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Books

The Easy Way Out In An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge By Ambrose Bierce

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

It is in human nature for a person to occasionally day-dream or get lost in their thoughts. This can especially be the case when put in an unfavorable situation. Ambrose Bierce portrays the protagonist, Peyton Farquhar, as to dealing with this relatable experience but on a more serious matter, death. In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Ambrose Bierce uses euphemisms, mirroring between real life and a dream-like state, and unrealistic and suspenseful details to prove people use hallucinations to escape the reality of their life because hallucinations are sometimes better than reality.

Bierce makes the story line blurred with subtle hints and euphemisms. The title, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” suggests that a hanging is just an “occurrence,” but that is not the case. The hanging is a grave situation because they took a man’s life which is irreversible. The title symbolizes that, no matter the era, death is mainly shrugged off as if it is a normal “occurrence”. Peyton Farquhar’s actuality is unimportant to those around him, therefore he starts to day-dream and exit his reality faster. In addition, when Bierce writes “death is a dignitary,” he blurs the meaning of death itself (Bierce 121). A comparison of death to a dignitary is saying that death is of great importance and respect which is how the sentinels, deputy sheriff, and captain treat the situation. Bierce feels opposed to the fact that many people don’t see death for what it really is which can be seen in the story because the officers see Peyton Farquhar’s death as an event and not the killing of a soul. Bierce wants the reader to interpret that people are still being killed either way. The author also uses the hallucination itself to show how reality is slowly trying to reveal itself. When Bierce says, “one lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out” he is referring to the noose on Peyton Farquhar’s neck which is just as uncomfortable in real life as it is in the dream. Farquhar is in such a deep state of subconsciousness that he cannot bring himself out of it, but why would he want to really face his reality? His dream state is currently much more inviting than his actuality, thus he remains in his delusion until his death. Any rational person would agree to stay in a venturesome dream, such as the one Farquhar experiences, rather than suffer and stifle consciously. Literary critic, F.J. Logan, stated the point that “we [readers] are met with a series of uncertainties which communicate the narrator’s limitations”. Logan is stating that Bierce’s extraordinary diction through the narrator blurs the ultimate explosion at the end. Bierce’s concise execution of euphemisms protect the reader and Farquhar from the “occurrence” of death, the meaning of death, the limitations of the narrator, and the effectiveness of the hallucination.

Ambrose Bierce also uses literary devices to show the mirroring between Farquhar’s reality and his delusion. Firstly, Bierce uses subtle imagery such as, “he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum”. Through great diction and storytelling, Bierce uses imagery to describe Farquhar having a hanging-like sensation in his dream, while in reality he just got hanged and he is literally swinging back and forth like a pendulum. Peyton Farquhar’s brain is protecting his body from the trauma of the hanging. In most human

nature, an individual’s brain cannot handle the trauma that comes with reality, sending most people into comas, hallucinations, or unconsciousness. Furthermore, Bierce portrays Farquhar as a character who can not find a balance between his reality and hallucinations when he sees “a piece of dancing driftwood” which he was aware of and it “caught his attention and his eyes followed it”. Farquhar’s internal struggle to find a balance is outweighed by his dreams because he has a wild imagination and you can even see this when he decides he will tamper with the bridge so that he will go down in history as a ‘war hero’. All of Farquhar’s imaginations seem to be fine, but Farquhar clearly does not think all of them out perfectly because he never escapes the noose and never becomes a war hero. Dreams can also make people do things they do not usually do and they can distract which has an unapproached concept that dreams have some negative connotations.To add on the the point of Farquhar’s reality mirroring his fantasy, Bierce uses Peyton Farquhar’s last thoughts to mirror or mimick his dream state verbatim. While Farquhar is still alive, he thinks, “if I could free my hands…I might be able to throw off the noose and spring into the steam”. He also fixes his last thought on his wife which correlates in the dream as him almost stepping into “the light” and seeing his wife before he dies. Ambrose Bierce uses this technique to give foreshadowing hints to the final outcome of the story. Bierce also used this technique as a euphemism to not confuse, but distract the reader from the actual happening of the story. Comparatively, literary expert, Roy Morris Jr., stated, “Certainly he used other personal experiences in writing the story: the real Owl Creek, which borders the battlefield at Shiloh… exactly corresponds to the time of the story”. Bierce uses his own knowledge from battle to give a detailed plot and imitate his personal experience to the short story. The fact that the time of the battle correlates to the time of the story compares and mirrors Bierce’s reality and the story’s fiction through a real life and dream-like state conception. Bierce could most-likely relate to writing this short story as a way to escape his own harsh reality in a sense.

