The Literary Elements of Ambrose Bierce
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Ambrose Bierce describes a disturbing image of a young hero, Peyton Farquhar, being hanged at the hands of the Federal Army. Bierce employs multiple literary elements to help describe this scenario and the “escape” which follows. Of particular importance to the story are the elements of blending reality with fantasy, the underlying themes of the story, and the use of time to assist in misleading the reader.
One technique that Bierce uses in the short story is that of blending reality and fantasy. Bierce blends two different worlds and makes the reader visualize the worlds as one. Although the two worlds are different, Bierce brings them together as one and makes the story blend the two to allow the reader to get lost in the world of fantasy with the perception that this is reality. Bierce uses two writing styles within this technique to emphasize the difference between reality and fiction.
The author incorporates the poetic writing style when identifying with Farquhar. In paragraph 4, the author changes his writing style to indicate the narrator is now within Farquhar and his fantasy of the world. As Farquhar stands on the plank, awaiting his execution, he observes, “The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance… (72, paragraph 5)” Bierce continues to use his blending technique as he descriptively relates the moments after Farquhar falls into the water. Bierce describes removing the noose, although his hands are tied, and avoiding drowning while being shot at from above, as well as cannons below (Samide 2). The inconsistencies in the story are a hint of the fantasy blended with the reality of the story. This lyrical, poetic style of writing gives a hint to the insight of this man who is living his last moments of life in a world of fantasy.
Bierce continues his poetic writing style in Part Two. This part deals with Farquhar's background. Part Two explains Farquhar's fantasy and the romantic ideas of a man. Farquhar incorporates his world of fantasy into the world of war with his unrealistic views of the war. “Though a civilian, Farquhar considers himself a soldier, though his behavior differs radically from that of the real soldiers of Part One. He assents to the cliché that ‘all is fair in love and war,' and he thereby ironically seals his own doom (Barrett 70). Farquhar, although living in a world of fantasy in his mind, is forced into reality when he finds himself standing on a bridge moments from his own death.
In contrast to the poetic style, Bierce chooses a more mechanical style when writing about the war and the preparation of the hanging. The story actually reads as if it is written by two different authors. As the story opens, Bierce describes the scene taking place on the Owl Creek Bridge, more specifically, the preparation of the hanging. His sentence structure is “matter-of-fact fashion: the sentences are loose rather that periodic; short rather than long; and a bit choppy rather than coherent” (Barrett 69). This matter-of-fact tone can be easily seen in the opening paragraph, “The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck (71, paragraph 1).” Bierce uses this writing style to further detail his technique of blending fantasy with fiction.
Another area Bierce uses blending is when describing Farquhar escape from the noose around his neck. To demonstrate the detail, Bierce again uses the poetic writing style he used in Part One. While reading this part, the reader can see everything from Farquhar's eyes and his perception of what is happening around him. The detailed visions Bierce gives makes it seem magical. Bierce writes, the pains become, “streams of pulsating fire,” and the noose becomes a “water snake.” This lyrical, poetic style is in sharp contrast to the earlier mechanical style in which the story begins. As seen through Farquhar's eyes, the world is a magical, fantasy world.
The final and most dramatic example of blending fantasy with reality is the ending of the story. Farquhar's escape is given in vivid detail. The poetic description of the escape should clue the reader that the events occurring are those of Farquhar fantasy world and are not actually happening. The escape allows him to dodge death three times - hanging, drowning, and shooting. As detailed and entertaining as this section of the story is, the reader is abruptly returned to reality when the author returns to the bridge and succinctly states that, in fact, Farquhar is dead and his body hangs from the rope. The entire escape, poetic as it was, was just more of Farquhar's fantasy world and “the facts, not the dreams, have the last word” (Barrett 72).
Bierce demonstrates two major themes within “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The first, and most widely understood, is the human need to escape death. Moments before Farquhar is to be hanged, he deludes himself into believing that he can escape death. Just prior to the actual hanging, Farquhar begins to think of his wife and kids and actually closes his eyes to better enjoy this picture. Farquhar continues along this fantasy line and actually envisions himself as escaping death and returning home to his beautiful wife. The need to escape death, although a fantasy in the story, is a very real need experienced by most humans.
