Setting and Its Contribution to Irony in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
In the Civil War Era short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” Ambrose Bierce tells the story of an Alabama planter, who is serving capital punishment by hanging for attempting to burn down the Owl Creek bridge which separates his home from the Union Army, that evades his death by a stroke of luck and makes it home to his wife. Throughout the story, Bierce gives subtle hints leading the reader to believe that the planter, Peyton Farquhar, has escaped from the hangman's noose and successfully evaded an unfortunate death. But in the last sentence of the story, after concluding Farquhar's triumphant return home to his wife, Bierce ends the story on a shocking note. “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of Owl Creek bridge” (Bierce 76). Bierce tricks the reader into believing that Peyton Farquhar survives his death sentence, when actually, the alternate reality of the story plays out entirely through Farquhar's head in the split seconds before the Union sergeant allows Farquhar to fall to his death. In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” Ambrose Bierce utilizes the setting and its underlying subtleties to invoke sympathy for Peyton Farquhar, which adds to the story's irony and causes the reader to be fooled by its events.
The background of Peyton Farquhar does not resemble the background of a criminal. Being a “well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family” (Bierce 73) arguably does not raise any red flags in the reader's mind to indicate that this man is destined for the gallows. Even Bierce, himself, describes Farquhar as “his eyes…had a kindly expression which one would have hardly expected in one whose neck was in the hemp” (Bierce 72). Bierce himself expresses incredulity at the sight of Farquhar being in the gallows. In addition, the way in which Farquhar looks and is dressed arguably does not stir thoughts of a criminal inside the reader's head. Farquhar is described as a man who takes care of himself very well, neatly trimmed and dressed very proper. However, Bierce acknowledges the cold, harsh reality of Farquhar's situation in the last sentence in the third paragraph of the story. “The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded” (Bierce 72). Before the sergeant removes the plank on which he is standing, Farquhar tries to fixate his final thoughts upon his wife and children. Bierce again invokes sympathy for the condemned Farquhar, this time by bringing Farquhar's personal life into the story and making it his focus in his final few breaths.
Being a Confederate sympathizer, Peyton Farquhar is eager to assist the Confederate Army in any way he can. Due to unknown circumstances, Farquhar, himself, was unable to serve in the Confederate Army, who best served his well-being since he was a slave owner. When Farquhar learns of the vital importance of the Owl Creek Bridge to the Union Army, he sees his chance to both cripple his enemy and protect his home and family from unwanted Yankee soldiers. While the reader may not take much sympathy with Farquhar in that he is simply playing the game of war, it is the act of protecting his own family that causes the reader to sympathize with his situation. In a way, Farquhar could have been essentially forced into trying to burn down the bridge because he was simply protecting his own family. Author Daniel E. Samide noted of Farquhar's situation that “we see [Farquhar's] hanging as harsh and unfair. Thus, we are disposed to hope that Farquhar will escape execution and are less likely to question the escape when it happens” (Samide). Samide reiterates that since the reader is so involved and sympathetic with Farquhar's perilous situation, that when he does escape by many bizarre and unrealistic strokes of good luck in a row, the reader is not going to pause and exclaim his/her incredulity at his escape, but instead will become absorbed in this alternate reality Bierce has put forth. The main reason that Farquhar is escorted to the gallows is that the Union scout was disguised as a Confederate official. Farquhar graciously took the man into his home and offered him a much needed drink, only to be repaid by the Union scout tricking Farquhar into trying to burn down Owl Creek Bridge. The reader feels sympathy for Farquhar in that he was tricked by a man that he has shown nothing but kindness. When Farquhar is able to escape his captors, sympathy for his punishment and resentment toward the Union army glorifies his success in escaping. In the end, when the fate of Farquhar is revealed, the reader is so content over Farquhar's apparent escape that the true fate of Farquhar comes as a shock to the reader.
The details of Farquhar's escape seem to take up an entire day to unfold. But in reality, it only occurs in the split seconds that it took for the Union sergeant to step aside from the plank supporting his weight. In a way, it is the opposite of one's life flashing before one's eyes. However, as Farquhar is about to be hung, he takes notice of the slow moving river over which runs Owl Creek bridge. “A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!” (Bierce 72). Farquhar experiences a sensation of heightened awareness where time and his entire surroundings seem to stand still. It is a stark contrast to the dream structure that Farquhar envisioned in mere seconds in that Bierce is playing away from the rapidly paced plot. Bierce could be playing away from the inevitable by signaling that Farquhar's death is near. The silence in the final seconds before the sergeant drops the floor from under Farquhar are “the ticking of his watch, sounding out ‘the tolling of a death knell.' By the end of the story, Farquhar has turned into a timepiece, but one that keeps regular time, as he swings like a pendulum ‘gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge'” (Korb).
