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(Course Hero, 2017)
Course Hero. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Study Guide." July 13, 2017. Accessed December 2, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/An-Occurrence-at-Owl-Creek-Bridge/.
Course Hero, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Study Guide," July 13, 2017, accessed December 2, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/An-Occurrence-at-Owl-Creek-Bridge/.
Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth analysis of Ambrose Bierce's short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.
The story opens with a man standing on a railroad bridge in Alabama during the Civil War. He is a civilian, about 35 years old. His hands are tied. There's a noose around his neck. Union (Federal) soldiers have prepared him to hang and now stand beside him. A soldier guards each end of the bridge. Beyond the stream, a company of infantry soldiers watches the scene.
The two privates standing directly beside the condemned man step back. The sergeant salutes the captain and stands behind him. The sergeant's weight now holds down the board the condemned man is standing on. When he steps away from the board, the man will drop down and hang to death. The man who is about to hang looks down at the stream moving slowly below him and then thinks about his family. He hears a metallic pounding getting louder and louder but realizes it is his ticking watch. He imagines getting free and somehow making his way home to his wife and children. As he thinks these things, the sergeant steps off the board and lets him fall.
The second part of the story is an extended flashback that shows how the condemned man ended up on the bridge. The man's name is Peyton Farquhar. He is a Southern planter who owns slaves. He supports the Confederate's secessionist cause. Circumstances prevented him from joining the Confederate army, but he wishes he could because he feels he is a soldier at heart. He wants to do whatever he can to help their cause.
One evening a man dressed as a Confederate soldier comes to Farquhar's property and asks for a drink. While Mrs. Farquhar gets him some water, Mr. Farquhar asks for news. The man says the Union Army is fixing the railroads and preparing to advance again. They've taken a position at the Owl Creek bridge. They've announced that anyone who interferes with the bridge, railroad tracks, or trains will be hanged. Mr. Farquhar asks what one man could do to the bridge. The soldier thinks about it and says the previous winter left a lot of dry wood nearby, which could be used to burn the bridge. Mrs. Farquhar returns to give the man his water. He drinks, thanks her, and leaves. A little while later the man passes the plantation again, heading north. He is not really a Confederate soldier at all, but a Union scout.
The third part of the story starts the instant at which Part 1 ends, just after the sergeant steps off the plank. Peyton Farquhar passes out as he falls straight down. He then feels himself wake up, a long time later, from intense pain. The pain starts in his neck and then moves through his whole body. He can't think well; he can only use his senses to attempt to grasp what is happening. He hears a loud splash and a roaring, and suddenly he can think again. He realizes the rope around his neck broke. He's under water and sinking in the river. Everything gets darker.
His hands hurt, and Farquhar realizes he's trying to wrestle free from the rope binding them. The rope breaks. His hands tear at the noose around his neck, without any conscious decision, and he pulls it free. His body still hurts all over. His hands, though, seem to act on their own accord. They push him to the surface. When he breaks the water, the sunlight blinds him, and he screams.
Farquhar now feels everything intensely. He sees everything around him, such as plants and insects, in vivid detail and then sees the soldiers. They point at him. He hears a sudden sound and feels a bullet hit water near his face. The swirling water takes Farquhar the other way. He hears the soldiers chanting orders and knows it means an officer has taken command of the situation. Farquhar hears the order for the whole company to fire, and he dives deep under water. He hears and sees the bullets move through the water, some of which graze him.
Farquhar resurfaces to breathe and realizes the stream has taken him away from the soldiers and toward safety. The soldiers are still firing but fail to hit him. He swims on, his brain working as furiously as his arms. He thinks that he can't dodge all the shots, and then he feels a tremendous splash near him and realizes that they've fired a cannon at him.
The stream suddenly spins him around and around, until everything seems to blur together into nothing but a swirl of colors. The water deposits him on the stream's south bank, behind a point that partially shelters him from the soldiers. He's overjoyed to be on solid ground again. Farquhar touches the sand and gravel on the bank, which seem to be as beautiful to him as gemstones. The entire world seems beautiful. The plants seem like something he'd see in a garden, the light is wonderful, and the wind sounds as lovely as celestial music. A blast of grapeshot from the cannon disrupts this perfect scene, and Farquhar gets up and runs away into the woods. He can't find any breaks or trails in the forest. He can't understand how the country where he lives is so untamed. Farquhar must find his way using the sun to guide him.
