Introduction: What Happened at Owl Creek Bridge. The Author and His Work
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was written by Ambrose Bierce has been acclaimed for its original structure and unique message. The novel addresses the harsh realities of the American Civil War, yet it combines the elements of realism and fantasy that set it aside from a range of similar stories. The short novel tells a story of Peyton Farquhar, who was sentenced to death by hanging by the members of the Union after he confused one of the Union soldiers for the member of the Confederacy and disclosed essential information to him. The story begins with the scene of Farquhar being about to executed and continues with a rather unexpected description of him escaping the clutches of death and fleeing to safety. Afterward, the events that led Farquhar to his desperate state are disclosed, and he finally reunites with his wife shortly after having a dreamlike sequence. The novel ends with the abrupt return to the hanging scene, showing that all the events starting from Farquhar’s escape were a figment of his imagination and, in reality, lasted for several minutes, at best. The novel ends with Farquhar being hanged, thus, becoming a grim study of human nature and the perception of death.
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Deconstructing the Narrative: What Makes An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Unique
With the fame that the narration received for its unique way of arranging the events in the story and playing with the reader’s expectations, specifying the details that make it stand out would be superfluous at this point. How the author subverts the expectations of readers and introduces the element of unexpectedness into the narration is truly brilliant since it creates an illusion of a flowing narrative and then catches the reader completely off guard by making them realize that it was just a dream.
The seamless connection between the harsh reality and the miraculous escape of which Farquhar fantasizes is, perhaps, what makes An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge unique. Bierce does a fantastic job by tricking the reader into believing that the lead character does escape the imminent death, runs to his freedom, and reunites with his wife. The inescapable shock that comes with the reveal of the final twist of the story, therefore, makes the reader consider the concepts of death, reality, and the perception thereof by the human brain closer.
Techniques Used by the Author: The Uncanny That Lurks in Anachrony
As stressed above, it is the nonlinear structure of the narrative that makes the story so memorable and the sudden reveal at the end so staggering. The clever use of anachronism as the primary technique that furthers the plot and at the same time helps reveal more about the character and his motivations should be mentioned first. The application of the anachronic technique leads to the reader experiencing an even more surreal environment of what critics referred to as the dream within a dream (Tabachnik 45). Apart from the events that the lead character imagines before being hanged and that can technically be referred to as a dream, there is also a mentioning of him having a dream during the specified sequence: “Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round – spinning like a top” (Bierce). The specified element adds an element of the surreal to the short novel and serves as a powerful tool for keeping the readers on their toes and at the same time blurring the line between reality and the imaginary world.
It could be argued that, by inserting the specified element into the novel, Bierce foreshadows the dramatic reveal at the end of it; however, the shock value of the ending is not diminished in the least by the inclusion of a dream within the character’s dream. Quite on the contrary, it adds layers to the story, making the escape somewhat symbolic of the idea of redemption. One might make a slim argument that the vague description of his escape and the following dream sequence within what turns out to be his actual dream might make the reader intuit the author’s intent a predict the reveal, yet the dramatic effect thereof remains remarkably strong. Anachrony as one of the plot devices and stylistic choices in hindsight is a brilliant idea since Bierce keeps the secret from unraveling up until the final part of the story. As a result, the reader does not realize that the narration involves bending time to a certain extent before the final plot point is revealed, which leads to the inevitable shock and the appreciation of the original resolution of the conflict of the story (Talley 11).
Similarly, the use of analepsis as the means of creating the environment of suspense and setting the foundation for the later reveal must be deemed as an original movie. Defined as the flashback-based technique, the specified device serves as the means of introducing the reader to the character, at the same time making the timeline of the story non-linear. Consequently, the opportunities for exploring the nature of time and its perception are created.
The adoption of the concept of the uncanny should also be listed among the techniques that make the narrative spectacular. Particularly, the interpretation of the scene in which Farquhar finally realizes that he is being hanged and falls to his death as the fulfillment of the Freudian wish is often mentioned as a possible interpretation of the short story’s meaning (Sasaki 195). From the specified perspective, the uncanny vision of reality that Farquhar assumes as he reconceptualizes the world around him before his death can be viewed as the representation of Freudian’s dream model (Sasaki 194).
Finally, one must give Bierce credit for using metaphor in a rather efficient and innovative way. Instead of planting it into the novel purely for the sake of symbolism, the metaphors in the story serve a very specific purpose. Particularly, by avoiding trite metaphors and inserting original ones into the short novel, Bierce plants very intelligent hints to the possible ending of the story very early on in the narration. Thus, even if the reader remains unsuspecting, the feeling of tension that appears as soon as the metaphors start to appear in the narration allows keeping the readers at the edge of their seats, leading to a climactic ending.
For example, the image of a pendulum as a metaphor appears in the short novel to indicate the feeling of uncertainty and convey the confusion that the lead character was experiencing: “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” (Bierce). Apart from alluding very clearly to the actual situation in which Farquhar was at the moment, i.e., having a knot around his neck and possibly falling to his doom, the image of a pendulum can be linked to the feeling of uncertainty and the blurred line between the reality and the imaginary life that the lead character lives throughout his out-of-the-body experience. Apart from developing the already suspenseful environment, the metaphors serve a very clear purpose in the novel, adding a dreamlike quality to every single element of the narration, thus, setting the foundation for the denouement and payoff at the end.
