Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” ends with the revelation that Peyton Fahrquhar is dead, victim of the hanging to which he had been condemned by the Union forces that had taken him captive.
Bierce’s story is about a Southerner, a planter committed to the Confederacy but unable to participate in the Civil War as a combatant due to, as the story’s omniscient narrator states, “circumstances of an imperious nature,” the details of which are unnecessary to relate. Bierce, as is common to such stories, is meticulous in his descriptions. Peyton is to be hanged as a Southern sympathizer who, the Union officer fears, could confront his own forces at some point as an active combatant or spy.
The details of the preparations for the hanging are provided in minute detail, as are the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations experienced by the condemned man. When Peyton’s body hits the water, therefore, and begins his journey home, the reader is led to believe that the hanging was a failure and the intended victim was able to escape. As the story progresses, Peyton struggles to regain his consciousness while evading capture by Union soldiers. He is determined to reach home, where his wife and children will lovingly accept him.
Throughout his narrative, Bierce has made a point of acknowledging Peyton’s love for his family. As “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” reaches its denouement, Peyton arrives home. Bierce describes the scene as follows:
He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence! Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
Peyton’s fall into the creek and escape from captivity and execution is revealed as a dream—the final mental images from the subconscious brain of a man as he passes from life to death.