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 key plot elements of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?

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Creating the standard plot chart for this story isn't quite as straightforward as it is for other short stories. The reason for this is because the story isn't told chronologically. A fairly substantial flashback occurs in part 2, so a reader has to decide whether or not that is part of the exposition, rising action, or both.

I don't feel comfortable saying that the exposition is entirely in section 2. Readers are introduced in section 1 to a man being hanged. The story begins en medias res; however, that still counts as an exposition. This starting format is a standard "how did we get here" approach, and we aren't given many details of who the main character is before being hit with rising actions involving the soldiers moving into their final positions before dropping the man from the bridge.

I would claim that part 2 is a big rising action in and of itself as well. It doesn't fit chronologically because it gives exposition details about who Farquhar is and why he was on the bridge; however, the entire section adds massive tension to the story because readers know the man is falling, but we are ripped away from that moment. Bierce is holding our tension for a longer period of time by not letting us know what is happening to the man on the bridge. Section 2 ends with another small piece of information that further increases tension because we are told that Farquhar was clandestinely setup.

An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come. He was a Federal scout.

Section 3 contains rising action after rising action. Farquhar's escape is both harrowing and miraculous, and things seem to get worse and worse. The climax occurs when Farquhar evades the final shot of grapeshot and plunges into the forest. Readers relax at this point, and Farquhar does as well. He's traveling home. This sequence is the falling action, and the conclusion is his death by hanging on the bridge. Readers realize that Farquhar imagined the entire escape.

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

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The exposition of the story, I think, consists of much of Part I, including the description of the bridge, the water, and the man being hanged. Then the rising action begins with the discussion of how this man closes "his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children" and how the ticking of his watch's second hand seems to slow down dramatically. The remainder of Part I, then, constitutes rising action, but, then, Part II returns to exposition, providing crucial background information that helps us to understand who Peyton Fahrquhar is as well as why he is being hanged: of what crime he might be guilty. The beginning of Part III, then, continues to provide more rising action; this continues until the second to last paragraph of the story. The turning point, or climax, occurs when Fahrquhar "feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck" and a "blinding white light blazes all about him," sounding like a cannon shot. The last sentence and a half encapsulate the falling action and denouement, or resolution, when "all is darkness and silence" and Fahrquhar's body is described as hanging from the bridge.

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The external structure of this story, with its division into three parts, is complicated. Because the events do no unfold in chronological order, the exposition-through-denouement pattern is also not chronological. To trace the dramatic structure, it becomes necessary to arrange events in chronological order. Here's the chronology of events in actual order: 

Peyton is described as a loyal Southerner who longs to participate in the war. He speaks to a soldier whom he assumes is a Confederate. The soldier is instead a Union scout who gives Peyton the idea of burning Owl Creek Bridge. Peyton attempts to burn the bridge and is captured. As the Union soldiers prepare to hang Peyton, his fear affects his mind as he surveys his surroundings. He is hanged. As his body falls into Owl Creek, his mind acts to protect him at the moment of his death as he fantasizes about escaping and returning home to his wife's arms. His falling body hits the end of the rope, breaking his neck. His dead body then swings back and forth from the end of the rope below the bridge.

In this chronology, the establishment of Peyton's character would serve as exposition. His discussion with the Union scout would comprise rising action which would continue until the moment Peyton reaches out for his wife's arms. The sharp pain he feels in his neck represents the turning point or dramatic climax of the story:

As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck . . . .

The falling action makes the reality of Peyton's situation clear:

. . . a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon--then all is darkness and silence!

Finally, the last paragraph of the story serves as its denouement:

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

By structuring his story in such an unusual way, Bierce creates a very shocking--and ironic--conclusion.

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