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 major events in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

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Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” follows the hanging of Alabama planter Peyton Farquhar, who was caught planning to burn Owl Creek Bridge. Farquhar drops from the bridge and into the water, swimming rapidly away as the soldiers fire, then pulls himself up onto land and runs for home. At the end of the story, however, Farquhar's body hangs from the bridge, and readers are left to decide what really happened.

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As Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” opens, we see a man standing on a railroad bridge with his wrists bound and a rope around his neck. He is about to be hanged by Union soldiers. The narrator describes the prisoner, a man about thirty-five years old, as a planter and a civilian with a “kindly expression.” Yet this man is about to drop to his death, and we readers wonder why. As the soldiers make their final preparations, the narrator describes the man's thoughts. He looks down at the stream so far below and remembers his family. He hears the loud ticking of his watch and thinks that if he could only free his hands, he might have a chance to escape. With this thought, the narrator plants a seed in readers' minds.

Just as the Union sergeant steps aside, ready to complete the hanging, the story flashes back, and we learn that the man on the bridge is Peyton Farquhar, an Alabama planter who has had the misfortune to hint at his plans to burn the Owl Creek bridge in the presence of a Union scout.

The story then shifts back to the present, and readers watch as Farquhar drops from the bridge and straight into the river. Something has happened. The rope around his neck breaks, and after a few moments of near drowning, he surfaces in the water. Then the soldiers on the riverbank see him and open fire. They miss, and Farquhar begins to swim rapidly away. But then the cannon opens upon him. He whirls around in the water before catching the gravel on the shore and pulling himself up onto land, running flat out toward home as the cannon shot whizzes above his head.

Just as Farquhar reaches home and sees his wife, running toward her with arms outstretched, he feels a “stunning blow upon the back of the neck” and sees “a blinding white light.” Then all is dark and silent, and Peyton Farquhar's body swings from the Owl Creek bridge.

Readers are left to interpret these events and to decide for themselves whether Farquhar really escapes only to be recaptured and hanged a second time or whether the whole thing is the desperate final vision of a dying man.

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Ambrose Bierce's short story "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is justly famous for its twist ending and use of misdirection.

The story begins with the main character, Peyton Farquhar, a saboteur and large slave owner, is about to be hung for trying to destroy a railroad bridge.

The next major event is Peyton remembering that a Confederate soldier asked him to sabotage the bridge. He later turned out to be a Union soldier in disguise.

Then the rope around Peyton's neck breaks and he falls into the creek. He frees his hands and swims to avoid shots from US troops.

He then leaves the creek and walks through the forest. At night, he begins to see and hear things.

The next morning he finds himself back at his plantation. He runs to his wife.

Then he feels a blow upon his neck. There is a loud noise and a flash of light. Peyton never escaped. He imagined everything between falling from the bridge and the noose breaking his neck.

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In Part One, Peyton Farquhar is standing on loose boards with a rope around his neck waiting to be hanged by Union troops. Bierce describes the position of the Union troops on the bridge and depicts the solemn atmosphere of the moment. As Peyton awaits his death, he has a "kindly expression" on his face and begins to experience time slow down. Peyton then looks down upon the water and begins to formulate a plan of escape.

In Part Two, Bierce provides information on Peyton Farquhar's background as a wealthy plantation owner, who is deceived by an undercover Union soldier. The Union spy tells Peyton Farquhar that the Union troops are stationed at the Owl Creek Bridge, which is a strategic railway for their southern advance and is poorly guarded by a single sentinel. The soldier suggests that Peyton could easily destroy the bridge and aid the Confederacy's cause, which intrigues Farquhar.

In Part Three, Peyton Farquhar images the noose breaking when he is dropped from the bridge and falling into the river below. Peyton then imagines himself avoiding the rifle fire from Union troops and swimming to freedom, where he climbs onto an embankment and travels home. As soon as he returns home to his plantation to greet his family, the reality of the situation returns and Peyton is executed.

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In Part I, we are introduced to Peyton Farquhar, a plantation owner and secessionist very much devoted to the Southern cause, just as he is about to be executed by some Union soldiers.  Just when he is about to be hanged, he tries to "fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children," and he begins to feel as though time is slowing down.

In Part II, we get more background on Farquhar, including what it was that led to his death sentence: a Federal scout told him how important the railroad lines, especially the bridges, are to the Union and gave him some information about how easy it would be to burn one particular rail bridge down.  He also mentions that the penalty for interfering with the lines is death.  We can assume that this is the crime for which Farquhar has been sentenced.

In Part III, Farquhar imagines that the rope snaps, he gets away, walking through the woods day and night, until he is just about to reach his wife's arms.  Suddenly, his neck snaps in the noose, and Farquhar hangs dead.

Those are the key events of each part in a nutshell.

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One of the most important events in the story is Peyton Farquhar's execution. He's hanged from a bridge by Union soldiers for conspiring to commit an act of sabotage, a very serious crime in wartime. Peyton was lead to commit this capital crime by a man who he believed to be a Souther soldier, who urges him to destroy the bridge in order to hold up the advance of the Union army.

