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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Is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" a true story?

Quick answer:

No, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is not a true story, though the author, Ambrose Bierce, was a soldier in the Union army during the Civil War and infuses the story with realism.

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"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is not a true story. The story's author, Ambrose Bierce, did fight on the side of the Union army in the American Civil War, participating in several well-known battles. It is interesting to note that he does not seem to revel in the execution of Peyton Farquhar—a Confederate sympathizer and saboteur—in this story. Bierce humanizes Farquhar rather than demonizing him and shows him to be a loving husband and father.

In his real-world experiences during the Civil War, Bierce witnessed a great deal of bloodshed. He also won recognition for saving a badly wounded friend during battle and even sustained a dangerous brain injury himself. But his treatment of the fictional Farquhar does not seem to indicate that it caused him to become bitter or to hate those individuals against whom he fought. If anything, the story seems to suggest that the tragedy of war itself reaches on and on, into spaces we cannot completely know or understand.

Instead of demonizing Farquhar or the Confederate cause, Bierce explores death in this story—something anyone will experience, regardless of where their loyalties lie. Bierce presents death as a formal affair, with the narrator describing it as

a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him.

Similarly, Farquhar, in a ceremoniously solemn way, fixes his thoughts on what is most important to him in his last moment: his family and children (or, at least, he attempts to—in reality, he imagines escaping death and returning to them). Bierce highlights, too, the various sensations someone being executed might experience, from dread and delirium to the sharp pain of a snapping neck.

Thus, while "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is not a true story, Bierce certainly gives the story a sense of realism through his believable depictions of death.

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Is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" a psychological case study and therefore not true fiction, or does the story use psychology?

Bierce did not write a case study of the workings of Peyton Farquhar's mind. He wrote a compelling story with a dramatic and largely unexpected conclusion. In dealing with the psychological aspects of Peyton's facing his own death, Bierce developed Peyton's character, drew us into his experience, and very effectively structured his story so that its conclusion is especially powerful--and realistic.

Bierce's focus is not upon the psychological workings of the human mind, in general, or in Peyton's specific case. In its full context, the story focuses upon the death of one man during war, thus showing the nature of war itself. The title is ironic and points to Bierce's theme. In the wider context of the war, Peyton's hanging at Owl Creek Bridge is only "an occurrence." War is a force that overwhelms individuals and negates the value of individual human lives. To the Union soldiers who execute Peyton, he is just another casualty of war, and hanging him is another of the jobs they are expected to perform. By taking us inside Peyton's mind, however, Bierce makes him a husband and a father who loves his family and tried to protect his home. This was Bierce's intent: to humanize Peyton, to make his death meaningful and sad, and to show the nature of the force that destroyed him.

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