When night comes, Farquhar is tired and starving. He can only keep going by thinking of his beloved wife and children. Finally he stumbles across a road. It is broad and straight, but there are no signs of anyone on it. There are no houses or fields nearby, and trees line it like walls. When he looks up, Farquhar sees strange stars overhead. He hears odd noises from the woods, including someone whispering in languages he doesn't know. Farquhar's neck hurts. He touches it. It is swollen, and he knows it is black. He can't close his eyes. He's so thirsty his tongue is swollen. The road is so soft he can't even feel it under his feet anymore.
Even though he's suffering, Farquhar keeps walking, sleeping as he continues down the road. He suddenly comes to and finds himself standing in front of the gates to his home. The morning sun is shining, and he thinks he must have walked all night. He passes through the gate and sees Mrs. Farquhar coming down from the veranda to greet him. She's smiling, and he leaps forward with his arms open to hug her. Suddenly, just as he's about to embrace her, he feels a blow on his neck and sees an intense white light. Everything goes dark and quiet.
All of this had been a vision in the moment since the soldiers hanged him. Peyton Farquhar is dead, and he's hanging at the bridge from the noose.
As the story opens, Bierce provides a few markers to indicate the story's time and place. This orients readers to a degree. However, Bierce leaves everything else about the situation unexplained. Readers don't know Farquhar by name yet: they see only an anonymous man. They don't know who he is, what he's done, or even what side he's on. The soldiers are likewise unnamed. This opening creates a mystery and generates possibilities. Who is this man? What did he do? Why is he in this position?
This places readers in a difficult position. Some information is known: the setting, the position of the soldiers, the way Farquhar's hands are bound, the noose around his neck, the boards upon which he stands. The mood is clearly formal and serious. Other information, however, is limited. In addition to withholding the main character's name until Part 2, Bierce uses qualifying language in his description of the main character, reminding readers that they have to make approximate judgments based on physical evidence alone. Farquhar "was apparently thirty-five years of age"; he "was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit," or clothing; "evidently, this was no vulgar assassin." In addition to the readers, the characters themselves suffer from limited knowledge. When Farquhar looks beyond the bridge, the railroad soon disappears into the trees. He doesn't know where the railroad goes beyond that point. Even the soldiers standing at the ends of the bridge, guarding it and keeping others off it, may not know what's happening on the bridge.
In Part 2 Bierce describes a complicated game of incomplete knowledge that Farquhar plays with the visiting soldier. When Farquhar asks about the Owl Creek bridge, he betrays a damning lack of knowledge of his own surroundings. Farquhar's ignorance foreshadows his doom. Bierce recognized the importance of knowledge. In a letter he wrote in 1911, he stated, "To feel rightly one must think and know rightly." Since Bierce served as a topographical engineer for a time during the Civil War, surveying and mapping land for the Union Army, he knew just how important knowledge of the lay of the land could be. Farquhar as portrayed in the story does not know what he's doing, is only a wannabe hero, is not a real soldier, and is unprepared for the moment of his death, as many men would be.
The first paragraph of Part 2 mentions the fall of Corinth. Period readers would likely have recognized the name of this April 1862 battle. Corinth, Mississippi, was strategically important because two railroads met there. Tens of thousands of men fought on each side. This is the sort of heroic battle Farquhar dreams of fighting in (and that Bierce did take part in). But his reality is completely different. He is fooled by the enemy into attacking a prepared position, and his dream of glory is revealed as pathetic and out of touch with reality.
Throughout this story there is considerable tension between stillness and motion. This begins with the story's opening: Farquhar is motionless, but the water below is moving quickly. The soldiers guarding each end of the bridge are essentially motionless. The sentinels standing near the creek are as still as statues. This is part of the larger distortion of time in the story. The biggest gap between stillness and motion, and the biggest tension, comes in Part 3. Farquhar only actually moves a few feet through this entire section of the story—the length of the rope from which he's hanging. But he feels as if he has taken a harrowing journey that lasts through an entire night into the next morning. He goes downstream, dodging bullets and cannon fire. He travels through a forest until he reaches a strange road that eventually leads him to his own home. This tension between stillness and motion points out the gap between what Farquhar, and by extension the reader, perceives and the reality of his situation.
Near the end of Part 1 Farquhar thinks about his beloved wife for the first time. He must close his eyes to do so. When he does, he sees her as part of a unit: "his wife and children." He thinks of her several other times but never names her. His thoughts of her include very little specific detail about her personality, nor does she have any dialogue. She is always anonymous and usually part of that same family unit, as when he thinks of his "wife and little ones." As a result his wife remains two-dimensional, less a human being than a concept—the worshipful, dutiful wife, a feminine ideal.
