In order to combat the horrors or reality, the only weapon that mankind has been presented with is imagination (the ability to create worlds outside of the real world). In An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Ambrose Bierce demonstrates how in one man’s mind, at the verge of desperation, reality can be bent in order to escape from a harsh situation. Peyton Farquhar, the protagonist of the story, faces the obstacle of reaching freedom through his imagination. He is seconds away from being executed and all his mind can do is try to manipulate time into manifesting itself into his own reality.
Through the attempt to control time, he is able to escape from the soldiers who are trying to hang him for trying to destroy the bridge. Not knowing whether this escape is real or not, he still battles through water, bullets, and forest to get to where his heart is: his home. The thoughts of his family are what keeps him alive and going. Throughout the story, Bierce tricks the reader into building up hope for Farquhar by allowing the character’s imagination to be engulfed by his surroundings.
Even the reader is placed into the similar situation that Farquhar is in, that of not knowing the difference between fantasy and reality. The theme of an endless attempt to escape time is shown by Bierce’s description of the setting, symbolism held within the actual hanging of Farquhar, and the tone; these, all allow him to show how time will always win against a dream world – and how the only way out is through death.
The setting to the story takes place in South Alabama in the mid 1860’s. During this time, the political world was struggling with the American Civil War. Farquhar, who was a follower of the Confederacy, did what he had to do to help his cause by trying to toil with the Federal soldiers and their grounds. For this, he was to be hanged. The bridge, which his life is to end, is in the middle of a type of forest, allowing for nature to be an obstacle for Farquhar to fight against.
He closes his eyes when his time to die has come, and senses the rope that chokes him being unleashed and his body thrown into the water. As he battles through the rope that is wrapped around his neck, he frees himself all within the time that his lungs give him without drowning him inside the water. Once being liberated, he rises up out of the depths of the river and swims away, running into the forest. With this journey into his imagination, “the water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men – all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color – that was all he saw.” (457)
This description of Farquhar’s new surrounding, gives hints to the reader that it might be a possible description in the character’s point of view, what he is seeing, not what is actually really there. The use of colors and the shapes of objects lets the reader know what type of images the character wants to see. This search for freedom has made the character delusional, finally ending up to where he wants to be: his home.
As he entered his home, when “he is about to clasp [his wife] he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like a shock of a cannon – then all is darkness and silence!” (459) Time has caught up to his imagination; the dream that he was manifesting of being in a surrounding that was liberating to his senses was stopped; the unfair reality of time caught up to him.
When the switch in fantasy to reality is made, Farquhar is hanged. The symbolism in his hanging represents his fight with time. It describes, “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge.” (459) His limp body can be compared to a pendulum swing. As he sways from one side to the other, time mocks him by ending his life with that simple movement. He tried to escape, and he would have done so if time was eternal in a human’s life. Yet, the actual hanging of Farquhar is not what Bierce really focuses on; he puts all his diction in describing the process the character goes through in order to escape from time.
In order for Bierce to demonstrate the difference between reality and fantasy, he chooses to do so in the fashion of explaining the last thoughts and dreams of a desperate, dying man. The purpose to this story is to trick the reader and the protagonist. He carries the reader to a possibility of freedom, and in this, the run from death. The journey the character finds himself in is quite a different one. The setting has changed, and time is ticking for Farquhar to end up being free. Bierce sets the reader up just to knock them down at the end.
This tricky tone allows the descriptions of a dream-like world to evolve into a possible reality where Farquhar is placed in. “It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble… He had no wish to perfect his escape – was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.” (458) It fit him to be placed in such a world. He preferred to remain in the escape road he was led to, than to witness his own death. He ended up in a beautiful place, almost divine and dream-like; until time stops playing with him and literally snaps all his reason while being hung.
Humans struggle their whole lives just to be able to stay alive. Afraid of what may be hidden behind the veils of death, we tend to let imagination get to us by trying to develop another better life so that death is not as scary as it seems. For Peyton Farquhar, instead of dealing with the fact that he is about to die, his mind drifts away into a world where he is able to liberate himself from the strings that are wrapped around him as if the rope were the power of the soldiers choking him down, letting time take over. With the use of setting, symbolism and tone, Bierce was able to set the theme of the strong power that time has over death; that death will eventually come and that no one can escape from it.