An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

By Ambrose Bierce

Conflict

There are two major conflicts occurring within An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, both of which a solid argument could be crafted about. The most prevalent conflict of this story is quite obvious: within the civil war, civilian Peyton Farquhar is being hanged for his attempt to help the South. This is an external conflict because other characters within the story are interfering with the protagonist, Peyton Farquhar.


However, while this is indeed the main conflict, I would be remiss if I did not mention the internal conflict Farquhar has within himself as well. Much of the text focuses on him hypothetically attempting to escape death and reach his home. This is evident of the fact that Farquhar is battling to escape his current situation in any way possible.

Charaters

Peyton Farquhar

The protagonist of this story is Peyton Farquhar, a southern slave owner from Alabama. He is the man being hanged above Owl Creek Bridge. He is characterized in a number of ways, mostly through indirect characterization. Through direct characterization he is said to be a good-looking, harmless man of about 35 years of age. Through indirect characterization, we can infer that he is brave, as he apparently had the courage to interfere with military activities in order to assist the Confederates. Through this same action we can also infer that he has the quality of patriotism. In addition to this, Farquhar's perseverance is also shown later in the story in that even after feeling a considerable amount of pain, he continues on through the woods, attempting to reach his home (although it must be mentioned that this event did not happen in reality). "By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famishing. The thought of his wife and children urged him on" (20).

Mrs. Farquhar

We know considerably less about Mrs. Farquhar than we do about her husband, as she is only mentioned briefly. That being said, she is a large part of the story in the sense that the end goal for Farquhar is to reach his wife and kids back home. Through the indirect characterization where she agrees to fetch the soldier water, we can infer that she is a kind and gracious woman. We can also see through direct characterization that she is a very beautiful woman, as the author mentions Farquhar explicitly thinking this.

Federal Scout

Similar to Mrs. Farquhar, we know very little about the Federal scout. The minimal amount that we do know comes from indirect characterization. Through the situation in which he tricked Farquhar into thinking he was a Confederate soldier and tempted him to interfere with military activities, we can tell that the scout is both sneaky and patriotic.

Plot Line

Exposition: The story starts with Peyton Farquhar's execution being set up. It explains that the soldiers and Farquhar are located on a bridge near train tracks in Alabama during the Civil War, with Farquhar set to be hanged.

Rising Action: Farquhar is dropped into the water with the noose around his neck. He escapes from the rope, swims to safety to a nearby bank, and begins traveling back home to his safe-haven with his family. "As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther downstream–nearer to safety" (18).

Climax: After a strenuous journey, the story explains that Farquhar finally reaches the entrance of his estate; he is home, and about to embrace his wife. However, quite abruptly, the author explains that Farquhar is not home at all. He has been dropped from the Owl Creek Bridge, his neck snapped and him swinging back and forth; he is dead. "Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck swung gently from side to side" (21). This is the climax because Farquhar had lived through all events progressing towards this point with the aspiration of reaching his family.

Falling Action: There is no falling action to this story, no area for the reader to reflect on what has happened. The text is leading up to Farquhar's hopeful and emotional arrival back home, and when he does not reach this, the story goes no further. There is an unexpected plot twist in which Farquhar's neck is snapped, and the story goes no further.

Resolution: There is no resolution to this story. Farquhar dies suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving the reader to contemplate this unforeseen plot twist.

Foreshadowing

There are many examples of literary devices within An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, but one of the best examples is that of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is when authors hint at what is to come of the solution in the story. As Farquhar is (hypothetically) walking through the woods to reach home, his neck begins to hurt. "His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it he found it horribly swollen" (20). This is hinting to the near future in reality, in which Farquhar's neck is snapped. "Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge" (21). Like most examples of foreshadowing, this can only be seen in retrospect, and looking at it from that perspective now, it was quite a clever way for Bierce to work in a bit of foreshadowing of the reality of the situation, rather than Farquhar's fantasy.

Dreams vs. Reality

One major theme Bierce communicates through this text is how powerful imagination can be, especially in dire situations. As Farquhar is being hanged, he becomes entranced in a fantasy world, in which he gets hanged, manages to escape, swim his way to the shore, escape death through the trees, and eventually reach his home. To the reader, this, for the majority of the story, feels like reality. That is, until the end when Farquhar is (in actuality) dropped from the bridge, his neck snapping immediately. The reason this harsh reality is so unbelievable and surprising to the reader is because of how convincing the previous 'reality' was. The fairytale which Farquhar was evidently picturing in his head was so enticing and inviting, that even he, the man who created the dream, believed it to be true! In this sense, the story translates to tell us how powerful an imagination can become, and the caution we should take in letting these dictate what we believe.


This theoretical, complex, and philosophical idea is what makes An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge worth reading. Can anybody fully understand this idea of dreams, or dreams taking over reality? Can anyone likely give a straight, all-encompassing answer? No, of course not! If it was a simple idea, it may not even be worth reading, but it is the complexity and perplexity of this question which makes it worth our attention.