This isn't the main point of the story, but it underscores Farquhar's character. Just as he deceives himself about the nature of his heroism, so he deceives himself about his great love. He never sees his wife any more specifically than at the end of the story, where she looks "fresh and cool and sweet" and is wearing "female garments." Just as Farquhar's main quality as a hero is that he believes he is a greater hero and warrior than he is, so he believes his love is greater and more real than it is. Does he really love his wife? Or does he simply love the idea or image of her?
Decades before Bierce wrote this story, Edgar Allan Poe had published "The Tell-Tale Heart." Critics often group Poe and Bierce together because of their dark themes, their interest in abnormal psychology (and strange circumstances), and their inclusion of unreliable narrators. Readers encounter all three of these shared characteristics in this story, plus an additional link: the sound of a ticking or beating that swells until it seems to overwhelm the main character. In "The Tell-Tale Heart" this sound comes from the disembodied heart of the man the narrator killed. But a disembodied heart cannot actually continue beating. What the narrator hears is an auditory hallucination, a sound he imagines because he feels guilty about the murder.
The ticking watch in Bierce's story also offers some frightening insight into Farquhar's state of mind. Here Bierce actually increases the disturbing effect the sound produces by having it turn out to be no more than a watch. What should provide some relief to Farquhar, who realizes he is in fact hearing a familiar sound, becomes even scarier. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it is an ordinary object, Farquhar's discovery that what he really hears is his own watch is so unnerving because it reveals the truth about his state of mind. The stress of his situation as he is about to be hanged has distorted his sensory perception so he can longer perceive reality accurately.
The last sentence in Part 1 is: "The sergeant stepped aside." That line is clear, direct, and matter-of-fact, and it also signals a fundamental change in what's happening in the story. When the sergeant steps aside, he takes his weight off the board Farquhar is standing on. In other words, that one step hangs Farquhar. Part 1 ends with a line that generates change.
The line that ends Part 2 generates change also, in the form of a reversal: "He was a Federal (Union) scout." This creates massive dramatic irony because readers now realize they must reverse the meaning of everything they think Farquhar experienced during this section of the story. Farquhar is not putting one over on the scout; the scout deceives Farquhar. Farquhar is wrong to trust the scout or even to sympathize with him. What Farquhar and the story's readers perceive the man to be (a Confederate soldier) is not who he actually is.
Given how the first two parts of the story end, readers can expect the third to end with a reversal that fundamentally changes things, and it does: "Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge." Just as the final line of Part 2 reverses the meaning of the part it completes, the last line in Part 3 reverses the meaning of the entire third part. Then it takes it one step further by reversing the entire story as readers realize that Farquhar's escape is nothing more than a fiction, Farquhar's last desperate illusion as he experiences death by hanging. The readers' perception of the story's reality is turned upside down.
Part 3 takes the theme of perception and reality to a new level. In Parts 1 and 2, the story includes objective descriptions of concrete details, such as the setting and the physical position of the characters. It takes place during a real historical event, the Civil War, in which Bierce himself had actually fought as a soldier. The location, too, is real (northern Alabama), and people were in fact executed for treason by hanging during the war. The story takes only occasional turns into the subjective viewpoint of the main character as he looks at the stream flowing under the bridge, closes his eyes to remember his wife and children, or misidentifies the sound of his watch. This subjectivity, however, only adds to the story's realism by portraying what someone in such a situation would likely experience as he waited to die. Part 2 shows how Farquhar got into his predicament. Again, it is detailed and believable.
Initially, the descriptions in Part 3 seem realistic too, or at least able to be explained in a rational way, but an increasing tension exists between what is real and what is illusion. What Farquhar at first sees and hears seems credible precisely because his senses take over in a moment of panic after the rope supposedly breaks and he drops into the water below. If Farquhar's senses are heightened, more "keen and alert," they would likely be so for anyone undergoing such a sudden, dramatic escape from death. And Farquhar proves capable of telling the difference between his sensations and his thoughts, which appears to show that he has some grasp of reality.
