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 internal and external conflicts in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

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An external conflict in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek" is the Civil War. An internal conflict is that between Peyton's knowledge that he will soon die and his longing to reject the reality of his death.

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The story is set during the American Civil War, so one external conflict that is present is the conflict that is raging between the Union and the Confederacy.  The war was over many things, but the two main issues were states' rights and slavery.  

Another external conflict is the conflict between Peyton and the Union soldiers that are going to hang him.  Peyton was caught trying to sabotage a bridge, and his punishment is death by hanging.  Peyton's escape could be viewed as an external conflict.  He is struggling to not drown, get shot, etc.  Of course that is all happening in his imagination, so maybe it is an internal conflict too.  

A better choice for internal conflict is the conflict going on inside of Peyton before he gets captured.  The story tells readers that Peyton really wanted to take a more active part in the war, but he was prevented from doing so for some reason.  

Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with that gallant army which 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. 

Now he has been given the chance to earn some distinction for himself, but he must wrestle with the risk.  If he fails, he will die and leave his family without a provider.  

Another internal conflict occurs in the beginning of the story.  Peyton is about to be dropped to his death, but he isn't panicking, nor is he begging for his life.  He could be doing either, but he attempts to maintain a proud southern outward show of bravery.  Even seconds before he dies, he is still thinking of escape.  

"If I could free my hands," he thought, "I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream."

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An external conflict in the story is the Civil War, which is the backdrop that sets the plot in motion. The union army has penetrated into northern Alabama, where Peyton Farquhar has a plantation. Peyton falls into a trap set by a Northern scout when he tries to burn a bridge to help the Confederate cause. The external situation of war is why Peyton is in the unfortunate position of being hanged.

An internal conflict rages within Peyton between the reality that he is about to die and his deep longing to live. This manifests itself as an elaborate fantasy on Peyton's part in which he is able to escape execution, swim off in the water below, make his way back to his plantation, and fall into the arms of his sweet, loving wife.

American readers can identify with the external conflict of the Civil War, as the contours of that conflict are well known. Readers can also relate to the internal struggle Peyton wages against accepting the reality of death. A healthy thirty-five-year-old does not want to die with life spreading out before him, which is Peyton's situation. In fact, the text offers vague hints that Peyton has perhaps evaded direct military duty out of a desire to stay alive, making it ironic that his desire to help in safer ways has led to his execution.

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In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," what are both the internal and external conflicts in the story?

In part two, the internal conflict is revealed when Bierce elaborates on Peyton Farquhar's inner struggle to participate in the Civil War. Having an aristocratic southern background prevents Farquhar from enlisting in the Confederate Army, which bothers Peyton to the point that he decides to burn down the Owl Creek Bridge as a way to aid the Confederate cause. Ambrose Bierce does not go into detail as to why Farquhar cannot enlist, but he writes,

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 (4).

Farquhar's insecurities and longing to participate in the fight against the North motivate him to risk his life by destroying the Owl Creek Bridge. Farquhar essentially feels inadequate because he is not a Confederate soldier and, thus, does not have numerous opportunities to fight Union troops.

Another internal conflict involves Peyton's inability to accept his fate. While waiting to die with a noose around his neck, Farquhar fantasizes about escaping. Farquhar imagines a scenario where his noose snaps and he falls into the water below. Farquhar's inability to accept the difficult reality is illustrated by his continual thoughts of escape before he is hanged.

The external conflicts throughout the story concern the belligerents involved in the Civil War and Peyton's struggle against the Union soldiers who are about to hang him. Throughout the story, the Union Army is fighting a war against the Confederacy, which seceded from the Union in 1860. Peyton's conflict begins when he is manipulated by a Union spy to burn down the Owl Creek Bridge. Unfortunately for Peyton, he is arrested and hanged by the Union soldiers stationed at the Owl Creek Bridge.

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In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," what are both the internal and external conflicts in the story?

The external conflict is, I think, a little easier to describe.  Peyton Farquhar is about to be hanged for the crime of attempting to burn down the Owl Creek Bridge, part of an important railroad line, during the Civil War.  Therefore, an external conflict exists between Farquhar, who would prefer to retain his life, and the Union soldiers who hang him.

However, the crux of the story -- and what makes it really interesting -- is the way time strangely slows down while Farquhar awaits his punishment and as he falls into the noose.  His internal conflict isn't a typical kind of conflict; he isn't torn between two things that he wants or doesn't want.  His conflict seems to arise from the fact that he cannot seem to accept his fate; it's as though the conflict exists between reality and his mind.  He is able to imagine that he escapes, swims the creek, travels miles and miles through the woods, and finally arrives at his home, a journey that should take a whole day or even two, all in the brief moment during which he drops from the bridge.  It is as though his senses, in his mind, have become preternaturally keen, but what is actually happening is that he is concocting a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy of escape.  Unable to cope with his reality, Farquhar creates a conflicting one within his mind, and this makes the final lines of the story -- where the noose snaps his neck -- all the more jarring for the reader.

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