Structure in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce
In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Ambrose Bierce creates an antihero protagonist, Peyton Farquhar, who willingly lets himself be tricked into his own death by his humanness and his ability to deceive himself. Bierce structures his story through the use of several different themes and symbolism to conform to the development of Farquhar's humanity and his psychological state. Bierce uses the fluidity of time, the human desire to escape death, and the easy deception of fools to develop the structure of the story that makes Farquhar completely human and err-able.
Using what Don Habibi calls “liminal, distended time flashforward [an innovation of Ambrose Bierce]” and also by using flashback, Bierce weaves a story where time is fluid or subjective, and the way he structures the story sets the reader up for an unexpected ending (85). In Part I of the story, the scene focuses on a “gentleman” who is being prepared to be hanged by “soldiers of the Federal army” (Bierce 72,71). The reader is simply tossed into the middle of this alarming scene unsure of what this gentleman has done to deserve to be hanged, and then the reader is left in suspense by the sergeant who steps off the board sending the man to his death. In Part II, the reader is treated to a flashback. The narrator explains who the man being hanged is, Peyton Farquhar, which gives a glimpse of what his life is like, what he did to deserve punishment, and his ill-considered reasons for what he did. Part III introduces us back to the present in which Farquhar has a flashforward of his life in a single moment before he dies. This back and forth movement of time in the structure of the story helps to achieve an uncertainness in what the reader thinks will happen parallel to what Farquhar was feeling about his upcoming death.
Time seems to be neutral for the most part in the first part of the story. There is no sense of urgency nor does time seem to be trudging its seconds. Here, time seems to be on schedule. It is not till the end of Part I that the reader gets the sense that time is slowing down. Farquhar is looking down to the river below him which is “racing madly beneath his feet” (Bierce 72). In the following sentence, his eyes catch on a piece of driftwood which seems to be moving “slowly” and “sluggish[ly]” as he follows its path down stream (Bierce 72). Just a moment before that everything is fast pace. But as he watches the driftwood, time seems to move slower. This is slowing of time is accented by Farquhar's watch. He becomes aware of a “sharp, distinct, metallic percussion” in the quietness of the bridge (Bierce72). The beat was “regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell” (Bierce 72). He becomes impatient as the silence between strokes become “progressively longer.” The slowing of time here shows how Peyton Farquhar is being affected psychologically by the weight of his impending death.
In Part II, time goes backwards. The reader is introduced to Peyton Farquhar. By using flashback in the structure, Bierce is able to introduce the reader to the flaws of Farquhar. Peyton Farquhar was a “well-to-do planter” of a “highly respected” southern family. Because of “circumstances of an imperious nature,” Farquhar was unable to serve in the army, which he considered “gallant” and noble (Bierce 73). The romanticism ideals Farquhar held about the Civil War proved to be his downfall in the end. He wanted the “larger life of the solider” (Bierce 73). When the false confederate solider passes by and offers information that could hinder the Union soldiers, Farquhar gladly jumps at the “opportunity for distinction” despite the warning that any civilian caught interfering will be hanged (Bierce 73). By structuring time out of order, the reader loses sympathy for Farquhar in the middle of the story instead of being unsympathetic from the beginning. His unquenchable thirst for the “larger life” despite his comfortable disposition gives him all-to-familiar human traits.
Part III finds time even more fluid and subjective than the other part of the story. The “liminal, distended time flashforward” comes into play here. Farquhar imagines his escape and his return home (an entire day) from the moment the sergeant steps off the board to the moment the noose snaps his neck (a matter of objective seconds). Even in the flashforward, time has no fixed position as Paul Juhasz notes: “During Farquhar's “escape,” individual experiences happen both “inconceivably rapid[ly]” and “ages later”” (n. page). For example, in the first sentence, Farquhar loses consciousness as he falls from the board he was standing on and awakens “ages” later by the pressure of the noose at his neck. Time is fluid in his self-illusion. Towards the end of the hallucination, one moment Farquhar is walking on a road and the next he is falling into the arms of his wife. This lapse in time shows how his subconscious forgoes the pretense of the charade so that Farquhar can have that one moment he so eagerly wants with his wife before he dies, a very human quality.
As is the case in most of Bierce's stories, death is an almost tangible theme in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which drives Farquhar to imagine the hoax escape. Both the setting and the psychological and physical happenings, because of his undying hope that he will escape, structure the story in a way which reduces Farquhar to little more than a creature with the base animal instinct to live, turning him into an antihero.
Symbolism is a tool Bierce does not use sparsely. Many objects in the story hint at death and the threshold between life and death people often fear and shy away from. Take Owl Creek Bridge for example. The bridge symbolizes the path one has to cross when leaving life and entering death. On one side of the bridge is Farquhar's life with all his worldly belongings. On the other side of the bridge are the Union soldiers who represent death and war. Because of Farquhar's actions to choose to enter war, one can assume that he is symbolically being escorted by the Union soldiers who will hang him and send him to the “other side.” The river that flows beneath Farquhar is also symbolic as a rite of passage between life and death. In many religions (and even myths), when one dies, there is a river to cross to get to the other side. This river serves as the border between life and death such as the River Styx in Greek mythology (Hamilton 43). The river Farquhar is being hanged over will, in a symbolic sense, catch his soul and escort him on the other side.