Another theme Bierce uses is that of self-delusion. Bierce describes Farquhar as, “a student of hanging” which suggests the possibility that death can be cheated by a man who understands the mechanics of the gallows (Habibi 1). Bierce allows the reader to believe that Farquhar escapes from death and makes it back home. “He seduces the reader into believing in the “reality” of Farquhar's escape and simultaneously leaves the reader all the clues needed to know that the escape is unreal (Barrett 69).” Farquhar deludes himself into thinking that he has escaped death. While his hung body swings for a quarter of an hour, he uses this opportunity to employ a fantasy where the rope breaks, he escapes death, and meets up with his beautiful wife. In deluding himself, he makes it seem like escaping death can happen as simple as a rope snapping. Many can delude themselves into thinking that death is escapable, however death is an act that can't be side stepped, and Bierce is using this story to demonstrate that death is an inevitable part of life.
Although delusion is one theme found within the story, Bierce uses clues for the reader to hint that the escape was, in fact, a fantasy of Farquhar and not a part of reality. Some of the clues can be seen in the second to last paragraph. When Farquhar is walking home he feels pain from what he thinks is walking from so long, but in actuality it is from the hanging. Bierce's description of Farquhar as having a “swollen neck,” “congested” eyes, and swollen tongue are all hints that Farquhar was, in fact, hung and he is starting to feel the pain from the rope and the effects of the hanging (Barrett 72). Bierce goes on to describe “the sense of strangulation, the sound of the cannon, and the pendulum motion…” all of which represent the actual “strangulation, breaking neck,” and movement of the body following the hanging, respectively (Stoicheff 353). These clues help the reader escape from self-delusion and realize the reality of the situation. Bierce is able to incorporate the theme of self-delusion by implementing a young man's fantasy to escape death into the reality of the harsh world of war.
In many instances time is relative to the activity in which one is participating. Don Habibi accurately states, “objective time gives way to a radically subjective slower time” when describing the “occurrence” which takes place within the story (Habibi 1). Bierce uses the key element of distention of time to eloquently describe the events as they occur. As noted in Part One of the story, time and motion slow down as Farquhar prepares for his hanging. Bierce describes the stream as “swift” but as death draws nearer for Farquhar, the stream becomes “sluggish” (Habibi 1). Bierce uses this slow down to emphasize that time, although objectively may not be able to slow, from a subjective standpoint, it can appear almost stagnant as death draws near. The beating of metal in the distant and the slow movement of the water are examples of how Farquhar hears and sees everything more slowly. Stoicheff further elaborates on Bierce's use of time when he writes:
Though the time it takes for Farquhar to die by hanging is intermediate, 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 (351).
Bierce demonstrates that the events around the hanging slow monumentally from Farquhar's point of view. Bierce successfully uses time to portray Farquhar innermost feelings and senses as death draws closer.
Many authors commonly utilize flashback as a narrative technique; however Bierce appears to be one of the first to utilize the flash forward technique in a story of fiction. Bierce demonstrates this technique as Farquhar falls from the bridge. The story flashes forward to find Farquhar escaping from the noose and into the water beneath him. Farquhar is able to swim away to safety, dodge bullets, and make the long trip home to his beautiful wife. Bierce descriptively portrays Farquhar escaping; when in reality, he actually dies within a “quarter of an hour” and the harrowing escape and trek home was a fantasy that Farquhar creates in an attempt to escape death. Bierce appears to be the first author to employs the “flash-forward” technique and is credited with this literary technique (Habibi 1).
By appropriately using multiple literary elements, Ambrose Bierce is able to complete a work of fiction that attracts many readers with different backgrounds. The author is able to blend a fantasy of escape into the harsh reality of the world to assure a dying man dies within his life of illusion. Bierce also allows the reader to see that although there is no factual escape from death, the mind will allow a self-delusional escape to make this inevitable event a more favorable occurrence. And finally, through his signature technique of flash-forward, Bierce is able to use the distention of time to demonstrate the gamut of feelings a dying man may experience. Although “The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” is an entertaining literary piece of work, the underlying message it portrays is on a much deeper, somber level.
Barrett, Gerald R., and Thomas L. Erskine. “Language and Theme in ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'.” From Fiction to Film: Ambrose Bierce's “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” pp. 69-75. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 9 Apr. 2010.
Bierce, Ambrose. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. 9th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. 71-76.
Parenthetical page numbers to “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” refer to pages in this book.
Habibi, Don Asher. “The Experience of a lifetime: philosophical reflections on a narrative device of Ambrose Bierce.” Studies in the Humanities 29.2 (2002): 1-7. 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 2005:1-3. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 9 Apr. 2010.
Stoicheff, Peter. “‘Something Uncanny': The Dream Structure in Ambrose Bierce's ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'.” Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 3 (summer 1993):349-57. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 9 Apr. 2010.