Ambrose Bierce’s short story titled An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is one of the classics of the art form. The story could be read from several different angles, such as the social, cultural, psychological, political, etc. First, the American Civil War of the 1860s provides the political angle. Second is the cultural angle, whereby the unique flavors of the American South can be appreciated. Third, the story provides rich material for studying the psychology of impending death. Apart from these merits, the story also excels in employing literary devices, which heighten its aesthetic effect. What we also witness in the short story are some of the persistent themes in Bierce’ fiction, namely, dark imagery, ambiguous setting of time, bare-essential descriptions, the background of war and magical/surreal events. Hence, not only does An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge present various analytic perspectives, but it is also stamped with the author’s unique artistic elements. This essay will take up the following thesis – though the hallucinatory sequence experienced by Peyton Farquhar is temporally brief, within it contain profound truths about the nature of human psychology and existence.
Seen at a glance, the short story seems to take the reader through conventional narrative devices of suspense, thrill and drama, leading to an unexpected twist ending. But the profundity of the story goes far beyond these effects. In other words, another literary element of the story is its implicit didactic undercurrent, which is also the most prominent theme in the story. In fact, Bierce is suggesting two important things about life. First, we usually take many small things for granted like the beauty of nature and the sensory pleasure it can give. Second, the author is hinting that the proper parameter for measuring life should be quality and intensity of its use rather than mere quantity.
What Bierce is also driving home is the relative and flexible nature of time in the context of human sensory and cognitive experience. As Peter Stoicheff (1993) notes in his critique of the story published in Studies in Short Fiction, rather than measuring time in absolute terms, the experience of living, and more particularly the intensity and rapidity with which events unfold, can stretch time to unimaginable lengths. In the case of Peyton Farquhar’s tragic death, there seems to be an eternity of time between the moment the noose begins to constrict and the eventual cessation of life. (Stoicheff, 1993, p.351) The following passage explicates how Bierce exploits the dimension of time to full literary and dramatic effect:
“time itself, when employed to calibrate human experience, seems to become indeterminate at points of maximum emotional disturbance. Though the time it takes for Farquhar to die by hanging is indeterminate, Bierce goes to some length to imply that at the unknowable threshold of death itself time becomes crucially altered and even paradoxical, resistant to commonplace reciprocities of sensation and duration. Within a short time period, sensation does not become effaced, but instead divides itself into infinite units of experience, saturating the mind with stimuli. From this perspective, ‘time’ becomes vertiginous, the span of a second dilating to reveal ever increasing interior units of time, which themselves repeat the process of fractal division… in effect turning time inside out to reveal Blake’s eternity in an hour.” (Stoicheff, 1993, p.352)
By showing to the readers that so much drama could be contained in a brief period of time, Bierce is suggesting that there is a great scope for happiness and enjoyment during human lifetime which we don’t realize in the normal course. This perspective is evident in Bierce’s other important work ‘The Damned Thing’. In the case of the short story in question, the high-adrenaline condition created by the thought of approaching mortality had taken Peyton’s imagination to a surreal zone. In this state of mind, the small hopeful signs of his escape from death look magnified and magnificent. His powers of perception and the intake of sensory stimuli were taken to new heights. For example,
“he felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. 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…..” (Bierce, 1890)
Without tending to advocate moral relativism, Bierce adroitly handles the delicate job of showing heroic virtues alongside human frailties in the character of Peyton Farquhar. Him being a white southern slave owner, he is culpable of participating and perpetrating the institution of slavery. But this does not discredit his virtues in other areas of life. His allegiance to the confederate cause should be appreciated, since he was willing to risk his life to sabotage Unionists’ march further south. His genuine love for his wife and children is also very touching, especially when we consider that the whole hallucinatory sequence was triggered by this love. The whole object of his will to escape death was to rejoin and embrace the warmth of his family members. What this shows is that Peyton Farquhar’s complicity with the practice of slavery does not necessarily make him an immoral man. (Gale, 2001, p.25) His bravery and attachment to his family make him an ideal head of family in the Southern cultural context.
In conclusion, the points mentioned above underscore the unique perspectives witnessed in the story. They also go on to show that Ambrose Bierce infuses the story with key insights into the psychology of distress and trauma. The story also stands out for its universal appeal. That is, the value, meaning and relevance of the story, remains intact across cultures, nationalities and milieus. In other words, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge would have retained its popularity and relevance even if it was set in a different continent at a totally different period in history, for the essence of the story, namely that of a honest man’s love for his family and how this affects his thoughts during the brief few moments before death, could be understood and appreciated by all of us. Since psychology as a field of study is all about distilling common anxieties, concerns and fears afflicting the human mind, the story is a perfect case study for students of the discipline. That it is a fictitious account of an individual’s psychology is impertinent here, for the genre employed by the author is realism not fantasy or science-fiction.
Bierce, Ambrose, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, retrieved from
Gale, Robert L. (2001), An Ambrose Bierce Companion /. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
James G. Powers, (Summer 1982), “Freud and Farquhar: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge?” Studies in Short Fiction 19: 278–281
Stoicheff, Peter. (1993), “”Something Uncanny”: The Dream Structure in Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”.” Studies in Short Fiction 30.3: 349+.