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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge | Study Guide

Ambrose Bierce

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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge | Symbols


The Bridge

The Owl Creek bridge is important enough to the story for Bierce to include it in the title and in the story's first line: "A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below." Bridges are common symbols in dreams and art. Because of where they are located (crossing rivers or ravines), bridges symbolize change. To cross a bridge is to move from one place, literally or metaphorically, to another, symbolizing characters making a journey or crossing a boundary. In particular, bridges often represent places where heroes make the transition from one realm to the next, such as when they pass from life to death or the afterlife. This certainly applies to Farquhar, who, as a man about to be executed, is crossing the boundary from life into death. When he attempts to escape the horror of his execution by shifting from reality to a world of fantasy, it is significant that he floats as far away from the bridge as possible. At the end of the story, it turns out Farquhar is still on the bridge, from which his dead body swings.

The Road

Roads often represent a path through life, or the metaphorical direction one's life will take. Choosing which road to take represents choosing one's destiny. In Part 3 Farquhar emerges from a forest to wander down a road, but there is nothing normal about it. For one thing the road shows no signs of "human habitation." While it provides Farquhar with a vantage point from which he can see the stars, they look unfamiliar and threatening. The "black bodies" of the trees line either side of the road like walls, until they disappear at the vanishing point on the horizon, much as the railroad tracks vanish from Farquhar's view in Part 1. Nevertheless, Farquhar continues down the road, despite its sinister atmosphere, and it eventually leads him home. But the road is imaginary, a figment of Farquhar's imagination, and so is the home to which he returns. His journey on the road has a different meaning. Farquhar sees the road as strange and disturbing because, in truth, it leads him to his death.

Owl Creek

Rivers act as boundaries, dividing one portion of land from another, and their waters are continuously moving and changing. Often, crossing a river symbolizes moving from one realm to another. In Greek mythology the dead must cross a river to reach the underworld. Moving water also symbolizes moving between reality and the world of imagination. When Farquhar imagines that the noose has broken and he has dropped into the creek below, its waters allow him to escape and return home, if only in his mind.

In Greek mythology an owl accompanied Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and since that time owls have symbolized wisdom. For many cultures, however, owls have a more ominous meaning. Because they are nocturnal animals, they are associated with the supernatural or mystical world, including the underworld, the home of the dead. The owl's dual symbolism is perfect for Bierce's story. Its main character meets his death by hanging due to his ignorant pursuit of glory and heroism. Farquhar goes to a world of his own devising as he dies, imagining that he has fallen into the creek, which magically transports him to shore so he can make his journey home, taking him across the boundary from reality into imagination.

Questions for Symbols

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