An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge | Study Guide

Ambrose Bierce

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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge | Quotes


A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below.


This line focuses the reader's attention on the main character in his physical context. It is specific about the setting, which is realistic (a railroad bridge in Alabama). But it does not identify anything specific about the man, who goes unnamed, or why he is standing on a bridge looking at the water below.

This creates an immediate sense of mystery and suspense; who is this man, and why is he there? It also places readers in a position of having a limited perception of what is really happening, which sets up the story's eventual surprise ending.


It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge.


This is one of the first places where Bierce explicitly limits the knowledge provided in the story, not just for the reader, but for characters. He continues to use this strategy throughout the story: characters will act with only limited knowledge of their surroundings, the larger picture, or even, ultimately, knowledge of their own life or death. These soldiers don't question what they don't know; they simply do their duty and accept their limited perception of reality as part of that duty. Readers also remain in the dark about what has actually happened to Farquhar until the story's final sentence.


The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.


This is a good example of Bierce demystifying romantic views of war such as Farquhar's. Here Bierce is quietly but clearly commenting on war's democratic nature: gentleman or not, unmarried or married with children, if someone is on the wrong side of the conflict, they will die. Bierce had served as a common soldier, as a noncommissioned officer, and as an officer. He would know that in war, anyone considered a traitor, no matter what that person's social status, will hang. It is an instance, as the story later notes, of the "frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war."


He looked a moment at his "unsteadfast footing," then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet.


The phrase "unsteadfast footing" comes from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1: Act 1, Scene 3. Hotspur, a hot-blooded would-be hero, speaks with his uncle, Worcester. Along with a third man, Northumberland, the three men are plotting against the king. Worcester offers to share some dangerous information "as full of peril and adventurous spirit/As to o'erwalk a current roaring loud/On the unsteadfast footing of a spear." Hotspur is so enthusiastic about this that Northumberland says, "Imagination of some great exploit/Drives him beyond the bounds of patience." For readers who knew Shakespeare, this line would be a signal about Farquhar's character. Farquhar particularly resembles Hotspur in his relentless "imagination of some great exploit"—he is the sort of man who dreams of glory, but overreaches himself. The result is that Farquhar winds up on "unsteadfast footing" on a bridge over a roaring creek, as he awaits his death by hanging.


How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!


Throughout this story, time becomes distorted: it often slows down. This starts with the pace of the narrative: almost nothing actually happens in Part 1, as Bierce slowly and methodically sets the stage for what is to come. Here Farquhar notices how slowly the stream moves, and his observation differs from the narrator's, whose opening line mentions the "swift water" below the bridge. This signals that Farquhar has started to perceive his world differently from objective reality. From this point anything from his perspective will be distorted and its timeframe slowed down.

Bierce follows this with the episode in which Farquhar's watch slows down, until each tick sounds like a pounding. This foreshadows the most extreme distortion of time in the story, which is Farquhar's vision after he is hanged. The events in his vision seem to take all night to occur as he escapes the soldiers, swims to safety, and makes his way to his home. In reality they take place in the time between the sergeant stepping off the plank to let Farquhar hang and the moment his neck snaps.


He chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction.


This rather mysterious sentence in Bierce's story follows the sentence just before, when Bierce tells readers Farquhar is "naturally" a secessionist. In the sentence that comes after, Farquhar says that he would do literally anything to help the Confederate war effort. However, Bierce undercuts all of that with this sentence, which refers to Farquhar's "longing" to become a hero.

It is unclear why Farquhar does not go into the army, which leads to some interesting speculations, none of which may be complimentary to him.

If Farquhar didn't serve as a soldier because he was a coward, that would mean his desires don't match his capacity to fulfill them, which is somewhat tragic. If he is too poor to leave his farm to serve, that's very different but suggests he might not be as competent a planter (and planner) as he thinks he is. It is also possible that he cannot serve due to physical or mental limitations of some kind, which go unspecified. Whatever the case, Bierce here suggests that Farquhar will fail when he tries to be a hero (which in fact he does). He certainly comes across as being perhaps too hungry for an "opportunity for distinction."


How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?

Peyton Farquhar

When Farquhar discusses the possibility of helping the Confederacy in some way with the fake Confederate soldier, he reveals how limited his knowledge of the world really is. The soldier answers that the bridge is 30 miles away. While that's nothing in terms of modern motorized transport such as a car or train, it also isn't very far for a man on horseback, and it is no more than a long day's walk for a man on foot. This tells the reader Farquhar barely understands the countryside in which he lives. He is a parlor hero, a hero only in his own mind. This shows that as noble as his aspirations are, in the end he is not the man of action he wishes he were.

This exchange also serves a second purpose. Once Farquhar is hanged, he supposedly makes his way all the way home, a distance he does not know, in the dark. He does this after being hanged, dropped into a river, shot at, and spun around. He is completely disoriented. This foreshadows the fact that Farquhar is not really returning home at all, but living a fantasy of his own devising.


Suppose a man—a civilian and student of hanging—should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel ... what could he accomplish?

Peyton Farquhar

When Farquhar asks this question, he is being careful, or at least he thinks he is. He believes that he's gathering knowledge from the visiting soldier that he'll then put to his own use. However, the reality is the soldier is luring Farquhar in. Here Bierce uses verbal irony. Farquhar intends to say that he will be a student of hanging to avoid it. In reality he'll become a student of hanging in the most literal way: he will be hanged.


He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands.


After he is hanged, Farquhar essentially breaks into component pieces. He doesn't realize he's trying to escape until he realizes he's tearing at the rope around his hands. In this sense his body and mind are divided from one another. He knows he is trying to free his hands not because his mind tells him that is the case, but because he feels physical pain. This is an example of situational irony, in which the outcome of a situation is the opposite of what was expected. His efforts to free himself, which he (and possibly the reader) is convinced are actually happening to him, are imaginary. In fact he is in the process of dying, unable to escape his fate of being hanged.


He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance.


As Farquhar travels down the weirdly uninhabited road after his supposed escape, he looks up at the stars, but they don't look right. They appear "unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations." Farquhar thinks he sees a meaningful pattern in them, but it remains "secret and malign," beyond his ability to interpret. While he believes he has made a heroic escape from being executed and is on his way home, the stars say otherwise. As readers will discover in the story's final sentence, Farquhar is walking through not a real landscape, but a psychological one. It helps him avoid the terrible fact that he can't escape his own death. This is something he likely does not want to recognize, but the truth won't completely disappear from his mind. It is reconfigured in the odd stars and the pattern he believes they form, which he reads as "secret" so he doesn't have to face it and "malign" because it points to his death.


His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen.


Farquhar doesn't know his neck is swollen from internal sensation alone. He must use his hand to confirm this. In this way he tries to verify reality using sensory perception, but he misinterprets the evidence. He assumes his neck hurts because the broken rope left a bruise behind. However, the reality his neck pain actually confirms is the fact of his death by hanging.


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


While Bierce foreshadows Farquhar's situation repeatedly throughout the story, at times quite heavily, this is the point where he removes all trappings and misdirection and explicitly states that Farquhar is dead. The details of the description take this debunking further. Farquhar's not in the river. He never made it into the river. All the images of swimming and tearing the noose from his neck are part of his vision as he dies. He swings side to side, echoing the beat of his watch early in the story as he is waiting to hang.

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