Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge By Bierce

Essay, Research Paper

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" can be considered a work of

realism for three reasons. The first is Bierce’s utilization of his own military

background giving this story a sense of authenticity. Bierce also conveys his

cynicism after leading the reader to believe otherwise. Finally, this story

provides social critique of the south during the Civil War. Bierce goes to great

lengths to describe the opening sequence in terms of its military arrangement.

He provides vivid images of troop formations and soldier stances like "a

single company of infantry in line, at ‘parade rest’ the butts of the rifles on

the ground, the barrels inclining backward against the right shoulder, the hands

crossed upon the stock." (Bierce 269). He also takes the time to describe

exactly how fortified the Owl Creek Bridge is. He shows his military experience

by describing a road that stretches out of site and assuming that

"Doubtless there was an outpost farther along." (Bierce 269). The

procedures of a military execution were explained thoroughly including the code

of conduct: "In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms

of deference." (Bierce 269). Bierce earned the nickname "Bitter Bierce"

(Bierce 268) early in his life for his cynicism. This is not evident in this

story until the end. The third and final part begins with a sequence of

miraculous occurrences allowing Peyton Farquhar to escape from his hanging. The

description of these events leads the reader to believe that Bierce is a

Romantic author rather than a realist. The rope breaks dropping him into the

creek. He then uses his "superhuman strength" (Bierce 272) to remove

the rope from around his neck. Peyton is then blessed with augmented senses

seeing the veins on leaves in the forest and hearing gnats and dragonfly wings

in the distance. He then sees the eye of a marksmen on the bridge through the

scope on the rifle. Amazingly, this marksman misses what should be an easy

target and allows Farquhar to swim farther downstream. Peyton then manages to

avoid a barrage of bullets, cannon fire, and finally grapeshot and is only

wounded by one bullet. In contrast to the first part, the scenery is now

described as a dream world of "strange roseate light", trees that look

like "giant garden plants", and "great golden stars" (Bierce

274). He describes the arrangement of the trees as having "definite

order" and the stars are in order of "secret and malign

significance" (Bierce 274). This suggests what Peyton is seeing is

contrived rather than real. The author also gives more direct hints to what

happens in actuality. In the first part Farquhar imagines how he would escape

while he is waiting to be hung which coincidentally is how it happens. In the

end, his final thought is of his wife greeting him at the front gate. This is

revealed initially in the first part: "He closed his eyes in order to fix

his last thoughts upon his wife and children." (Bierce 270). Another

indication is the reference to the single bullet to hit him in the water. The

wound is to his neck and described as uncomfortably warm. This is much like the

description of how the noose felt around his neck. The cannonball that hits

nearby creates a wave that "strangles" Peyton. Later in Farquhar’s

journey his tongue is swollen and his eyes no longer shut. His tongue is stuck

out and he loses feeling of the ground. These are all physical manifestations of

his hanging that intrude on the escape fantasy. Just as Peyton approaches his

wife is when Bierce finally reveals Farquhar’s true fate. He feels a blow to the

back of his neck and then there is darkness and silence. After painting a

picture of Peyton Farquhar’s miraculous escape, Bierce brings cruel reality by

allowing him to be executed thereby showing his cynicism. The third aspect of

Ambrose Bierce’s writing that makes him a realist was his use of social critique

of the Civil War southerner. Peyton is a wealthy Alabama plantation and slave

owner who is therefore devoted to the southern cause. His patriotism can be seen

by his desire for service in the "gallant army that fought in the

disastrous campaigns" (Bierce 271). Peyton knows that his "opportunity

for distinction" (Bierce 271) will come and feels that no task is too

small. He is not to serve in the confederate army due to "circumstances of

an imperious nature" (Bierce 270). This statement shows that the only

people who didn’t fight the battles were the only ones who stood to gain from

victory. Volunteering for the Union Army himself, Bierce mocks the Confederate

cause. It is when a Confederate soldier arrives at his home that Peyton knows

his opportunity has arrived. He asks the soldier enthusiastically about the Owl

Creek Bridge and despite hearing the warning of execution continues to ask

"Suppose a man-a civilian and student of hanging-should elude the picket

post and perhaps get the better of a sentinel, what could he accomplish?" (Bierce

271). While it shows that he wants to be a hero for the South it also reveals

that he has most likely hung slaves before. This is probably done to show

another flaw in the southern cause. Peyton and his wife view the soldiers of the

Confederacy with the greatest of respect. Peyton’s wife "was only too happy

to serve him with her own white hands." (Bierce 271). This could be

interpreted in two similar ways. The first is that her delicate hands are

typically not put to work due to wealth. The other is a direct reference to

race. She respects the ideal of a soldier so much that she is willing to do a

slave’s work to show her appreciation. To show his appreciation, Peyton is

willing to leave his family and risk his life to do something to help the South.

It is this blind patriotism which causes him to lose sight of what is really

important, his family. The delusion of his escape from execution finally made

him realize that he wanted nothing else than to be with his family.

Unfortunately, Bierces cynical style of writing only lets him find out when its

too late.

Bierce, Ambrose. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Norton

Anthology of American Literature: Volume 2. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. New York: W. W

Norton, 1998. 268-275.


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