The Southern soldier turns out to be no such thing, of course; he's a Union trooper in disguise. But because Peyton is such a loyal supporter of the Confederacy, he's willing to do whatever it takes to assist the cause, no matter how risky. One could argue that his fateful decision to try and blow up the bridge is the most important event in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," as it leads directly to his death by hanging, which is the story's main dramatic focus.

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The story's main event is revealed at the end when Peyton Farquhar is hanged "from the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge." The rest of the story's events are either the reminiscences of Farquhar or his desires expressed as a fantasy, such as the reunion with his wife in the moments before his death.

The story opens with the event of soldiers standing sentry at either end of the bridge while officers oversee the preparations for a hanging. The event that led up to Farquhar's condemnation is replayed: a Union scout in the guise of a Confederate comes to the house, and the fateful conversation between the soldier and Farquhar regarding the bridge takes place.

The event of Farquhar escaping the noose and being fired upon in Owl Creek does not actually take place; it is the detailed fantasy that Farquhar creates to distract himself from the agonizing truth of his imminent execution.

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

The non-traditional layout of Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Bridge" definitely makes it more difficult to identify all of the plot structure elements.  The climax is particularly difficult to discern because of the way Bierce has structured the story; the beginning of the climax occurs as Farquhar stands on the edge of the bridge on a plank, convinced that he will die:

"His plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties" (I).

Right at the end of Section I, the officer does step to the side, leaving the reader to imagine that Farquhar has plunged to his death, but instead of following though with the chronological action, the author gives the reader a flashback to previous events, revealing how Farquhar was set up by a Union spy.  The climax in this story is that moment in which the reader wonders--does Farquhad die in the hanging, or does he escape and return to his family?  Bierce suspends the moment by providing Farquhar's imaginings to the reader, by giving them the following action of the rope breaking and Peyton's difficult escape.

In the end, Bierce returns to the original premise of his climax--does Farquhar live or die?  He finally addresses the outcome in the resolution of the story, just as Peyton returns home to his wife:

"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" (III).

The climax of the story is the true turning point of the action; in this case, even though Bierce suspends the action throughout the story, the true climax is the moment of Farquhar's hanging and free fall.

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What occurrence provides the climax for the story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" exudes drama as it tells the story of Peyton Farquhar, a planter escaping his execution with seemingly supernatural luck. This drama, however, comes to a head with the final, climactic moment of the piece. The climax of this story comes in the moment of Peyton's death, ripping him out of his dying fantasy.

As he is about to clasp [his wife], 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!

The next paragraph in the story contains the last sentences in the piece, which reveal that all the events since the end of the first section are imagined by Peyton during the proceedings of his hanging.

Bierce includes several hints throughout the short story—each more disconcerting than the last—as to how the piece will end. Several of these hints come from the story's disorienting, inconsistent, and overly convenient events. For instance, the soldiers at the bridge are described as "unarmed" right before they all shoot at Peyton. Also, it would be a little too convenient for Peyton to successfully escape the ropes around his neck and hands, dodge barrages of shots, escape a whirlpool, find his way through sprawling nature in the dead of night, and walk home, asleep, without perishing from thirst or injuries.

The most interesting clue Bierce includes is the sudden change of verb tense at the end of Peyton's journey. As he miraculously arrives home, the story shifts from past to present tense as Peyton sees an idealized, dreamlike version of his life—with white walkways; the sweet, feminine presence of his wife; and his own overwhelming joy. This all sets the scene perfectly for an unexpected twist, and the reader is left heartbroken after the reveal that none of Peyton's great escape ever really happened.

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In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," what are the main events?

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is not structured in a traditional manner with the events occurring in chronological order. The story is divided into three parts, with Part II being a flashback; the events in Part II occurred before those in Parts I and III. Arranging the events in the order they occurred, then, becomes the reader's responsibility. Bierce further complicates the structure of the story by including those events that happened in real time and those that happened only in Peyton's mind.

That said, here are the events that make up the plot of the story.

1. At his home, Peyton speaks to a Union spy, believing that the soldier is a member of the Confederate army. From this conversation, Peyton gains information about the location of the Union forces  and the condition of the Owl Creek Bridge. The spy implies that burning the bridge would be an easy task.

2. Peyton attempts to burn the bridge and is captured. (This event is not detailed in the story; it is implied because Peyton is about to be hanged in the story by Northern soldiers at the bridge.)

3. Peyton is hanged from the bridge, his execution being carried out in a formal military manner.

4. During his execution, Peyton's mind protects him from the horror of his impending death. He imagines hitting the water, freeing his hands, dodging bullets, and making his escape to return to his home. Peyton's reverie ends with his wife reaching out for him--just as he hits the end of the rope, breaking his neck. These are events in the story, but they happen only in Peyton's mind.

