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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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Themes

The main themes in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" are time and mortality, reality and perception, and the futility of war.

  • Time and mortality: Bierce dramatizes time's inevitable passage towards death, as well as the experience of time in the face of death.
  • Reality and perception: The story creates a tension between the reality of Peyton's situation and his subjective perception of it.
  • The futility of war: The story suggests that war is brutal and unkind, particularly towards those who idealize it.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Time and Mortality

Time figures as a central theme in the story. The ticking of Peyton’s pocket watch moments before his hanging, the primary image of time’s passing, is described as “the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil.” Just like the metal upon the anvil, Peyton is about to be transformed by time. The clock’s ticking becomes a death knell. Not only does the story explore the idea that time can be unforgiving, it also shows how perception defines time. 

Bierce explores the complex nature of time first with a misdirection: when Peyton is still alive, he perceives his ticking clock as a slowing, deepening gong. This demonstrates how time can flow differently and more slowly in a time of anxiety and crisis. Since Peyton is waiting to be hanged, his perception of time is altered. Therefore, it is natural that when Peyton falls in the water and experiences each moment with slowness and clarity that the reader assumes he is perceiving real time differently. 

The twist in the story is that what Peyton is experiencing is not real time at all but a kind of dreamed or imagined time. Bierce implicitly poses the question of whether this dreamed time is less real. While the passage of time is inevitable, as the story shows, the experience of time is more complicated and subjective. This subjective nature of time is expressed through the changing of tenses towards the end of the story. As Peyton glimpses his wife, the narrative switches into the present tense to suggest how keenly he is experiencing time. Yet in the very next sentence, it snaps into the past tense: “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung

gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.” This final shift establishes that the escape from time is impossible. 

Time is treated as inescapable and circular, as emphasized by Peyton’s sojourn in the woods. The forest, which can be seen as symbolizing time, seems “interminable,” and he lays “his course by the rounding sun.” Even when day gives way to night and back to day again, Peyton ultimately arrives where he started: the time and place of his hanging. This circularity is indicative of the cycle of life and death. 

Closely linked with the theme of time is that of life and mortality. Peyton’s experience of time and life heightens as he approaches and undergoes death. Indeed, as Peyton makes the passage to death, his senses are described as “preternaturally keen and alert.” Reality for him becomes vivid, exaggerated, and hallucinatory, as evidenced by his ability to hear the beating of a dragonfly’s wings. This shows Peyton’s need to record every bit of reality and moment of life in the face of death. Significantly, dragonflies and gnats, which Peyton now notices, are themselves symbols of the brevity of life. 

Though the inevitability of death and the march of time may seem to be bleak themes, the text is not nihilistic. It subtly suggests that because life is short, it must be appreciated while there is time. As Peyton nears his end, he thinks of his wife and children, the things which mattered most in his life. It is the precious time with his family he sacrificed in the quest for false glory.

Reality and Perception

The story can be read as a meditation on the differences between objective reality and the subjective ways we perceive reality. Though it may seem that reality and perception are binaries, the story makes the subtle point that perception itself forms reality. 

To begin, the way the soldiers and Peyton experience his hanging are starkly different. For the soldiers, it is just a procedure to be carried out; for Peyton, the condemned, the hanging is the end of life itself. The soldiers will move onto another task and another day. But for Peyton, the experience of reality is radically altered at the moment of death. In this sense, there is no such thing as an objective reality. 

The narrative conveys this theme by playing with the readers’ experience of truth and fiction. Are Peyton and the narrative being truthful about his escape, or is the escape only a lie they are telling Peyton and the reader? This question hangs heavily over the text, making the reader consider what is real. The greater irony that the text deploys is that of course neither of these possibilities is true in any ultimate sense, because whatever is happening is a work of fiction by Ambrose Bierce. Yet that work of fiction is informed by universal human experiences, such as the desire to escape death, and by historical realities, such as the Civil War. Therefore, the story suggests that reality and perception don’t exist as separate binaries but as interdependent aspects of experience.

Altered perception and deliberate illusion help human beings to cope with the unforgiving nature of reality. Fiction offers comforts life cannot and is therefore a necessary tool to survive. At the moment of death, Peyton soothes his psyche by imagining what would happen if he managed to escape the noose. This line of thinking is essential for him to weather the unbearable moment.

Such wishful thinking and imagination are important illusions. While the illusions of choice, freedom, and escape are necessary for survival, the text views certain other illusions more negatively. One such illusion is the notion that war is glorious and romantic. Peyton romanticizes war and lives in the illusion that a perceived act of heroism will bring him immortal glory. This act itself proves his undoing. He is unable to see the reality that war is destructive and that there is no glory in egotism, and he suffers for this.

The Futility of War

Early on in the story, the narrative sets up the contrasting images of the lone individual against a group of soldiers. While the individual is passive, as he must be, being bound, the soldiers are busy and efficient. Yet, they are described in curiously static terms, with the sentinels carrying their rifles in “the position known as support,’ that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest—a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body.”. The chief executioners, the sergeant and the captain, are interchangeable, swapping positions to carry out the hanging. The soldiers at the ends of the bridge do not know what those in the center are doing. The picture that emerges is of a mechanical army, the soldiers unaware of the larger context of their actions, behaving altogether as cogs in a machine.

The narrator observes with irony that the situation is so colorless because “silence and fixity” are ideals in the military. The silence and fixity aren’t just restricted to the situation at hand; the narrator refers to the larger wartime code of silencing the truth and rigidly adhering to one’s position. Soldiers need to harbor these notions, because if they don’t, they would see through the brutal reality of the military enterprise. In the story’s moral universe, war is futile, destructive, and violent.

This idea is further enhanced by the way the narrative juxtaposes Peyton’s detailed final thoughts with the brief final twist of the story, which reveals that Peyton has in fact been hanged to death. The ending is not merely present for shock value, as some critics have argued; rather, the terse ending is a deliberate and meaningful commentary on the nature of war. Peyton has romanticized war to the degree that he wants to prove himself as a man and a soldier even at the cost of risking his life. In his last moments, he tries to romanticize dying. But the truth is that there is no romance in war. War leads to swift and mundane death. The idea of the empty violence of war is heightened by the description of the soldiers firing indiscriminately at Peyton, even firing a cannon at him. In his reverie, Peyton begins to realize the real nature of war.

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