Theme of Death in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
There are no definite reports on the experience of death due to its obscure and secretive nature. Instead, individuals can only imagine it. Literature can provide imaginative ways of approaching death from various perspectives. It is no surprise that death plays a prominent role in literature, exposing human mortality and the finitude of life. While death is often recognized as a tragic scene of loss, it can be understood more widely through vivid description, sound, and illusions. In one case, Ambrose Bierce effectively illustrates these elements through the theme of death in his short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and its film adaption.
Bierce’s immediate description of every tangible detail and military terminology help set the somber tone.
Death is first described through the preparation of Peyton Farquhar’s execution. He is depicted as a man “looking down into the swift water twenty feet below” where his “hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord” (Bierce 1). The detail portrays an inescapable environment where he is tied and cannot move. All form of freedom is especially limited as the “rope closely encircled his neck… attached to a stout cross-timber above his neck” (Bierce 1). It is clear that the rope is tied as a noose around Farquhar’s neck, implying that he will be executed. By being restrained, he is under complete physical control of the assailant and is left with no course of resistance or escape. As the noose is placed around Farquhar’s neck, Bierce goes into great detail describing the actions of the Union soldiers in preparation for the execution. He states each soldier’s location and their performing role with accurate terminology, reminding readers the life of Peyton Farquhar is under their trained hands. Not only are there an ample number of soldiers, but they are well armed with rifles. Bierce states that there is a “sentinel at each end of the bridge” with a rifle in a position known as “support” (Bierce 1). He continues to mention that the soldiers are armed and is “in line, at ‘parade rest’” with “the butts of the rifles on the ground” (Bierce 1). The clear military terminology and description of the soldiers quickly emphasize their dominating control and Farquhar’s inescapable death. Bierce also indicates the relationship between death and soldiers, stating that “Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him” (Bierce 1). It is the soldier’s duty to kill and must be taken seriously. Bierce asserts that their silence is a form of respect to the man they are to execute.
Death continues to follow Peyton Farquhar despite his futile attempt to escape. The third section of the short story shifts forward to his execution, but the damaged rope leads him to a creek where he gains consciousness and runs for an escape. The film portrays his escape through auditory imagery. As he runs in the forest, viewers can hear the sharp sounds of the leaves made by the soldier and himself along with the rapid pace of the background music. This all builds tension and suspense, knowing that he is running away from the soldiers and his death. The fast tempo of the drums in the background heightens Farquhar’s desire to live. However, it is later revealed that his escape is merely a projection as a defensive coping mechanism to conceal his tragedy of being executed. It is clear that death is a frightening matter and in order to cope with it, Farquhar distorts reality and create an imaginative illusion where he escapes to his wife and children. As he reaches out to 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… Peyton Farquhar was dead” (Bierce 6). This implies the human need to escape death in order to cope with the reality and severity of having to face death in a brutal manner. By deluding himself into believing that he had escaped death makes it remarkably easier to understand and cope. While he is able to escape for a few seconds, death ultimately catches him. Bierce explores the mystery of death by providing insight on what goes inside a man’s head for a few seconds before a tragic death.
Ambrose Bierce’s short story effectively describe death as not merely an individual loss or a decaying body, but as a site of illusions, plot twists, suspense while conjuring emotional effects. He presents the secretive theme of death in an imaginative and meaningful way to show the finitude of life and the mental process that occurs before death. Through his explicit descriptions of characters and motion, he is able to bring readers into the action while displaying the power dynamic between the soldiers and the man ready to be executed. Despite having very few dialogue, the film adaption invokes suspense and apprehension through auditory imagery. This emphasizes Farquhar’s self-deluded escape, showing the human defense mechanism operating moments before death. There are certainly many literary perspectives on death and Bierce’s short story and its film adaption provides great insight on it.
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