An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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In the short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce, the story starts by immediately drawing the reader in, showcasing Bierce's vast knowledge of literary skills: "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," (Bierce, 1). Bierce fought in the Civil War, which inspired his collection of macabre Civil War based stories. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is no exception. The story takes place in the Civil War era, after the confederacy was routed. Peyton Farquhar, a wealthy Southern plantation owner, is about to be hung for attempting to set fire to Owl Creek Bridge. Farquhar falls when the plank is removed. The rope breaks and he falls into the river, making a miraculous escape. Avoiding several volleys of musket and cannon fire, Farquhar stumbles through the woods. Just as Farquhar arrives at home, the story jumps back into reality, informing the reader Farquhar is actually dead and hanging from the bridge; his escape was merely a hallucination. Upon completion of the story, the reader realizes how Bierce successfully manipulated them through his text, and is left in shock. Bierce makes this possible through his extensive use of literary skills including a realistic point of view, emotional tone, and a fast-paced storyline.

Bierce's experience with writing and war allows him to play on the reader's lack of knowledge and use an effective point of view. In modern day, the logistics of hangings, and what happens after, are not commonly known facts. For instance, the average reader does not find it suspicious that the hanging is taking place on the bridge because they don't know any different. But in reality, a hanging would never take place on one, Farquhar's hallucination being the main reason. Daniel E. Samide states, "On a conventional gallows, he would easily be recaptured because there would be solid ground beneath, and no river to save him," (pg. 3). As a veteran soldier, Bierce knows that plain well, and chooses the location accordingly. Another thing Bierce would know from witnessing many hangings, is how the body reacts afterwards. Only a paragraph before the story ends, Bierce writes:

His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue- he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!;... (Bierce, 8). Upon closer examination, one sees Bierce did give a fair warning that Farquhar was actually dead. But, because the average reader doesn't recognize that after a person is hung their eyes bug out and tongue protrudes, it is easy to skim right over. The imagery of this narrative provides an uninformed reader a point of view that makes the reality of the hanging believable.

In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", Bierce's use of limited omniscient narrating proves to be an essential key in persuading the reader to believe the story is a reality. By being able to go in and out of Farquhar's mind, the reader can sympathize while also being able to view the story as a bystander. "... the physical consequences of Peyton Farquhar's hanging communicated to readers is clearly intended by Bierce to shift the focus of the hanging drama... to the internal world of Farquhar's mind," (Blume, 7). Bierce brilliantly sets the scene, and then pulls you into Farquhar's world. There is one scene in particular, though, that really showcases the necessity of having a limited omniscient narrator:

Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound in 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...
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