Ambrose Bierce’s an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Essay Example
Author Ambrose Bierce, a Civil War’s Union Army topographer, often witnessed death first-hand and observed the heightened sensory response during death’s final moments, which he incorporated into his psycho-fantasy story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. This Tennessee bridge is not in northern Alabama as the story notes, but Bierce drew the map and fought upon this terrain during the Battle of Shiloh and used its western boundary—Owl Creek—for the story’s setting and title (Owens 82) because of his flawless recall. A Confederate wannabe soldier and sympathizer, Peyton Farquhar (the main character and the focal point of this literary analysis) travels through physical and dream states, distorted time dimensions, life-changing events (plantation master to war criminal), and detailed wartime occurrences to eventually attain nirvana through death. Bierce shifts readers’ perspective three times, which creates change of attitude, confusion, and suspense—all outcomes of irony attributed to Bierce’s switching narrators so as to distort each version of the story by creating ambiguity. The theme—literary manipulation via a human element–discusses Bierce’s mastery of the pleasure versus instruction principle, mirrored, contrasting personal beliefs (of the author and main character), the issue of death which creates different versions of reality, distortion of time, duality of emotion, different points of view, and altered perception, while structuring the story’s focus on Farquhar, a human symbol of suffering and death.
Bierce developed a writing style that manifested his personal character in that his stories mixed pleasure with learning. For instance, Bierce adhered to “the traditional principle that literature had dual purposes: to please and to instruct” (Berkove 136). An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge exemplifies these dual purposes: the pleasure originating from Bierce’s eccentric use of irony, flashbacks, perception, symbolism and style, and the instruction derived from the American Civil War’s events and the early 1860s social issues of slavery, land ownership, and judgment versus justice. Berkove viewed this principle as “a key to [Bierce’s] fiction,” and noted that “the pleasure comes from his wit, skill and sense of fun; the instruction derives from his reflections on the ideas and experiences he writes about” (126-137). Berkove felt Bierce’s writing mirrored his personal beliefs and surmised, “The unconventionality of his ideas and style, his concision, and the depth of his irony [were] separate manifestations of his character” (137).
In An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a good example of mirrored, contrasting personal beliefs appear in Bierce’s own views concerning military duty as reflected in Farquhar’s own personality. Bierce makes his contempt for Farquhar very concise when he bestows Farquhar with negative traits like avoiding military duty and inflating his own sense of importance (by believing he could help the Confederate cause by blowing up the bridge), which ultimately leads to his hanging. Farquhar’s negative traits are described in this quote which justifies his dodging of military service and his inflated importance: “Circumstances of an imperious nature … had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaigns …, and he longed for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction” (Bierce 487).
Farquhar’s impending death sets the foundation for his altered versions of reality. Death is instrumental because it complicates and explores levels of consciousness as a human approaches his demise. For example, Farquhar’s version of reality becomes more of a problem as personal events become less credible, as shown in the following quote, “As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge, he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened … by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation.” In the first sentence, Farquhar dies, but the second sentence tells of his neck pain and sense of suffocation—presumably felt because he is still alive.
Impossible life/death events continue to confuse reality by relating that Farquhar is “now in full possession of his physical senses,” and his new senses are “preternaturally keen and alert.” The next sentence, “Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined [his senses] that they made record of things never before perceived,” refers to a new heightened awareness of his environment, and this intense imagery is noted in nature’s magnified details: “the leaves and the veining of each leaf—[he] saw the very insects upon them. He noted the prismatic colors [of] dewdrops … and the humming of gnats …” (Bierce 489).
The story’s ending describes Farquhar’s moment of death, “As he is about to clasp her [his wife], he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!” (Bierce 491). Farquhar could not acknowledge a violent death by hanging, drowning or gunshot because his pompous psyche could not accept it. He toys with the idea and reasons, “To be hanged and drowned, he thought, that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair” (Bierce 488). However, his psyche will not let him accept death until he visualizes himself in the arms of his loving wife (Bierce 491). These excerpts exhibit the full range of a condemned man’s human psyche as he approaches death, and Bierce created passages like these to explore issues of consciousness, awareness, dying and the afterlife—factors that can also alter perception of time.
