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 is the setting of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

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Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" takes place during the Civil War on a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, where Peyton Fahrquhar awaits his death by hanging as he stands on a plank twenty feet above the river. In Part Two of the short story, the reader learns that Peyton Fahrquhar's plantation is about thirty miles from the Owl Creek Bridge, which he plans on destroying to halt the Union soldiers' advance, after being manipulated by a Union spy. The specific time and date of which the events take place are never explicitly mentioned in the text. However, the reader is told that Peyton could not participate in the "disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth," which historically took place in late May of 1862. Therefore, one can surmise that the short story takes place sometime around late spring or summer of 1862. Overall, the setting of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" takes place on a bridge in northern Alabama around the summer of 1862 during the American Civil War.

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Generally speaking, the setting of a story is the time and physical location.  

The text of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" never gives an actual date to the story. The reader is able to know that the story must be taking place between April 1861 and April 1865, because those are the dates of the American Civil War. Interestingly enough, Bierce's original text opened the story by stating that it took place during the summer of 1862.

As for the physical location of the events in the story, the reader is told that the story happens in northern Alabama. 

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below.

As the story continues, the reader learns that the bridge that Farquhar is standing on is a relatively short distance away from his plantation. In part two of the story, the Federal scout tells Farquhar that Owl Creek Bridge is "about thirty miles" from the house.

"How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?" Farquhar asked.

"About thirty miles."

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The setting of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is the Southern United States, during the U.S. Civil War. This allows a clear delineation between two sides, allowing the reader to choose sympathies. The titular bridge is one that serves a railroad track, allowing Union soldiers better access to strategic points. When Payton Fahrquhar, a Confederate sympathizer, tries to sabotage the bridge, he is caught and sentenced to be hanged off the bridge itself as an example.

A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below.
[...]
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!

The first sections of the story are mild and slow, contrasting the relaxed atmosphere of the American South with the war effort waged across it. The "sluggish" stream is in counterpoint to the trains that cross the bridge, bringing rushing activity and death.

At the end, Payton is suddenly free to escape, and enters the woods around his plantation:

The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman's road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.
(Quotes: Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," eNotes eText)

Although this is all a dying dream, Payton can be said to feel the strangeness and isolation of his homeland, one he thought he knew but now finds alien. Before his attempted sabotage, he lived in peace, with only the news of the war and little interference; his hubris in trying to help instead of standing back brought him to his doom, and the bridge -- which acts as both a literal bridge and the "bridge" between life and death -- destroys him as completely as he wished to destroy it.

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There are two settings here.

The first is the literal, physical setting. The story takes place on a railroad bridge in Alabama (over, as the title indicates, Owl Creek). All the physical action happens there.

However, there is a second setting, which is inside the mind of the man who is being hanged. In the last instants of life, he moves off into a blend of wishes, dreams, and memories to envision himself swimming home. He remembers his past life and his plantation home, creating virtual settings…before death takes him.

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In part 1, we find out that this story is taking place in northern Alabama, in the deep South; more specifically, it takes place on a railroad bridge over a body of water called the Owl Creek. In part 2, the narrator tells us that the main character, Peyton Farquhar, owns a plantation and slaves and that he is "an original secessionist [who is] ardently devoted to the Southern cause." In other words, Farquhar very much supports the Confederacy and wants to maintain the practice of slavery. This tells us that the story is taking place sometime during 1861 and 1865, the years of the Civil War. Farquhar is being hanged for attempting to burn down the Owl Creek bridge in order to disrupt the Northern war effort. The reason for burning down the bridge indicates that the war is still going on, and so we can narrow down the timing to those four years.

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Briefly describe the setting of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

Setting, according to Literature:  An Introduction to Reading and Writing, is:

...the natural, manufactured, political, cultural, and temporal [time] environment, including everything that characters know and own.

So if you've read "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" all you have to do is apply the above to the story.  I can't write your paragraphs for you, but I'll mention some details to get you started.

Natural environment:  northern Alabama, a bridge at Owl Creek, near a local farmer's home.

Political/cultural:  North vs. the South, at war during the Civil War. 

Temporal:  during the Civil War. 

What characters know:  the importance of bridges during war time.

You can fill in the details and elaborate just by rereading or skimming the story.