Central Arguments: The Fleeting Moment Between Death and Rebirth
Seeing that the novel invites the reader to embark on a very unusual adventure and never states explicitly the idea behind the narration, detailing the central arguments thereof is a rather challenging task. On the surface, the motivations of the lead character are beyond basic: he faces death and wants to escape its clutches. However, by scrutinizing some of the parts of the short novel, especially the ones that involve Farquhar’s alleged escape and the experiences that he has in the course of it, one must admit that the narrative becomes quite intricate since it dives into the mind of the lead character. Allowing the reader to relate to Farquhar and his motivations, the story evolves into the metaphor of experience of the actual birth, the rope tied around Farquhar’s neck being the symbol of an umbilical cord: “the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs” (Bierce). Therefore, Bierce alludes to the idea of death and the following rebirth of the lead character, making the latter more complex and his plight increasingly more compelling. The story is no longer about searching for a way out of a deplorable situation and the escape of the impending doom but, instead, the search for redemption and the possibility of changing the situation by correcting past mistakes and living one’s life as a better person.
Furthermore, it could be argued that the concept of time, particularly, its fluctuation and the elusive nature thereof, is explored in the short novel extensively. Bierce stretches time in his narration by incorporating a significant, albeit imaginary, a chunk of the lead character’s life into what in reality turns out to be merely a few seconds. Consequently, the idea that the perception of time is purely individual and dependent on a range of factors can also be deemed as one of the central arguments made by the author. Indeed, the fact that Farquhar’s experience seems quite lengthy to him is stressed throughout the story several times: “Gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time underwater” (Bierce); “All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun” (Bierce). The story of Farquhar’s escape seems realistic in no small part due to the description of the passing of time and the change that the lead character experiences. Also, Bierce cleverly incorporates surreal elements into the story, not making them excessive but using them just enough for the reader to develop the unsettling feeling of the unexpected denouement approaching.
Efficacy of the Arguments: Convincing String of Ideas with Minor Issues
As stressed above, in most cases, the arguments that Bierce works very skillfully into the body of his novel convey the intended message successfully. At this point, though, one must address the ambiguity surrounding the process of exploring the underlying meanings of a narration. There are several schools of thought allowing the reader to seek messages in a written work. Some scholars argue that the intent of the author is the only prism through which a work can be viewed; others state that once a piece of writing is published it becomes free to interpretations (Brooker et al. 10). Therefore, evaluating the efficacy with which Bierce conveyed his intended ideas to the target audience in The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge might be problematic at this point.
That being said, judging by the response that the story receives and the immediate reaction that it produces by stunning the audience with its unexpected and tragic denouement shows that the efficacy of Bierce’s arguments is quite high. The metaphors that were implanted into the short novel work outstandingly well, not only creating the atmosphere of suspense and foreshadowing the reveal but also establishing the intentions and motivations of the character. As a result, the reader relates to Farquhar easily and empathizes with him and his misfortune. The choice of the side which Farquhar takes in the novel is, therefore, incidental to the plot and should not be viewed as the focus on the conflict. Instead, the emotions that Farquhar experiences and the fleeting nature of life that he grasps before this neck is broken are in the spotlight of the story, as they should be. The surreal nature of the story only makes these experiences and the final revelation that the character makes all the more meaningful as the dramatic plot point is revealed (Meers 133).
Therefore, the central arguments of the story, i.e., the nature of time and the line between the real and the surreal, are conveyed to the reader masterfully. Bierce creates a compelling story that makes the reader empathize with the lead character and, thus, relate to what he feels throughout the short novel; thus, as soon as the dream sequence stops and the cruel reality sets in, the audience is shocked into rethinking the concepts of life and death, the significance and weight of their experiences, the thin line between the reality and illusion, etc. Every single device used by Bierce in the short novel serves its purpose and creates the basis for the story to leave an impact on the reader (Nesterik et al. 66).
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Conclusion: Lingering Between Life and Death
By using a brilliant concept of anachronic and analepsis, Bierce managed to produce the story that dives deep into the nature of time perception. Furthermore, the disrupted structure of the narrative allows making the line between the reality and a figment of the character’s imagination barely noticeable; in fact, every experience described in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge feels incredibly real; in fact, I almost mockingly real compared to the rest of the narration. Thus, the study of the elusive nature of time is combined with the exploration of the link between fantasy and reality in the short novel, resulting in a profound analysis of how people perceive the world around them. Furthermore, Bierce provides a deep insight into the phenomenon of one’s life flashing in front of one’s eyes at the moment of an imminent death threat. Therefore, the short novel gains a profound and tragic meaning.
Bierce, Ambrose. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” ProjectGutenber.org, n.d., Web.
Brooker, Peter, et al. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. 3rd ed. Taylor & Francis, 2017.
Meers, Keith. “Ambrose Bierce, Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period-The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, eds. Russell Duncan and David J. Klooster.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, 2004, pp. 136-176.
Nesterik, Ella, et al. “Spatial Images of Subjective Perception of Time in a Literary Text.” Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, vol. 9, No. 3, 2016, pp. 64-77. Web.
Sasaki, Toru. “Back to Owl Creek Bridge: Robert Enrico’s Adaptation Reconsidered.” Style, vol. 49, no. 2, 2015, pp. 181-195. Web.
Tabachnick, Stephen E. “A Possible Source for the Conclusion of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews, vol. 26, no. 1, 2013, pp. 45-48.
Talley, Sharon. Ambrose Bierce and the Dance of Death. University of Tennessee Press, 2009.