‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ is a classic example of the American short story. Its author, Ambrose Bierce, was himself a fascinating figure, who is also remembered for his witty The Devil’s Dictionary and for his mysterious disappearance in around 1914.
Published by The San Francisco Examiner in 1890, ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ was reprinted in Bierce’s Tales of Soldiers and Civilians the following year. You can read ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Bierce’s story below.
‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’: plot summary
The plot of the story can be summarised in a few sentences, since the story contains little in the way of action. The story is divided into three sections.
The first section establishes the scene. During the American Civil War, Peyton Farquhar, a man in his mid-thirties, is about to be hanged. He is a civilian rather than a soldier, his profession being that of a planter; he is a gentleman from a well-to-do family rather than a common criminal. He has been tried for treason and sentenced to be hanged on a railroad bridge which passes over a river.
In the second section, we learn more about Farquhar’s background via a flashback. He is a slave-owner and a secessionist, devoted to the Southern cause in the Civil War. One day, Farquhar and his wife were at home when a soldier arrived at their front gate, asking for a drink of water. The soldier told Farquhar that Union troops had seized the Owl Creek railroad bridge and repaired it; as they talked, Farquhar – aware that anyone caught trying to destroy the railroad would be hanged, hinted that someone with the knowhow might be able to burn down the bridge if he could elude the guards.
But later that night, Farquhar saw the soldier return and ride north, and he realised that the man was a Union scout who had tricked Farquhar into a trap.
The third section focuses on the hanging itself. A lengthy description of the moment of the hanging follows, succeeded by an almost dreamlike sequence in which Farquhar appears to drop below the water, almost drown, and then emerge from the water and make his escape. Everything in nature, from the leaves on the trees to the spiders crawling over them, seems to be alive in a new way, and Farquhar’s ears are attuned to sounds he had never heard before. He makes his way home and is reunited with his family.
But this was all nothing more than a fantasy on his part: the very last paragraph of the story informs us that the rope didn’t break, and Farquhar has, in fact, died.
‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’: analysis
‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ might be regarded as an imaginative variation on the common notion that our lives flash before our eyes shortly before we die. But the style of Bierce’s short story, and the narrative skill he displays, both prefigure the modernist innovations of twentieth-century writers like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Katherine Mansfield, whose fiction similarly seeks for new ways to portray time and the individual’s subjective experience of the world.
Modernism would only come to the fore as a literary movement in the early years of the twentieth century, so Bierce is ahead of these innovators in his approach: in his focus on psychology over incident (aside from the central incident of Farquhar’s hanging, nothing else happens), in his interest in how the condemned man’s mind thinks rather than simply in what he thinks about, and in his innovative use of time, especially flashback or analepsis.
Take the moment when Bierce hears his watch ticking shortly before he is going to be hanged:
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.
We find similar moments in the works of Poe and Dickens: the latter’s description of Fagin’s worried mind as he waits to be sentenced to hanging at the end of Oliver Twist would make for an interesting comparative analysis between Bierce’s story and Dickens’s description of the psychology of a condemned man. But what lifts Bierce’s writing to new heights is the sheer length of his description, particularly in the third section of ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’.
The eighteenth-century man of letters Samuel Johnson once observed that when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. What if a man knows he is to be hanged in a few moments? Bierce’s story attempts to describe, in detail, what it might feel like to be just seconds away from one’s own death, as well as the experience of dying itself. Nobody can go through such an experience (at least, not the dying part) and live to tell the tale, of course, but Bierce’s attention to small details paints a plausible picture of what it might feel like to be on the verge of death.
But why go to such lengths to give us a detailed description of Farquhar’s last thoughts, his unconscious delusion or hallucination that he has escaped from the noose and re-joined his family? Bierce was himself a Civil War veteran (he was almost fifty when he wrote ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’), and he was doubtless familiar with many other narratives which sought to glorify or romanticise war. Instead, the romantic, dreamlike sequence in which Farquhar cheats his fate and survives the hanging is suddenly cut off, much as Farquhar’s own life is quickly cut short, only to be replaced by the cold, hard reality of war: death, swift and final.
So we might view ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ as both an innovative piece of short fiction and as an anti-war story. And these two features of Bierce’s narrative work together: in pulling the metaphorical rug out from under us as readers in that devastating final paragraph, we are forced to confront the ugly truth of war, where life is cheap and thousands of men like Farquhar, including civilians, are killed.