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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge | Study Guide

Ambrose Bierce

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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge | Context


The Story: Origins, Influence, and Adaptations

For a period during the Civil War, after the Battle of Shiloh, Bierce was stationed in Alabama with the 9th Indiana Volunteers. Their job was to protect the vital railroads running between Nashville and Chattanooga that were essential for the Union to maintain control of Tennessee. During that time, many Southerners tried to sabotage these railroads. This exhausting experience provided the specific inspiration for "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Bierce also served at three executions, fulfilling the same duty as the soldiers supervising the execution in this story.

Bierce may also have drawn on other aspects of his experience to write the story. When he was a child he had a rich dream life and repeatedly dreamed of strange landscapes, lights, shapes, and scenes. As a result of his own head wound during the Civil War, Bierce had blackouts and experienced direct shifts in consciousness. Though he didn't publish an essay on the electric chair until 1891, as a politically informed journalist Bierce would have been aware of its development in the 1880s and its testing in 1890. When Bierce did publish this essay, titled "The Chair of Little Ease," he argued that people don't really know what electrocution is like for those executed. He speculated that the experience may well stretch out a very long time, much like what Payton Farquhar experiences in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Bierce even speculates that execution may result in "unnatural exaltation of the senses," which changes into "unthinkable cycles of time"—an apt description of what Bierce's protagonist endures as he imagines his escape during the moment of dying.

Bierce first published "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" in 1890 in the San Francisco Examiner. He included it the following year in the collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (later retitled In the Midst of Life). The story became Bierce's most famous and has been widely reprinted and taught. Despite its popularity, however, its critical reception has been mixed. In Understanding Fiction, literary critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren group it dismissively with similar stories such as French writer Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace." They argue that such stories rely on surprise endings for shock value, rather than having authentic literary substance. Critic W. Gordon Cunliffe tags the story as "old-fashioned" and groups it with American short story writer O. Henry's work, which also relies on plot twists for effect. Critic William Dean Howells, on the other hand, claims Bierce was one of America's three best writers while he lived. More recently Bierce's reputation has undergone a revival as critics have come to acknowledge his skill with prose and narrative construction.

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" has been adapted many times. A silent version titled The Bridge was filmed in 1929, and the story was the basis for an episode of the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1959. In 1963 a French film version (La rivière du hibou/The Owl River) won an award at the Cannes Film Festival for best short production and was later shown on The Twilight Zone in the United States. The story has been adapted for radio at least six different times. It has been retold in music videos, portrayed in a comic book, and, in 1981, developed into an opera.

The American Civil War

The American Civil War is also known as the War Between the States. It lasted four years (1861–65). Eleven states in the Southern United States seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy. Several factors contributed to this departure. The Northern and Southern states had different economies. The Northern economy was modern and industrialized while the Southern economy depended heavily on agriculture. Slavery was a major element of the Southern society and economy. The two regions had been struggling politically for years prior to the war over how to deal with the issue of slavery and whether to expand or restrict it. The two regions also had ideological differences. They disagreed on the issue of states' rights and the proper role of the federal government, as well as the more abstract issue of freedom. The South believed it would win the war based on the assumption that it had better military leadership.

Because Bierce fought in the Civil War, his war stories contain a sharp selection of sensory detail. While many period writers wrote pieces celebrating heroic warriors or retelling battles, Bierce's writings on the war are much darker. He rips away delusions about war's glory and instead focuses on issues such as humiliation and slaughter. Initially Bierce had been as idealistic about war as any young volunteer, but his service destroyed that attitude so completely that Bierce later said the war had killed his younger self.

Stream of Consciousness

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a forerunner of the literary technique called stream of consciousness, which emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries along with the study of the human mind—psychology. This technique emphasizes the conveyance of characters' internal states by reproducing the flow of characters' thoughts through perceptions, emotions, and reactions; this flow is not always logical. For this reason, in writing that utilizes stream of consciousness, a character's thoughts and feelings may leap around in time and space. They may blend the real and the imaginary by including fragments of passing impressions, memories, or dreams.

The first two parts of Bierce's story are largely realistic and focus on the external world, with only occasional mention of the main character, Farquhar's, subjective point of view. Part 3, by contrast, is written almost in its entirety as Farquhar's stream of consciousness. This section of the story describes how Farquhar experiences the moment that occurs between his drop downward and the snapping of his neck. The stream-of-consciousness technique allows readers to inhabit the mind of the man as he dies.

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