The psychological and physical changes Farquhar goes through because of his extreme desire to live helps structure the story to show just how human Farquhar really is. Because of the intensity of his desire, he lets his mind take over. He sensory perceptions become distorted and the line between reality and illusion becomes blurred. He is able to see “the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass,” hear the sound of the “strokes of the water-spiders' legs,” and witness each individual leaf of the trees and the veining of each leaf on trees far away (Bierce 74). This all happens because he needs psychologically to escape death. He cannot handle the fact that he is going to die. His imagined escape is due to that fact that he hopes till the snap of the rope that he will be able to escape and live.
Deception is an active theme throughout “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Bierce intricately weaves deception into deceptions. Farquhar is made the fool by his ability to deceive himself into believing in the impossible. His fallacy in his thinking, in the end, is what gets him into trouble because he allows himself to be deceived by the Union soldier. Even the reader is deceived because of the structure of the story.
The first deception, which is the cornerstone for the birth of the occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, is Farquhar's mistaken views on war. He wanted to be part of the “gallant army.” “No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake” (Bierce 73). Farquhar, who was “ardently devoted” to the South, did not consider the true consequences of war and how harsh it truly was (Bierce 73). He deceived himself into the beliefs common to Romanics. As Cathy Davidson wrote, “Again and again the protagonist is a reasonable, articulate, or even exceptional being who has deceived himself into believing that he is logical and who dies before he realizes that his prized rationality has been mostly rationalized” (qtd. in Habibi 86-87). So when the Union soldier disguised as a Confederate soldier showed up and hinted that taking Owl Creek Bridge from the Federal army could be easily done by a civilian, Farquhar was only to happy to jump at the chance despite the warning of the penalty of death. He deems himself rational and able. Farquhar was also eager for “the larger life of the soldier” and the “opportunity for distinction” (Bierce 73). His eagerness makes him err.
The next deception is Farquhar's imagined escape. He lets himself believe that he escapes from being hanged. From being able to break the rope to free his hands to being able to dodge bullets and canon fire, there is no detail that goes unnoticed during this charade. And quite literally. From seeing “a million blades of grass” to hearing the rush of water a fish makes as it glides through the water, Farquhar lets his imagination run wild as his mind tries to cope with reality though at the same time it is making up its own parallel reality (Bierce 74). Even though there are a few incredible instances, ie. being able to see the color of a soldier's eyes from downstream, the reader can blame it on a physical reaction of the adrenaline coursing through him. All the things that happen to him in his illusion are rational things that could very well happen and are not outside the realm of possibility. Because of the plausibility of his self-deception, the reader is also deceived.
The reader, though willing, also goes on with Farquhar's deception because of several factors. One is that the reader is prone to believing in happy endings and Farquhar's illusion provides that. Bierce once wrote, “bad readers — readers who, lacking the habit of analysis, lack also the faculty of discrimination, and take whatever is put before them, with the broad, blind catholicity of a slop-fed conscience or a parlor pig” (Schulze). There are adequate clues throughout the story that hint to the reader that something is amiss. So the deception of the reader is, in essence, the reader's fault. The first hint that foreshadows deception is in the first part of the story.
“If I could but free my hands,” he thought, “I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. (Bierce 72-73)
Farquhar completed those actions almost word for word in his false reality. Then there are other instances that should be taken into account by the reader such as the instance at the end where the illusion starts to fall apart. Farquhar seems to dream within his dream.
Second, the narrative structure Bierce uses makes the reader doubt whether the narrator is reliable. The story jumps from an objective to a subjective point of view. In the first part of the story, the narrator stays in third person objective. The narrator simply states how things are happening with no bias to either side in the story. The end of the first part of the story all the way through till near the end of the third part is where the narrator subtly changes to a subjective third person narrator. The reader gets a glimpse into the mind of Farquhar. As Habibi stated, “We are clued in to his preternaturally keen senses, incredible stamina, pain, and elation at having escaped a cruel death” (84). Then, quite abruptly, the reader is told the hard truth by a detached narrator: “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge” (Bierce 75).
Bierce is a master at being able to control structure to make his protagonist an antihero. By using time, death, and deception to set up his character, he then lets their own flaws become the reason for their death. In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce seems to purposely hang Farquhar for his misguided thoughts and actions. As Habibi points out, “Bierce's works reflect his obsession with ironic, unnecessary, and strange death, as will as his cynical disillusioned attitude on the meaninglessness of life…. His protagonists are antiheroes. They make conscious decisions based on flawed thinking which lead to tragic predicaments” (86). Farquhar, who serves as an archetype of humanity, is the epitome of Habibi's statement. And perhaps, so is the reader. As in the Prescription, “What Bierce attempts to disclose at this deeper level is that the reader's mind is inclined to make the same fatal mistakes that Farquhar's does” (qtd. in Habibi 87). Bierce's use of structure develops the story to show how human Farquhar really is.
Bierce, Ambrose. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 9th ed. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. 71-76. Print.
Habbi, Don. “Experience of a Lifetime: Philosophical Reflections on Narrative Device of Ambrose Bierce.” Studies in the Humanities 29.2 (2002): 83-108. GALE. Web. 31 Mar. 2010.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1942. Print.
Juhasz, Paul. “No Matter What the Actual Hour May Be.” The Ambrose Bierce Project Journal 4.1 (2008): n. pag. Web. 1 April 2010
Schulze, John. The lessons to be learned from Peyton Farquhar - "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and its (anti)hero. Grin. 2004. Web. 10 April 2010.