A New Aspect of Time in an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Story
In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Ambrose Bierce has created an awe-inspiring and wonder-filled portrait of time as a fluid motion of nature. The reader is swiftly transported from the present to the past, then forward to the present (as the protagonist perceives it) and finally into the actual present. While there are many themes which take center-stage in this composition, such as the blurring of fantasy and reality, or the idea of distorted sensory perception; the one theme which I will expound on in this essay is the element of irony. The story rings of irony in every line from the onset to the ending, and it also reeks faintly of a grotesque form of sardonic wit. This is not so surprising seeing as Bierce is still reputable for his dark and biting literary approach.
The irony upon which the entire story is founded is the concept that Peyton is never truly free from his captors and that even his best attempts at achieving freedom are not enough because he is still a condemned man. Peyton’s fantastical state of mind seems to spawn from a moment in the story when he wishes to “fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children.” (Barnett, Cain, Burto287). Immediately, his thoughts are interrupted by the exaggerated sound of his watching ticking off the few remaining minutes of his existence. He cannot even find the slightest measure of calm in these moments just to think on his estranged family. Ironically, he resolves then without truly realizing it to somehow, and some way, see his family again before he perishes, and he does indeed manage to accomplish that although only in his illusion.
The reader is faced with dramatic irony during the story’s sudden flashback when Peyton refers to himself as being a “student of hanging.” (287) This is undoubtedly ironic that a man familiar with and learned in the method of hanging would one day find himself on the wrong end of the rope. Ambrose Bierce is obviously toying with the readers’ emotions with this admission. On the one hand, the reader feels compassionately for this man doomed to die simply because his demise is happening so abruptly, but there is also an underlying notion that cannot be escaped. That perhaps this is the truest poetic justice for Peyton to meet an end which he witnessed so many men before him meet.
Another ironic moment is the passage of time between Peyton’s impromptu flashback and him falling through the bridge. The reader easily overlooks this flaw in the story right along with the numerous other details which are missed in reading this story for the first time. It is interesting and somewhat unexplainable how suddenly clear and defined Peyton’s thoughts are during those final minutes. He is obviously petrified and beside himself, and yet he has time for a brief journey backwards into the past. Bierce is in fact preparing us for what is to soon transpire. He’s showing us that the protagonist is capable of sinking into his thoughts for comfort. Peyton is a master escapist as he escapes deeper and deeper into his “safe” illusion. Ironically, Bierce writes that Peyton “swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum.” (287). This statement does not hold much significance upon first reading it but once the story is given a second read, it makes perfect sense that it is describing Peyton as he really is before the reader is swept away into his deluded state of consciousness.
Irony continues to set the tone for this story as Peyton is never once permitted real peace of mind. He is still running from his captors, fighting for his life, and searching for his home even in his dream state. Just when he managed to swim through the river and “come to the surface facing down the stream,” he sees “the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge…” (287). Bierce is wielding his pen mightily, showing just how much sway he has in this story. He is in fact a dream maker and he is making Peyton’s dream state into a hellish nightmare racked with weird twists and bitter turns, always for the worst.
The conclusion is without a doubt the most brutal, torturous, and ironic scene in all of the story with the rung being pulled so fast from beneath Peyton’s feet, and the reader being let down so soon and so very hard. Just when Peyton (and the unknowing reader) believes he has finally made it safely home and sees his wife, there is a powerful flash of light and “then all is darkness and silence.” (287). In the following line, the reader is reunited with the real Peyton Farquhar, his body hanging lifeless beneath the bridge. There is nothing to be said at that moment. Ironically, Bierce has successfully duped the reader in joining into Peyton’s false comfort world, and even cheering him through this distorted sensory state.
Ambrose Bierce managed to create a rather memorable story with an equally remarkable and stunning conclusion. The plot thickens with every horrific and clever line penned by him. It is so fascinating to see the world through the eyes of a condemned man seeking freedom and a second chance of life. Every moment in this story is so very vivid and graphic as if the reader,is actually experiencing the moment right along with the protagonist. Bierce is amazing at presenting irony in such a terrific and shocking light. The greatest irony is perhaps that the reader is also quickly and deeply captivated by this tale of a tale they never met and feels so deeply for him still.
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