By Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
.......Standing on a plank on a railroad bridge in northern Alabama is a man with his hands bound behind his back. Around his neck is a noose. Twenty feet below him is the swift water of Owl Creek. Next to him are two Union soldiers, acting as executioners, with a sergeant directing the proceedings. Nearby is a captain. Sentinels stand watch at each end of the bridge. On one bank of the creek is a forest, and on the other bank is a line of trees serving as a stockade. Poking out of an opening is a cannon. A company of soldiers on the shore observes the scene on the bridge.
.......The man to be hanged is a civilian, about 35. He wears a frock coat and has a well-trimmed mustache and pointed beard. From all appearances, he is a gentleman, perhaps a plantation owner. As the moment of execution approaches, he closes his eyes to picture his wife and children. A sound–like a hammer striking an anvil–interrupts his thoughts. It is rhythmic, like a tolling bell, and grows louder and louder, hurting his ears. The noise is the ticking of his watch.
.......If he could somehow free his hands, he thinks, he could remove the noose, jump into the creek, swim to shore below the surface of the water, and escape into the woods.
.......The narrator reveals in Part II of the story that the condemned man is indeed a prosperous planter, with slaves working his land. His name is Peyton Farquhar, a strong supporter of Southern secession. Circumstances prevented him from fighting on the Confederate side, although he wanted to. However, he worked on behalf of the South in any way he could whenever an opportunity presented itself. One evening, a soldier in Confederate gray rides onto Farquhar’s plantation to get a drink of water. He told Farquhar that Union forces had advanced to the Owl Creek bridge, taken control of the railroad running over it, and issued an order to execute anyone who attempted to subvert Union activities at the bridge. Questioned by Farquhar about the vulnerability of the bridge, the soldier told him that a pile of dry driftwood at one end of the bridge “would burn like tow.” After Mrs. Farquhar brought him water, he drank it and rode off. He was a Union scout, not a Confederate soldier.
.......At the beginning of Part III, Farquhar is falling. He loses consciousness when the noose catches, then awakens moments later. Excruciating pain radiates from his neck throughout his body. There is a splash. Beneath the surface of the cold, dark water, he realizes that the rope has broken. However, the noose remains tight around his neck. After his body sinks to the bottom, it begins to rise. To be hanged and drowned is one thing, he thinks, but also to be shot is unfair. Pain in a wrist alerts him that his hands are working frantically to free themselves. They succeed, then remove the noose. Severe pain wracks his body. His hands keep working, bringing him to the surface, where he gulps air.
.......Farquhar is now keenly aware of his surroundings, as if infused with superhuman perception. The narrator says:
He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf–saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the grey spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies' wings, the strokes of the water-spiders' legs, like oars which had lifted their boat–all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water........When the soldiers begin to fire, Farquhar submerges, the rush of water sounding to him “like the voice of Niagara." When he resurfaces, he is much farther downstream. The soldiers fire again and again and Farquhar swims with the current. A cannon shot flies over his head, cracking and splintering trees in the forest ahead. A vortex catches and whirls him while carrying him forward. Moments later, he reaches the left side of the creek, the southern shore. Overjoyed, he throws handfuls of sand over himself as he smells the fragrance of the forest and hears the wind rustling the tree branches. After cannon grape shot hits the trees, he disappears into the forest.
.......Farquhar travels all day through the wilds, looking for a road but not finding one. At sunset, tired and hungry, he finally comes across a straight, wide, empty road with no houses in sight. Above him the stars shine down. From the woods on the left and right come strange noises, including a whisper in an unknown language. His neck is sore and swollen and bruised. He is now so thirsty that he sticks out his tongue to expose it to the cool air.
.......Sometime later, he comes to the gate of his home. It is morning. When he steps through the gate, his wife comes down from the veranda to meet him. After he opens his arms to greet her, he feels a tremendous blow on his neck. The narrator then says,
“A blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon–then all is darkness and silence! Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.”
Peyton Farquhar: Southern plantation owner who is to be hanged by Union soldiers as punishment for his attempt (or suspected attempt) to destroy Owl Creek Bridge.
The action takes place at a railroad bridge in northern Alabama during the U.S. Civil War, not long after the Battle of Corinth in northern Mississippi on October 3 and 4, 1862. The bridge runs north-south over Owl Creek. (See Grant's Reference, below.) On one side of the creek is thick forest. On the other is a company of Union soldiers. A cannon pokes from a line of trees the soldiers are using as a stockade. On the bridge are other Union soldiers preparing to execute a man with a rope around his neck.
The story begins early in the morning, as disclosed by the boldfaced words in the following passage in Part I:
He [Peyton Farquhar] closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift–all had distracted him.The story ends in the evening of the same day.
