Summary: A confederate spy named Peyton Farquhar stands on Owl Creek Bridge with a noose around his neck. He has been condemned to hang for unsuccessfully trying to burn down the bridge and prevent the Union Army from advancing toward his town. The Union captain gives the order and Peyton falls to his death – but the rope snaps and he plunges into the water. He swims to freedom as the soldiers fire at will, the bullets splashing in the river water around him. His senses aflame with detail, he escapes into the woods. Fighting thirst, hunger, and pain, he finds his way home and runs to greet his beautiful wife. Only his neck snaps from the noose around his neck and Peyton Farquhar dies while dangling above Owl Creek Bridge. His escape has been a fantasy.
Analysis: The usual complaint about Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is that it’s too melodramatic. To that I say: “Hogwash! Poppycock!”
On the surface “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is an adventure tale – the improbable escape from the noose by the Southern planter Peyton Farquhar. Here we have the hanging itself, the snapping of the rope and the plunge into the slow-moving stream. We have the rifle shots and the cannon fire as Peyton swims to the shore and barrels into the wilderness.
But at its heart, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is about the savage, mad instinct that each human being has to survive; to hope and dream – to live against all the odds. How Peyton’s entire life becomes a few precious seconds:
This is the last part of the story that is set in reality – until the grim last sentence. The rest of the story takes place in a fantasy world that Peyton has created in the last seconds of his life. The reader is given hints that we aren’t in the real world – primarily through Peyton’s supernaturally heightened perceptions.
“And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality.
He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by--it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience and--he knew not why--apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer, the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek.
What he heard was the ticking of his watch.”
For example, when he surfaces from the water he can see “grey spiders stretching from their webs from twig to twig” and the “dewdrops upon a million blades of grass.” He even sees the gray eyes of a Union sharpshooter looking at him through his rifle sights.
Despite the fact that Peyton in many ways is an unlikable character (there are hints he is a racist), Bierce manages to make the reader root for him. These flaws in Peyton’s character are, in fact, why we want him to live. Keep in mind that the story was written in 1886 – when the wounds of the Civil War were still healing. Simply making Peyton a confederate was a character flaw.
However, the real problem with Peyton’s character is that he has romanticized the war. Forced to sit out of the struggle for unknown reasons, Peyton – a rich slave owner in Alabama – considers himself a “civilian soldier.” So when a Union spy dressed as a confederate soldier alerts him to the advancing enemy army, Peyton suggests to the man that he would be willing to burn down Owl Creek Bridge.
Peyton has foolishly – like a child – fallen into a trap. Another one of his flaws is the way he recklessly doesn’t think about the risk – the consequences to his wife and his children. In fact, he takes them for granted until he stands on the bridge with a noose wrapped around his neck.
But this moment is also his redemption. Peyton Farquhar will die on this day. Quickly and painfully, but he last thoughts will be of escaping – of trying to forge his way home to his wife and his children. His last thought is of reaching out to his beautiful wife – witnessing the joy in her expression.
And that’s it. Lights out. Game over.
Bierce was a magnificent writer. His prose is simple and precise, but he conveys his message with a savage irony and light sarcasm (you have to read the story carefully to fully appreciate it). This is why Kurt Vonnegut called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” one of the greatest works in American literature.
Because it is.
Vonnegut also noted that anyone who hadn’t read it was a “twerp.” So if you haven’t – get to it.
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Labels: Ambrose Bierce, literary criticism, literature