The events in the story that actually occur in reality are minimal: Peyton talks to the wrong soldier and is hanged from Owl Creek bridge.

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

The main theme of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is death, both the way humans seek to avoid death and their own mortality and the nature and experience of death itself.

In the moments before his death, Confederate sympathizer and saboteur Peyton Farquhar imagines a scenario in which he escapes his hanging, swims to safety amid gunfire, and makes a long journey to his home and loving wife. This scene is only revealed to be a daydream at the end, when the narrator describes the moment of death and states,

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

In Farquhar's fantasy, Bierce explores the human desire to avoid death. Farquhar's case is hopeless: he has been caught by the enemy, he has a noose around his neck, and his execution at the hands of the Union is moments away. Yet in his final moments of consciousness, he imagines escaping.

Bierce also highlights the nature and experience of death itself in this story. Readers may well ponder if they, too, would imagine scenarios moments before their death. But before his escapist fantasy, Farquhar seems to feel that he should spend the moments before his death in a certain way:

He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift—all had distracted him.

This quote clearly demonstrates the finality and almost ceremonious solemnity with which humans see death's nature. Farquhar feels that he should spend his last moments of consciousness thinking about what is presumably most important in his life: his family. To spend these "last thoughts" on the "distractions" of the scenery seems wasteful and wrong to him, given the solemn nature of death.

Farquhar's experience of death is depicted in minute detail, from the way he seems to sense his life ticking toward a close with the sound of his watch to the way he seems to perceive time as passing slowly as he watches the stream below him. The author even imagines what the experience of the moment of death itself would be like for a person being hanged:

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!

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When do the events in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" occur, and what do they explain?

We know that Ambrose Bierce's short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," takes place sometime after October 1862, since the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Corinth (October 3-4, 1862 in Corinth, Mississippi) is mentioned in Part II. Although no specific date is given in the story, it could take place as late as 1865, since the Yankee spy who entraps Peyton Farquhar tells him that 

"The Yanks are repairing the railroads," said the man, "and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank."

There were few battles during the Civil War in Alabama, but an invasion of the state known as Wilson's Raid (led by Union cavalry General James Wilson) took place in March-April 1865 in the last months of the war. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest's small command was unable to deter Wilson's much larger force.

In the short story, Farquhar is lured by a Union spy dressed as a Confederate soldier to burn the Owl Creek Bridge. He is caught in the act and is sentenced to hang from the same railroad bridge that he was attempting to destroy. The author uses the hanging to fool the reader into believing that Farquhar has miraculously escaped death: The hangman's rope breaks, Farquhar swims away and makes the long walk back to his plantation. Just as he is about to greet his wife, Bierce returns the reader to reality. Farquhar has not escaped after all: His escape has just been the final, fleeting moments of life leaving him--a wishful but hopeless scenario flashing before his eyes as he dangles from the Owl Creek Bridge.

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What's the scene in the first paragraph of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

We learn in the first sentence that the story is set in "northern Alabama" atop a railroad bridge that spans "swift water twenty feet below." There is a man held prisoner, his "wrists bound with a cord" behind his back, and a loop of rope that "closely encircled his neck." In case we weren't sure that this loop is actually a noose, some of the soldiers there are referred to his "executioners." We also learn that this man is being held by privates of the "Federal army," and this permits us to conclude that the story takes place during the American Civil War—sometime between 1861 and 1865—because this is the only era in which the Federal army would be lodged in Alabama and involved in executing people. The bridge is guarded by two sentinels who block the foot paths across so that no one can interrupt the proceedings.

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What's the scene in the first paragraph of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

An unidentified man is standing on a railroad bridge (presumably the Owl Creek Bridge) in northern Alabama. He is about to be hanged: His hands are bound and tied, and his neck is in a noose, which is "attached to a stout cross-timber above his head." Several boards are placed across the railroad tracks on which the man stands. Troops of the Federal army--two privates and a sergeant--stand guard; a captain is also present; and on either end of the bridge are two sentinels who serve as sentries without apparent knowledge of the events that are transpiring between them.

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

Although we don't know the man's name nor exactly what crime he has committed during Part I of the short story, we do know that a man is about to be hanged on a railroad bridge in northern Alabama--presumably over the Owl Creek of the title. The man who has a noose about his neck is dressed in civilian clothes while the rest of the men present are in Federal army uniforms. They have prepared a makeshift gallows: The noose is attached to a beam above, while the condemned man is standing on a board that hangs only part way across the tracks. A Union sergeant stands on the other secured end. When the sergeant steps off the end of the plank, the condemned man will fall between the railroad ties.

The condemned man is apparently a Southern sympathizer and a plantation owner. As he awaits his death, he becomes fixated on the passing of time: how "sluggish" the current is below, and how the ticks of his watch seem as loud as "the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer." The intervals between each tick slows to "maddening" intervals. He thinks of his wife and children back home as the Federal officer gives the signal for the sergeant to step aside.

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