The time frame of the story and the physical surroundings also seem to add to the story's irony. Though the story takes place in the years of the Civil War and Farquhar is being executed as a prisoner of war, “the war itself is mainly kept in the background. No battles are depicted and…the execution seems like an overreaction.” (Samide). However, Farquhar's attempt to burn down Owl Creek Bridge and sabotage the advancement of the Union Army falls directly into place with the story's timeframe. “Late in the Civil War, the Union and the Confederacy struggled for control of the rail lines in northern Alabama. The Confederates were desperately trying to destroy critical facilities to slow the northerners' advance and disrupt [Union General] Sherman's supply lines” (Owens). In the story Bierce also makes reference to the fall of Cornith, Mississippi, which was a key victory for the South, which gives the story the historical accuracy of a Civil War tale. Also, the surroundings of Farquhar's execution seem to imply that he is destined to escape. Farquhar is not to be hung from the standard gallows; rather, he is to be hung from a tree branch hanging over the river. Also, witnesses to the execution are not numerous. The only men present are two Union privates, a sergeant, and a captain. Two armed sentries also flank the bridge but Bierce notes that “It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge” (Bierce 71).
The sentries' indifferent attitude towards Farquhar's execution seems to indicate that his execution is somewhat lazily being carried out. This could open the door to a number of speculations on anything from whether the rope is tied tight enough or even if the rope could be defective. Their indifference foreshadows a possible escape by Farquhar. Bierce singles out the sergeant as a man “who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff” (Bierce 71). By making the reference to the sergeant's personal life, Bierce breaks the barrier between an enlisted man and his civilian life which humanizes him. The execution ceases to become a formality of war, and now essentially becomes murder, causing the reader to sympathize with Farquhar's fate even more. The Civil War timeframe also comes back into play in that the Union Army is not carrying very accurate, efficient weapons. “On the bridge, the captain has only a pistol, probably not with a long or accurate range and the muzzle-loading rifles of the Civil War era delay the shots” (Samide). Added that Farquhar is surrounded by a dense forest and vast, unsettled land and dangling over a swiftly flowing river indicate that his outlook for escape is positive.
Bierce also underlies how the actions of Farquhar's escape could symbolize the actions of his hanging. “The ‘sharp report' of the firing gun, its slightly later ‘dulled thunder' and the ostensible ‘explosion' of the cannon that ‘was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond' are Farquhar's dreamed revision of the sound of his own neck breaking” (Stoicheff). Certain events and actions of Farquhar's escape prove to be ironically symbolic of the actions of his hanging since they prove to be the sounds of his own death.
The name of the titular item in the story also proves to be ironic. The title of “Owl Creek Bridge” may not stand out as odd, but given the circumstances that surround it, the owl becomes a notable symbol in the story. “Traditionally, the owl is a symbol of darkness and death as well as wisdom. It seems an appropriate one to associate with the scene of Farquhar's hanging. Ironically, Farquhar's wisdom of the nature of the war comes at the expense of his life” (Owens). Farquhar told the Union scout that he considered himself “a student of hanging” (Bierce 73). This could be another sign that Farquhar is destined to escape the gallows. Yet, in the end, the sly statement only contributes to the story's irony. The title of the bridge is not a random generation or coincidence. The sinister reputation of the owl also gives the story a more powerful and effective ending. “The story just would not be devastatingly effective if Bierce…had concluded it with the assertion that ‘Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Swan Creek bridge'” (Owens). The reputation of the owl parallels the characteristics of death. Farquhar's fate may not be revealed until the end of the story, yet the truth lies in the story's title.
Ambrose Bierce's use of subtle elements in the setting add to the story's overall deception and cause the reader to be fooled by the story's ironic ending. Peyton Farquhar may have been destined for the gallows throughout the story; however, Bierce uses the underlying subtleties of the story to draw the reader into Farquhar's hallucination. Farquhar's situation invokes a sense of sympathy from the reader, causing him/her to be so caught up in Farquhar's escape, that he/she does not question the unlikelihood of the events that surround Farquhar's escape. Overall, the ending irony in the story is driven by the story's central and underlying setting, adding to its deception.
Bierce, Ambrose. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” 1891. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 9th ed. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. New York: Pearson Education, 2009. 71-76. Print
Korb, Rena. “An Overview of An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.” Short Stories for Students. Detriot: Gale 2002. Literature Resources from Gale. Web 11 Apr. 2010
Owens, David M. “Bierce and Biography: The Location of Owl Creek Bridge.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 26.3 (Spring 1994): 82-89. Ed. Joseph Palmisano. Vol. 72. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resources from Gale. Web 11 Apr. 2010.
Samide, Daniel E. "Anatomy of a classic: Ambrose Bierce cleverly used some key literary tools in crafting his Civil War tale 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'." The Writer May 2005: 42. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 6 Apr. 2010.
Stoicheff, Peter. "Something Uncanny': The Dream Structure in Ambrose Bierce's 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Studies in Short Fiction 30.3 (1993): 349+. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 6 Apr. 2010.