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Briefly describe the setting of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

The short answer to this is that the story is set in the South (Alabama to be precise) during the American Civil War.

All of the actual action of the story takes place on a railroad bridge over Owl Creek.  On that bridge, Peyton Farquhar is being hanged.  He is going to be executed for trying to commit sabotage, which is not legal according to the rules of war.

There is some action in the story that goes on in a flashback.  For that, the setting is a "rustic bench" near to Farquhar's estate.  That is where a Union soldier in disguise gets Farquhar to thinking about sabotaging the bridge.

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Briefly describe the setting of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

The entire story of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" takes place on a railroad bridge in Northern Alabama during the American Civil War. Other events happen in the condemned man's (Peyton Farquar) mind, but the all of the actual action takes place on the bridge.

The railroad bridge is situated above Owl Creek (not a river!) with a small military fort located at one end. The tracks disappear into a forest about 100 yards away. The bank of the stream opposite the forest included

... a gentle slope topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge.

A temporary scaffolding was placed upon the tracks in a manner in which the condemned man would fall between the crossties. Farquar noticed mists downriver below the bridge.

Told in a flashback fashion, Chapter II reverts to Farquar's Alabama plantation some 30 miles away where he meets a thirsty soldier while sitting on a "rustic bench" on the edge of his property. Chapter III then flash-forwards to Farquar's imagined escape. After surviving the hanging, he manages to swim downstream and disappear into the forest, in which he travels all night before arriving back at his plantation home.

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Describe the setting at the opening of the story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

The setting at the beginning of the short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce," is the actual bridge itself.  The story's central location is "a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below" (1). The occasion is a military style execution by hanging. 

The author gives the reader early details about the setting in the exposition.  Little clues like "Federal soldier" and "a planter" suggest that the story takes place in the Civil War; this hunch is confirmed later in the story during Peyton's flashback.  The opening of the story also reveals that soldiers surround the bridge and numerous spectators a little farther away who have come to witness the hanging. 

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Describe the setting at the opening of the story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" was first published in his collection of stories Tales of Soldier's and Civilians (1891) and focuses on the hanging by Union troops of Peyton Farquhar, a wealthy southern civilian planter, who has, as we learn in the story, engaged in some sort of sabotage at the Owl Creek Bridge near his plantation.  During most of the Civil War, civilians who engaged in spying or sabotage, because they were not in uniform, were often summarily executed by military authorities--no trial, just a sentence of death and immediate execution usually by hanging.

Setting, according to Aristotle, comprises three elements: 1) historical--that is, the time period in which the story occurs; 2) geographical--that is, the general location of the story (for example, the country, state, county, town); and 3) physical setting--that is, the precise area of the story's action (for example, a room in a house, a library, a courtroom, an office).  Aristotle, in his Poetics, argued that all three elements of setting provide some necessary background information for the reader to understand fully the narrative.

In "Occurrence," then, the historical setting is the Civil War, sometime between 1861-1865, most likely 1862 or 1863 when Union troops were operating in that area.  We know from Bierce's comment that the general location is northern Alabama, and the physical setting is, of course, Owl Creek Bridge where Farquhar apparently committed his "crime" and where his is going to hang.

An interesting coincidence is that there is an actual Owl Creek in the Bankhead National Forest in northern Alabama.  Also, Bierce was an officer during most of the Civil War, and his main job was as a topographical engineer, a map-maker, and it would be natural for him to pick a bridge as the site of one of his stories.

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Describe the setting at the opening of the story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

In An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, the setting becomes apparent immediately. A hanging is imminent and will be performed in keeping with strict, military guidelines, despite the informality of the bridge on a railroad. The significance of these very strategic points (both bridge and railroad) in terms of winning and losing battles  must not be overlooked. Reference to Alabama and the Federal army do suggest that the American Civil war is the time period.

At this moment, time almost stands still. Even the ticking of a watch can be heard. The language is plain and the reader has no doubt that the "man" is in trouble as "a rope encircled his neck." The ceremony that accompanies this scene is formal and correct, in keeping with military expectations as "not a man moved." The precision with which the hanging will be performed is noteworthy.

Farquahar, a civilian, identified only as a "planter,"aged about thirty-five, will be hanged for an, as yet, undisclosed, reason. He is not a violent-looking man but even "gentlemen" have been known to have been hanged under "the liberal military code." 

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