In addition Bierce includes convincing descriptions of Farquhar's physical pain and his struggle to reach the surface of the river. Persuasive sensory details of what Farquhar touches, sees, and hears abound. He feels the cold sensation of the water and the noose still around his neck, sees the light grow as he floats toward the surface, and hears the voices of soldiers above him. Even the disembodied way he sees his hands pull at his noose could be explained by the extremity of his situation. The exaggerated way he sees the veins on every leaf or hears the "audible music" of "the beating of the dragon flies' wings, the strokes of the water spiders' legs" could also be accounted for by the shock Farquhar experiences at finding himself alive after such a close brush with death. The story again appears to reference reality as bullets hit the water and a cannon is fired at Farquhar when he desperately tries to swim to safety. Again the sensory details seem to be based in the real world. For example, he hears "deflected shot humming through the air ahead ... cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond."
However, the opening paragraphs of Part 3 cast some doubt on what is really happening by offering some clues that all is not as it appears. The first paragraph describes how things "seemed," a verb Bierce repeats twice. He also uses the verb appeared in a similar way. Here Bierce reminds the reader that this part is about not what is true, but what seems or appears to be true (for Farquhar). And unlike Parts 1 and 2, Part 3 takes place entirely from Farquhar's point of view, which makes it subjective and therefore suspect. Later in that same paragraph, Bierce describes Farquhar as moving through "unthinkable arcs of oscillation," echoing Farquhar's swinging body on the rope in the story's final lines. Since many period clocks used a pendulum, this also reintroduces the concept of time and links the passage of time to the movement of Farquhar's own body.
In addition, when Bierce first describes Farquhar in Part 1, he mentions his gray eyes. With the new intensity of his senses, Farquhar can see that the man looking (and shooting) at him from the bridge has gray eyes: a gray-eyed man is trying to kill a gray-eyed man. This may be a signal that Farquhar is aware of his own death on some level. However, these clues are subtle, and the sensory imagery is much more dramatic and direct and therefore more likely to distract readers from the truth of the situation.
Starting with the third paragraph of Part 3, Bierce describes what Farquhar senses much more vividly, and Farquhar himself is aware of how much more intense his sensations are than normal. Along the way Bierce continually signals readers that these sensations are new, even unnatural: Farquhar is experiencing sensations he's never felt before. This raises the question of the relationship of Farquhar's perception to reality. His perception of what is happening to him starts to become less credible when "suddenly he [feels] himself whirled round and round—spinning like a top." Now everything is a whirl of color that prevents him from distinguishing any real objects, since they are all "commingled and blurred."
The river eventually brings him to the southern shore. This is another of Bierce's subtle signals about Farquhar's status. In many myths crossing a river symbolizes moving into a new realm. Farquhar started on the northern side; now he's on the southern side. Once there, everything is different. The sand looks like jewels, and the trees look like they belong in gardens. The light is "roseate," as if he's seeing the world through the cliché of rose-colored glasses. He hears "Aeolian harps," which are otherworldly sounds made by the wind (originally, the Greek god Aeolus). Perception and reality are increasingly parting ways. The nature of this realm isn't clear at this point. However, once the story ends and Bierce indicates Farquhar is dead, the details of this section will acquire new meaning. They'll realize Bierce was strongly suggesting Farquhar was dead throughout this section.
Bierce underscores how strange this new realm is many times. Farquhar knows he's only 30 miles from home, but he moves through a land that's completely alien to him—far more wild than he would have thought possible. When he does stumble across a road, it seems unreal: it is wide, straight, and clear, but there is no sign of anyone living there or walking on it. It is completely straight and stretches to the horizon. He sees alien constellations above him, which he's sure form patterns that show "secret and malign significance." Around him he hears voices, but they are speaking a language he does not recognize. Nonetheless, the physical pain he endures feels real enough, as he is "fatigued, footsore, famished," his neck bruised, his tongue swollen, and his feet numb.
Despite this, his desire to see his family and a kind of narrative momentum carry him (and readers) on. And despite his foolishness (for attacking the bridge, for thinking he could escape, for being fooled by the spy), Farquhar gathers a kind of tragic nobility. He keeps going on, despite the pain around his neck and being completely lost. Combine these, and Bierce's message for the reader is clear: this is not a physical road, but a conceptual road, or a road that symbolizes death. The rope breaks Farquhar's neck, and the entire story falls into place. It was all a vision. Farquhar had experienced a series of breaks that were so lucky they had seemed almost impossible. These events seemed almost impossible because they really were impossible. They never happened. All of Part 3 is actually a vision that seems to take a full day to pass but that could take only a few seconds at most.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Plot Diagram