Bierce tells "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" in three parts. Part I is in objective third-person point of view except for the last three paragraphs. In objective third-person narration, the storyteller observes events but cannot enter the mind of any character and disclose his or her thoughts. In the last three paragraphs of the Part I, the narration shifts to omniscient (all-knowing) third-person point of view in relation to Peyton Farquhar. This shift enables Bierce to take the reader inside Farquhar's mind to demonstrate how emotional upheaval alters not only the way the mind interprets reality but also the way it perceives the passage of time. First, Farquhar mistakes the ticking of his watch for the tolling of a bell or the ring of an anvil struck by a hammer. Then, after Farquhar drops from the bridge at the moment of execution, he perceives a single second as lasting hours. In presenting his psychological study, Bierce could not have used first-person point of view. Here is why:
After the Battle of Shiloh (southern Tennessee, April 1862), General Ulysses S. Grant marched his Union forces south into Mississippi on his way to Vicksburg, a strategically important Mississippi River city. At Corinth–a northeastern Mississippi town just south of the Tennessee border and just east of the Alabama border–Grant and General William Starke Rosecrans repulsed a Confederate attack while solidifying control of the town, an important railroad center. In Chapter 26 of his memoirs of 1885 and 1886, Grant refers to Corinth and Owl Creek. (In his short story, Bierce also refers to the Battle of Corinth–and, of course, to Owl Creek.) Here is the passage written by Grant:
Preparations were at once made upon the arrival of the new commander for an advance on Corinth. Owl Creek, on our right, was bridged, and expeditions were sent to the north-west and west to ascertain if our position was being threatened from those quarters; the roads towards Corinth were corduroyed and new ones made; lateral roads were also constructed, so that in case of necessity troops marching by different routes could reinforce each other. All commanders were cautioned against bringing on an engagement and informed in so many words that it would be better to retreat than to fight. By the 30th of April all preparations were complete; the country west to the Mobile and Ohio railroad had been reconnoitred, as well as the road to Corinth as far as Monterey twelve miles from Pittsburg. Everywhere small bodies of the enemy had been encountered, but they were observers and not in force to fight battles.Whether the Mississippi Owl Creek is the same Owl Creek over which the railroad bridge passes in northern Alabama is uncertain. However, because Corinth is only a short distance from the Alabama border, it may well be that Owl Creek ran east from Mississippi into Alabama.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a short story that observes the classical unities–that is, it takes place in a single location on a single day while focusing on a single subject. There are no subplots. Although the story is fiction, it is based on real events during the U.S. Civil War. The story first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in 1890, then appeared in 1891 in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, a collection of Ambrose Bierce’s stories.
The narrator of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” tells the reader that Peyton Farquhar escapes death after the rope around his neck snaps at the bottom of his fall from the bridge. Farquhar then swims to shore, under heavy gunfire, and makes his way home, by nightfall, through the wilds. However, the narrator reveals at the end of the story that Farquhar's escape is a dream that lasts only from the moment he drops from the bridge to the moment the rope breaks his neck at the end of his fall. To prepare the reader for the expansion of the single second it takes for Farquhar to die into a day-long event, author Bierce presents the following passage in which time begins to pass more slowly.
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...
How Human Beings Deny Reality to Protect Themselves
On the personal and specific level, plantation owner Peyton Farquhar denies reality as a means of forestalling it. First, he lapses into a delusionary dream in which he escapes death after the weight of his body snaps the hangman's rope. Then he swims to safety under heavy gunfire and returns to his plantation. This dream lasts only a second, but Farquhar's mind turns it into an hours-long flight from the enemy–and reality. On the impersonal and general level, the slaveholding South–represented by Farquhar–refuses to accept the reality that slavery is a barbarous institution.
Peyton Farquhar's livelihood depended on holding black men, women, and children in bondage. Ironically, Farquhar ends up in bondage, with a noose around his neck and cords around his wrists. Bondage is terrifying, Farquhar discovers, and all of the last thoughts of his life center on escaping it.
The following passages from "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" appear to allude to slavery.
The second passage describes the scene on a road as Peyton Farquhar–in his end-of-life dream–nears his home. The passage is open to broad interpretation. It may suggest that the black trunks of the trees on both sides of the road represent the multitude of black slaves who stalwartly, though unwillingly, supported the Southern economy on its road to prosperity.
The third passage appears to suggest that the circle of black represents slavery, the fatal injury to Peyton Farquhar's soul.
There are also direct references to slavery in the short story, such as the second sentence in Part II: "Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause."
In Part III, Paragraph 16, the narrator alludes to Aeolus, the god of the winds in Greek mythology, saying, "A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of Æolian harps."
Bierce's story relies heavily on imagery centering on sight and sound to vivify his tale. Following are examples of sound imagery. Figures of speech appear in colored type.
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. (Simile)Farquhar's Dream Within a Dream
The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dulled thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. (Simile)
An appalling plash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps! (Onomatopoeia)
The cannon had taken a hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond. (Personification/Metaphor) (Onomatopoeia)
A whiz and rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. (Onomatopoeia) (Alliteration)
Peyton Farquhar experiences a dream within a dream, as noted in the first sentence of Paragraph 17: "A whiz and rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream." Up to this point in the story, Farquhar was already dreaming that he had escaped the Union forces. But after reaching the shore in his first dream, he lapses into another dream, a daydream, in which he becomes entranced with the beauty of nature and the joy of freedom. Is it possible to experience a dream within a dream? Edgar Allan Poe wrote a poem entitled "A Dream Within a Dream
A Dream Within A Dream
Take this kiss upon the brow!
I stand amid the roar
.......Gregory Hazzard, a reader of this study guide, has offered the following additional observations about Farquhar’s end-of-life experience:
By Ambrose Bierce
.......A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners--two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as "support," that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest--a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.
.......Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along. The other bank of the stream was open ground--a gentle acclivity topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge. Midway of the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators--a single company of infantry in line, at "parade rest," the butts of the rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieu tenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. 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. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.
.......The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good--a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well-fitting frock coat. He wore a mustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
.......The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties. The arrangement commended itself to his judgment as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his "unsteadfast footing," then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move, What a sluggish stream!
.......He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift--all had distracted him. 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.
.......He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. "If I could free my hands," he thought, "I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader's farthest advance."
.......As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside.
.......Peyton Farquhar was a well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is
unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in war time. Meanwhile he
did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.
.......As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened--ages later, it seemed to him--by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to
shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well-defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fulness--of congestion. These sensations were
unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about
him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!--the idea seemed to him ludicrous. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He
was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface--knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable. "To be hanged and drowned," he thought? "that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair."