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:
.......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."
Farquhar: Southern plantation owner who is to be hanged by Union soldiers
as punishment for his attempt (or suspected attempt) to destroy Owl Creek
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:
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:
Type of Work and Years of Publication
“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.
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
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.
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
Study-Guide Reader Presents His Interpretation
Hazzard, a reader of this study guide, has offered the following additional
observations about Farquhar’s end-of-life experience:
Study Questions and Essay Topics