Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
Study Guides on Works and Writers
San Francisco Examiner, 13 July 1890, pp. 11-12; collected in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (San Francisco: Steele, 1891)
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) was a journalist and writer of satire who developed an international reputation as an ironist. At the beginning of the American Civil War, he enlisted as a private in the Ninth Indiana Infantry, and he fought at Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga. After being discharged as a first lieutenant in 1865, Bierce worked as a night watchman for the U.S. Subtreasury in San Francisco, where he began reading classic authors such as Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Francis Bacon, and Plato. Soon he was publishing poetry, essays, articles, and pieces of humor in local newspapers. He thereafter embarked on a career in journalism, writing satirical columns for several publications and going on to work for William Randolph Hearst at the San Francisco Examiner, New York Journal, and Cosmopolitan. In the meantime, Bierce published poems, epigrams, fables, and short stories. Book-length collections of his essays first appeared in 1873; his first collection of stories appeared in 1891. Shortly before Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1913 during the Mexican Revolution, his twelve-volume Collected Works appeared in print.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is Bierce’s most highly regarded and widely reprinted short story. It was published in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891), a collection that received enthusiastic reviews and gave Bierce nationwide fame as a story writer. The stories in this collection are tales of horror that use coincidence to create ironic, ghastly situations that unnerve the bravest of individuals. Bierce’s war stories are radically different from the romantic, sentimental Civil War stories in vogue at the time; they reveal that war is not an arena for duty, sacrifice, and glory, but an absurd, horrifying mess that ends in death of the loneliest and most undignified kind. Although “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” has these qualities, it is not a war story in the strictest sense; it is mainly a piece of speculative fiction on the subjective nature of human perceptions, especially concerning the passage of time, and the wartime setting could just as readily be made into a civilian one.
Nonetheless, the background of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” does have its origins in Bierce’s experiences as a soldier. The story is set in northern Alabama, a region that Bierce knew intimately from the war. Evidence suggests that he modeled the Owl Creek Bridge after a bridge called the Sulphur Creek Trestle, which was on the Tennessee and Alabama railway and which was guarded by Union troops stationed in a nearby blockhouse and stockade. Bierce knew of an actual Owl Creek in Tennessee, but he apparently transposed it to northern Alabama because the real creek had no railroad near it and he wanted to maintain the story’s verisimilitude. He probably also wanted to take advantage of symbolic connotations in the name of “Owl Creek”; according to this view, the owl is an omen of mortality and an emblem of wisdom, and the reader of the story certainly comes to a better understanding of war as the protagonist dies on Owl Creek Bridge in the end.
The main character in the story is Peyton Farquhar, a civilian planter who ardently supports the Southern cause. Enticed by a disguised Union scout into taking action on behalf of the Confederacy, Farquhar tries to burn down the Union-held bridge on Owl Creek. He is hanged for his attempted crime, but he appears to have been given a reprieve when the rope apparently breaks and he plunges into the creek. Most of the rest of the story takes place in Farquhar’s imagination as he makes his grueling but exhilarating escape. The stress of flight heightens his perceptions so that he sees his surroundings with an almost hallucinatory intensity. As he makes his way back home to his wife and children, his once-familiar environs become strange and nightmarish. Finally, just as Farquhar is about to embrace his wife, he feels a blow on his neck and the reader finds out that he has indeed been hanged.
Readers have quibbled over the surprise ending, debating whether it is a cheap trick or a legitimate device, but most critics find that Bierce prepares his readers for the ending through the skillful use of foreshadowing. In fact, critics generally praise “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” as a masterful demonstration of technical skill, one that reveals Bierce’s command of the short story. It has even been called a work of genius, if only on a small scale. It has also been acknowledged as an influence on stories by Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, William Golding, and Jorge Luis Borges, and it is one of the few works by Bierce that has survived and made its way into the literary canon.
Any study of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” would be enhanced by some familiarity with Bierce’s Civil War experiences and his outlook on life. An excellent introduction to the man and his career may be found in Carey McWilliams’s Ambrose Bierce: A Biography. Other insightful biographies include Richard O’Connor’s Ambrose Bierce: A Biography and Paul Fatout’s Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Lexicographer. Students needing information on the biographical origins of the story as well as its historical and geographical backgrounds are well advised to consult David M. Owens’s The Devil’s Topographer: Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story. Before seeking out other works of criticism, students would benefit from perusing Robert C. Evans’s Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”: An Annotated Critical Edition, which contains an annotated version of the story in addition to a wide range of analyses written from multiple critical perspectives.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” can be studied from several different angles. One is to consider Bierce’s literary Impressionism, which involves the idea that perceptions of reality are affected by one’s state of mind. Illustrations of this concept abound in the story; the most obvious one is the time dilation that Farquhar experiences as he is being hanged. From his point of view, he lives out the rest of the day after supposedly escaping, but to the soldiers hanging him, his execution lasts for only a few seconds. Moreover, Farquhar’s perceptions become preternaturally acute during his experience, so much so that the ticking of his watch sounds like a hammer banging on an anvil and, while in imaginary flight, he sees the sand of the creek bed as “diamonds, rubies, emeralds” and the trees as “giant garden plants.” Many more examples of what has been called Farquhar’s “postmortem consciousness” may be found to examine Bierce’s use of Impressionism.
