An Occurance On Owl Creek Essay, Research Paper
English – Book Reports
Bierce and Hemingway
Death is an intriguing thing. From time immemorial we have feared it, used it, pondered it. Frequently, stories allow the reader into the minds of those immediatly surrounding the one who will die; but all of us “will die.” Our morbid interest is in dying, the going, that threshold between death and life. What happens there? There are similiarities and differences in how death appears to the protagonist, written by Ambrose Bierce in An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge, and Ernest Hemingway in The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
Bierce offers An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge to show the incredible fantasy that passes through the mind of a man as he dies. Hemingway’s engrossing description lies in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Here, on the African savannah, a man encounters death slowly and with excruciating lucidness. While the differences between the two stories are easy to enumerate, it is the simliarities that may offer the most insight into the minds of the authors and, perhaps, into the minds of us all.
The setting for An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge is northern Alabama during the Civil War. Peyton Farquhar (Peyton) is said to be a planter who is left behind by the Confederate Army due to circumstances “…of an imperious nature,” but he longs for the “release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction.” Immaturity seems the watchword for him; the eagerness with which he swallows the bait presented by a Union spy may give a glimpse of the lack of gravity in Peyton’s character that leads to his capture and to the fantastic attempt at escape or denial that his mind fabricates just before his death. Peyton is not a realist.
Harry is a realist. The protagonist in The Snows of Kilimanjaro faces his pending doom with distinct clarity and resignation. In fact, his insistance greatly distrubs his wife (naturally) who tries to cheer him up by telling him that help is only a day away, and all that is needed to make it is a positive attitude. Harry is positive. He is certain that he will die very soon. He knows the mistake that has sealed his fate. Although he would change the past if he could, he does not seem to lament his end except for the writing he will never do.
Here is a primary difference between Peyton and Harry. It may be the reason for the difference in how death appears to each of them. The mind of Peyton tries to deny reality and invents a fantasy that shields itself from deaths appearance until the bitter end. As a result, death has no form or character for him. It is only a sudden shock, a blow to the back of his neck followed by a blinding white light and a sound “like the shock of a cannon.” Finally, death assumes a common theme: darkness and silence. Harry confronts his death head on. He is looking for death and it appears to him as a presence that occupies space, has horrendous breath, and is somehow associated with a certain hyena that skulks about the camp.
The most noteworthy and shocking aspect of The Snows of Kilimanjaro is the appearance of death to Harry. Rather than the Grim Reaper spiriting him away, Harry’s death seems much more realistic and threatening. The first time he senses it, he relates:
It came with a rush; not as a rush of water nor of wind; but a sudden evil-smelling emptiness and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it.
The difference between the two stories points to the thing that makes each a gripping tale. Peyton escapes, seemingly, and his efforts at eluding the enemy seem noble and heroic; his desires for adventure are finally being fulfilled, and what a fabulous yarn it is. But wait; the shock at the back of his neck is almost equalled by the shock of the reader as he realizes the truth and Peyton dies. The abrupt end makes the story worth reading again.
In The Snows of Kilimanjaro Harry’s perception of death offers a breath-stopping description for the reader. What seems to be a mundane catalog of a dying man’s thoughts is suddenly interrupted by Harry’s realization that he is going to die. That single sentance seems to touch a nerve as it is read, almost as if we’ve been there, too, and death takes on a very palpable form. This thrill and the later one as death comes to Harry makes The Snows of Kilimanjaro an unusual and intruiging story.
The comparison that shows both similarity and contrast is the fact that both men fantasize. Peyton’s fantasy occurs before his death and ends as his body reaches the end of the rope that will break his neck. Harry’s fantasy seems to take place as he dies and perhaps following his death. The interesting thing about each of these fantasies is the dream-like quality in each.
Harry’s fantasy seems very realistic but certain clues may show dream-like qualities. When Compton arrives he says he’d like some tea, but almost immediatly states he doesn’t really want it. Later, during the flight, Harry “knew the locusts were coming up from the south.” Following a rain storm that seemed “like a waterfall,” Compton turned and grinned at him and pointed at their destination. Perhaps death has finally assumed a human form and grins characteristically at him.
Peyton also experiences several distortions in what appears to be reality. As he is nearing the end of his journey home, he happens upon a road that he knows will take him in the right direction. It is unlike any other road, though, because it is very straight, terminating at the horizon, yet is untravelled. The grass has carpeted it so that it is very soft, so soft that he no longer feels the roadway beneath his feet. Above him, strange constellations of stars, he is sure, “are arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance.” To each side of him, in the forest, “he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.” All these things are noted within the last four paragraphs of the story, just prior to the end of his life. Peyton, too, experiences distortions of thought in the process of dying.
Harry and Peyton come to the ends of their lives in different ways, each approaching it in the way that his personality dictates. But this apparent difference hides a similairity. Peytons’s mind races so fast that even the ticking of his watch seems like a far away hammer falling on an anvil. It clangs slower and slower until the delays become maddening. His watch certainly did not slow; his mind became so agitated and nervous that the ticking seemed elongated. He was desperate for escape. No wonder then that in the time it took for his body to fall perhaps six feet his mind escaped and fled home.
Harry’s mind also may have retreated from its death at the end. The rescue plane arrives and it seems Harry is going to make it. From there the flight devolves into a dream-like state ending on the white mountain peak.
Ambrose Bierce and Ernest Hemingway both had extensive combat experience. Both had seen death occur. Both may have looked over that precipice that most fear and seen the void below. Death might come to each man differently, or it might be all the same once it has proceeded past a certain point. The comparison of these two stories shows both of the authors portraying their characters as retreating from death, one more than the other. Perhaps this is an accurate portrayal of the human mind as it nears its end. Perhaps the instinct for life is too strong and we really have no choice but to “rage against the dying of the light.” One thing is certain: niether author knew unequivocally the accuracy of his portrayal. We will each find out when we reach the place where “all is white.”