silhouette of a man half submerged in water wiht a noose around his neck

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Ambrose Bierce

Start Free Trial

What is the purpose of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

Quick answer:

The purpose of the story is to describe the process of being hanged as concretely and clinically as possible. Farquhar's death can also be seen as a critique of "heroism"—the patriotic ideals that led to Farquhar's capture and execution are as delusional as his fantasy of escape.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are several ways you can think about purpose in Bierce's story. Clearly, one purpose is to provide a visceral description of what it is like to be hanged. In this, his goal is a kind of psychological realism. Bierce focuses on the actual process of hanging and the degree to which the one being executed loves life and hopes for rescue.

This purpose is best understood in comparison to another story of execution, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum." Poe's story is much more gothic in tone, and his purpose is to elicit specific emotions in the reader: first, suspense and terror, then, at the moment of rescue, euphoria. Bierce's story is more concrete and realistic: the details of Farquhar's execution are given with clinical accuracy. In fact, there is no "plot" to the story; all that "happens" is that the man is killed. The elaborate fantasy of escape that concerns much of the story and provides the "plot" is revealed at the end to be a final delusion at the moment of death. This is a kind of trick Bierce plays on his readers, but it is the same one Farquhar plays on himself, so in a sense, the ruse of escape is a way for Bierce to make the reader feel what Farquhar is feeling,

Another way of understanding the story's purpose is to see it as a critique of war and "heroism" in general. Farquhar considers himself a Confederate patriot; unable to serve in the army, he is desperate to do his part. When a federal scout, disguised as a Confederate soldier, plants the idea that he could sabotage the Owl Creek Bridge, Farquhar is eager to do so but has walked straight into a trap. He is betrayed by his own foolish enthusiasm; the story suggests that Farquhar, and perhaps the South itself, never had a chance.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial