that his imagined escape and journey back to his home all take place within a few seconds. It has often been said that a man's whole life can flash before his eyes in a few moments when he is dying, and Ambrose Bierce's story makes this seem credible.

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Bierce employs stream-of-consciousness technique for the portion of his story which occurs in Peyton's head. Not only does Peyton think that everything is moving slowly, but the sound of the ticking watch is unnaturally loud which demonstrates that time is in the forefront of his mind.

Even though Peyton stands on the plank for a very short amount of time before he is hanged, in his mind it is enough time for his life to flash before his eyes.  This idea presented by Bierce is realistic to anyone who has experienced a close call.  For example, if you have ever been in a car accident, when the car begins to skid, etc., it seems like an unusually long period until you realize afterward that it has been a couple of seconds. Bierce would have personally known this feeling of being suspended in time from his combat experiences in the Civil War.

In regards to motion, Peyton believes that he is moving--escaping to his plantation--when in reality, he stands motionless awaiting his death.

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Time seems to slow down for Peyton Farquar as he awaits his fate in Ambrose Bierce's short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." His senses are keen, and he notices in great detail all of the preparations being made for his execution. At first he notes the rapid waters below, and he fixates on a piece of driftwood. But here time seems to diminish. "How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!" He observes the gold tint on the water, and the "brooding mists" downstream. Then another sound distracts him from the thoughts of his family. A metallic sound like that of a "blacksmith's hammer" rings in his ears. He finally realizes it is only the ticking of his watch.

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As you might expect from a person who is about to die, Farquhar's perceptions are distorted and inconsistent.  The first example you can see here has to do with how he perceives the river rushing below him.  First, he notices that it is rushing very fast.  But then it becomes sluggish and he is surprised by how slowly in is moving.  He

let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move, What a sluggish stream!

In addition, his perception of time is elongated.  In a very short period of time, he has a lot of thoughts.  He thinks of his family, he thinks about how he might escape death.  He thinks about how loudly his watch seems to be ticking, all in a split second.

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