Time distortion causes time to move at different paces; i.e., time has a fluid quality in the story—it either races or crawls. During trauma or an extreme experience like war, Bierce noted that there can be an imbalance to time as seen through the eyes of an observer. For instance, a second of extreme trauma could be distorted into representing an entire day, which is what happens to Farquhar. One example of time distortion in the story describes the water as “swirling” and “racing madly” and then refers to it as a “sluggish stream” (Bierce 486-487)—which is one and the same body of water. Another example is the quirkiness of Farquhar’s watch chimes which sound simultaneously “distant” but “nearby” or “both” (Bierce 487). He builds upon the distorted time image by adding that the “intervals of silence grew progressively longer” as they increased in “strength and sharpness” only to discover that it was the “ticking of his watch” (Bierce 487). These distorted images of a flowing stream and ticking watch prove that Bierce uses time to show that trauma by hanging jolts Farquhar’s sense of reality.
Farquhar’s sense of reality versus non-reality (dream state) because of violent death makes one feel sympathy for him. Concurrently, one wants to side with the Union Army who already suffers many casualties because of war crimes like Farquhar’s anticipated one. This two-fold emotion is known as duality of emotion, and this literary tool gives the story a twist. A military hanging is a serious issue during wartime; an excerpt describing soldier stance and action elicits compassion in support of the military. The excerpts describing “parade rest” and soldiers exhibiting extreme concentration [“… not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge” (Bierce 486)] prey upon one’s emotion when realizing the extreme psychological ordeal each soldier experiences during time of war. We feel Farquhar’s pain in the following passage, “His neck was in pain and … he found it horribly swollen. …[I]t had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward … into the cold air” (Bierce 491). Thus, these two selections show duality of emotion in both the antagonist and the protagonist, and Bierce continues to cause intrigue by switching narrators.
Bierce changes narrators three times; i.e., he tells his story from three points of view. The first narrator tells the story from the beginning of Farquhar’s execution and its setting until the plank is removed from beneath Farquhar’s feet (Bierce 485-486). This unknown narrator has a limited view of the execution and relates the circumstances as he sees them from the outside. The second narrator—an omniscient, all-knowing, third-person narrator–begins when Farquhar realizes his “unsteadfast footing” (Bierce 486) and he begins to notice distortions in the physical world like quirky time intervals (Bierce 487) and the inconsistent pace of the stream (Bierce 487). The third narrator is a third-person narrator with limited omniscience who only knows what is happening in Farquhar’s mind. He appears when Bierce enters the deceased Farquhar’s mind (the dream or unconscious state) in which he hallucinates, shifts perspectives, and creates new realities that allow miraculous escapes. Farquhar becomes “encompassed in a luminous cloud … without material substance” and he swings through “unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum (Bierce 488).” He sees microscopic details in nature like the “veining of each leaf,” and “prismatic colors in … dewdrops upon a million blades of grass” (Bierce 489). He sees the normal movements of soldiers as “grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic” (Bierce 489). These selections support the changing of narrators and alternating points of view in the story. Bierce continues to create controversy by using the literary tool of altered perception.
To understand altered perception, one needs to imagine a triangle. At the beginning of the dream state, Farquhar’s perception is wide as it encompasses the sky, the entire Federal stockade and the bridge from his place in the stream [“… the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky” (Bierce 489)]. As perception sharpens and narrows in Farquhar’s hallucination, he falls in the river. “When he reaches the riverbank, he runs along a road where the black bodies of the trees form a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective (Conlogue 264).” When Farquhar reaches this point, he dies. This passage supports the theory of altered perception: an artist draws his image in reference to a particular point; he begins with the widest perspective and works back to the original point (Conlogue 263).
Thus, the human element theme, as portrayed by Farquhar, shows how Bierce employs such literary tools like the pleasure versus instruction principle, mirrored yet contrasting personal beliefs, death and its different versions of reality, time distortion, duality of emotion, alternative points of view through the changing of narrators, and altered perception states, by incorporating them into Farquhar’s character to create a psycho-fantasy about a doomed Civil War criminal. Bierce uses a full range of visual, abstract, audio and sensory perceptions to tell this story. Concurrently, Bierce’s style and literary tools gives a breath of life to the story as if it was really happening, which should be a lesson for every writer to use literary mechanisms to give the reader a deeper understanding of the physical and abstract meanings of words and the thoughts they represent.
Berkove, Lawrence L. A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002. Print.
Conlogue, William. “Beating the Bounds with Ambrose Bierce, or Learning to Read without Getting Shot.” Studies in Short Fiction 36.3 (1999) : 263-276. Print.
Kennedy, X. Joe, and Dana Gioia. An Introduction to Fiction. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009 Print.
Owens, David M. “Bierce and Biography: The Location of Owl Creek Bridge.” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 26.3 (1994) : 82-89. Print.
Time is precious
don’t waste it!