- 2. Another major approach to analyzing the story is to view it as a satire of the human capacity for fantasy and self-delusion. In making a distinction between external events and subjective experience, Bierce exposes the human tendency to favor wishful thinking over reason and careful observation. He juxtaposes lofty human aspirations with the cold facts of war and shows that Farquhar is as bound by his romantic notions as he is by the noose around his neck. Bierce mocks the overblown rhetoric of Farquhar’s cheap patriotism as well as his heroic fantasies, revealing that Farquhar is guilty of an irrational, foolish pride, a lack of social ethics, and an insufficient understanding of war’s seriousness. Bierce also argues through the example of Farquhar that human beings fully appreciate life only when they are threatened with the loss of it, as we see when Farquhar suddenly becomes aware of the natural beauty in his surroundings only during the crisis of escape.
- 3. The story may also be seen as a literary prank played on inattentive readers who share Farquhar’s values and read the narrative as a heroic adventure tale. Bierce uses narrative strategies that cause readers to participate in the mental experiences of Farquhar even as he also provides readers with enough information to piece together what is actually happening. Bierce therefore invites readers to make the same errors that Farquhar makes in interpreting his experiences, and the author assumes that readers will ignore the clues throughout the narrative in favor of a more romantic interpretation of the evidence. For example, readers should recognize that some of Farquhar’s sensory impressions are impossibly acute, but they become so caught up in the drama of his escape, desiring it almost as much as he does, that they willingly suspend disbelief and accept his impressions as plausible. Ultimately, the story challenges readers to learn not only from Farquhar’s mistakes but also from their own in succumbing to desires instead of facing facts. The ways in which Bierce handles the narration to manipulate the response of readers to the material is a promising area for further investigation.
- 4. Another fertile area for inquiry is to examine the adaptations of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for other media. This story lives on in American popular culture in the form of audio books, comic books, television shows, and movies. The audio and comic book versions are recent phenomena, but the story has a long history on the screen. It has been made into TV programs at least twice, once as an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (NBC, 1959) and once as an episode of “The Twilight Zone” (CBS, 1964). It has also been made into short films at least four times, in 1929, 1962, 1980, and 2005. Other than Gerald R. Barnett’s From Fiction to Film: Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” however, little has been written on film versions of the story. Studies which consider relationships between the original text and any of its adaptations or among the adaptations themselves have a great deal of scholarly potential.
Ambrose Bierce Appreciation Society <http://www.biercephile.com/> [accessed 24 August 2009].
Provides a primary and secondary bibliography as well as useful general information about Bierce and Bierce studies.
Ambrose Bierce, A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Shultz (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998).
The only attempt at autobiography by Bierce, supplemented with first-person selections from published and unpublished writing by the author.
Paul Fatout, Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Lexicographer (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951).
A reliable study of Bierce and his career.
- M. E. Grenander, Ambrose Bierce (New York: Twayne, 1971).
An insightful survey of the author and his work.
Carey McWilliams, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography (New York: Boni, 1929).
An early but thorough examination of Bierce’s life and career, useful for the publication history of Bierce’s works as well as their reception by critics and the public. The updated introduction provides a helpful overview of the subject.
Richard O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967). An accessible biography of Bierce, containing narrative details not found elsewhere.
Gerald R. Barnett, From Fiction to Film: Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (Encino, Cal.: Dickinson, 1973).
A pioneering study of Robert Enrico’s 1962 film adaptation of the story.
Donald T. Blume, “‘A Quarter of an Hour’: Hanging as Ambrose Bierce and Peyton Farquhar Knew It,” American Literary Realism, 34 (Winter 2002): 146-157.
Documents the popular understanding of the physiological effects of hanging, in which the victim dies not by strangulation but from a broken neck.
Robert C. Evans, Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”: An Annotated Critical Edition (West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill, 2004).
A highly recommended resource that examines the story from a variety of angles and summarizes the existing criticism. It is also an experiment in pluralist criticism, including student responses that interpret the text from many critical perspectives.
David M. Owens, The Devil’s Topographer: Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006).
A detailed examination of Bierce’s Civil War experiences and the war stories that grew out of those experiences.