An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge | Study Guide

Ambrose Bierce

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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge | Themes


Nature of War

Many of Bierce's stories deal with the nature of war, often contrasting the glorious vision that men have of going to war with its painful reality. Bierce experienced both of these aspects of war himself. His family enrolled him in a military academy when he was a teenager, and late in life Bierce mentions how "zealous" and idealistic he was about fighting for freedom. At the same time, the Civil War was a particularly ugly internal conflict. Bierce participated in some of its bloodiest battles and was severely wounded, personally witnessing war's brutal, disgusting reality.

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" exposes Farquhar's assumptions about war by ruthlessly revealing his unrealistic expectations about becoming a war hero. He is tricked into trying to destroy the Owl Creek bridge, a mission for which he also lacks the requisite practical skill. He fails to destroy the bridge, and the Union Army catches him right away. At the very moment he hangs for his crime, he is still absorbed in his own war fantasy, imagining a brave escape as bullets whizz around him. It is relatively easy to focus on one side of war: to paint a romantic, idealistic picture of its glories, or to provide a dark, cynical view of it, as Bierce himself did in other stories. What's striking about this story is how smoothly it integrates both sides of this complex reality.

Perception versus Reality

Throughout "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Bierce highlights the tension between perception and reality. What one perceives, especially through the five senses, may be an unreliable way to assess reality. For example the literal ability to see is very important in this story, especially for its main character, who looks about him for the last time as he is about to be executed. So is the closely related idea of experiencing a vision, a mental image that is not based in reality but strictly in a person's mind. Along with Farquhar, readers may also feel unsure at times of what is real versus what is merely the perception of reality throughout the story.

In Part 1 Bierce sets the stage for readers by providing a realistic visual description of the bridge, a man standing on it with a noose around his neck, the soldiers, and the surrounding countryside of northern Alabama. But Bierce also withholds information from readers at crucial points in the story. By withholding some details until Part 2, for example, Bierce forces readers to piece together information and to rely on these perceptions based on limited information. Bierce also shows how Farquhar's sense of reality is limited by his perception. He can see the railroad tracks, but as they vanish in the distance they become invisible to him because that is literally as far as his eyes can see. The water that in reality is "racing madly beneath his feet" under the bridge appears to him to be "sluggish," or slow-moving, because this is how he mentally sees it. Farquhar is about to be hanged, and this circumstance alters his perception of reality.

During Part 2 of the story, Farquhar cannot see past the Union soldier's disguise as a Confederate soldier. He mistakenly takes the man's uniform as visual proof of the man's identity, which causes him to fall for the man's deceptive suggestion that the Owl Creek bridge can be burned. Farquhar takes appearance for reality, and this eventually leads to his death. In Part 3, as Farquhar makes his way back to his home, there are many visual clues that should indicate he's no longer in a real landscape but instead in a figment of his own imagination. Farquhar catches a brief glimpse of his family, mistakenly thinking that he has escaped and finally come back home, just before he actually dies. This mistaken perception is tragic because it is revealed as an imaginary moment of pure wish-fulfillment crushed under the ultimate reality—death.

Desire for Autonomy

Throughout this story, Farquhar desires intently and usually impotently. The entire story takes place either with Farquhar bound by invading soldiers, thinking back on the circumstances that kept him from enlisting, or hallucinating his escape in the short time it takes for him to be hanged. In Part 1 he stands waiting for his death, wishing he could escape and see his family again. In the first paragraph of Part 2, the narrator describes how intensely Farquhar wishes he could play an active role in the war but cannot, for reasons that are undisclosed. Early in Part 3 he wishes he would die through being "hanged and drowned" rather than shot, which is not something over which he has control. At the very close of the story, he reaches forward to embrace his wife, only to jerk to his death by hanging. Farquhar can't ever successfully act on his desires.

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