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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Last Updated on November 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587

Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded. (Part I)

The narrator notes that Peyton doesn’t look like a vicious criminal who would earn a hanging. He looks and acts noble and is distinguished by intelligent, kind features. However, as the quotation indicates, one’s appearance does not determine one’s fate in the hands of the military. This comment, suffused with dark humor, indicates that in wartime the status quo breaks down. Anyone who is from the opposite side is fair game according to the military code. Additionally, the comment could indicate that the notion of gentlemen not being criminals is false. This view is especially pertinent given the story’s Civil War backdrop and anti-slavery politics. Many cruel plantation owners looked genteel but were evil in practice. 

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Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. (Part 2)

This ironic and biting comment occurs in the exposition of the narrative, during a flashback to Peyton’s former life. Peyton is described as wealthy and genteel, from a well regarded family in Alabama. Yet the image is swiftly undercut by the ironic pronouncement, the truth behind the irony sharpened by the grouping together of all slave owners. All slave owners are politicians, because most of them are wealthy and influential. Most importantly, they are involved in politics because the politics that supports slavery keeps them wealthy. In two swift, satirical sentences, Bierce explains the combination of greed, politics, and racism that supported slavery.

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Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands. (Part 2)

The reference to Mrs. Farquhar’s “white hands” is pointed, because her white hands symbolize her privileged racial and socioeconomic status. Moreover, the whiteness suggests that these are hands that haven’t worked in the fields, in contrast to those of enslaved people. The fact that she serves the soldier with her own white hands also indicates that she considers him so important she does not ask a helper to give him water. Finally, her white hands symbolize the racism she and her husband practice, by promoting the enslavement of Black people.

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Latest answer posted February 9, 2012, 2:43 pm (UTC)

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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. (Part 3)

This image, conveyed from Peyton’s point-of-view, is bittersweet and poignant. He is finally in sight of relief and home, yet the reader can sense this image is a mere vision. The “wide white walk,” Peyton’s wife, and the veranda are all on the verge of being lost. This ephemeral image can also be seen as an embodiment of the story’s political philosophy: the antebellum lifestyle embodied by the depicted scene cannot persist.

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge. (Part 3)

The surprise ending of the story asserts the brutal reality of war. It is nothing more or less than death, as symbolized by the final, irreversible image of the body swinging under the timbers. The grotesqueness of the image is conveyed by the juxtaposition of the violently broken neck with the gentle rocking motion of the body. War is marked by just such a juxtaposition of brutality and mundanity.

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