Ambrose Bierce uses unrealistic or suspenseful details to convey the overlying theme of how Farquhar perceives and reacts to his reality and hallucination. For instance, Farquhar can see his surroundings in great detail while he is hallucinating in the quote, “He felt the ripples upon his face…looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf”. This detail is so unrealistic and unfeasible that it practically shouts out that Peyton Farquhar is clearly not in reality. Bierce’s storytelling once again proves to divert the reader’s attention away from the hallucination aspect. Having unrealistic senses tend to occur in most dreams which can relate to the motif of the story. Moreover, Bierce uses a subtle and partly unrecognizable tone to suggest that since Peyton Farquhar is a Southern secessionist, it supposedly justifies his death to the reader at first glance. Bierce uses an overly sarcastic tone when he stated that “Peyton Farquhar was a well-to-do planter, of and old and highly respected Alabama family”. To Bierce, Farquhar’s death was a tragedy, and especially for what he did that cost him his life, but his ideas of becoming a Southern hero fueled his own decision which he knew had the consequence of death. Although having the ideals and dreams of being a Civil War hero, Farquhar’s delusions were too far fetched for him as well as most people who would agree to go to war. Another way Bierce used suspenseful details was when Farquhar was about to be hanged and Bierce described him as feeling as though “the intervals of silence grew progressively longer… what he heard was the ticking of his watch”. This detail is not only suspenseful but it is also unrealistic in the sense that a human can hear such a miniscule sound. Farquhar felt as though he could hear time ticking by because he did not know when the sentinels were going to step off the board and let him hang which gave him fear and anxiety. This fueled his adrenaline, which lead him to feeling like time was slower than it actually was. This same adrenaline sped up the process of his hallucination. It is a natural instinct for the human body to create adrenaline in states of panic, but Farquhar’s adrenaline and brain concocted a wild delusion which makes the story even more alluring because most people are not familiar with being in a situation of such high distress. That is to say that every detail that Bierce used ultimately lead to Farquhar’s hallucination and how he grasped onto his unfortunate disposition. Literary critic, B.S. Field Jr stated that “critics monotonously repeat that ‘Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ is a study of abnormal psychological state”. The minor details of Farquhar’s hallucinations are more realistic than the reader would think because Bierce bases the details off of humanity. Bierce has been introduced to a harsh society because of his participation in the Civil War and Bierce could relate to escaping his realities of war with dreams of his own.

Ambrose Bierce has experienced one of the most negatively altering “occurrences” the world has to offer which gave him some trauma as well as a pessimistic view which influenced the subtle dark tone the story permits. When a person encounters an extensive amount of serious trauma, they can experience all the things Peyton Farquhar experienced. The brain can protect a person through different mechanisms such as memory loss, hallucinations, or a quick or expeditive death to break away from the bitter society they are forced to bear.

Works Cited

  • Bierce, Ambrose. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” 21 Great Stories, edited by Abraham H. Lass and Norma L. Tasman, New York: Penguin Group, 1969, pp. 119-130.
  • Field, B.S., Jr. “Ambrose Bierce as a Comic.” Western Human Review, vol. 31, no. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 173-180. Short Story Criticism, edited by Thomas Votteler, vol. 9, Gale Research Inc, p. 77.
  • Logan, F.J. “The Wry Seriousness of ‘Owl Creek Bridge.’ American Literary Realism, vol. 10, no. 2, Spring, 1870-1910, pp. 101-113. Short Story Criticism, edited by Thomas Votteler, vol. 9, Gale Research Inc, p. 81.
  • Morris, Roy, Jr. “‘So Many, Many Needless Dead’: The Civil War Witness of Ambrose Bierce.” Memory and Myth: The Civil War in Fiction and Film from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Cold Mountain, edited by David B. Sachsman et al., Purdue University Press, 2007, Pp. 115-126. Short Story Criticism, vol. 72, Gale Research Inc, p. 114. 

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