An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge

By Ambrose Bierce

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The central conflict in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is that Peyton Farquhar is going to be hanged for tampering with the Owl Creek Bridge that was being repaired by union troops. Peyton tampered with the bridge, despite the fact that the man in charge of the repairing of the bridge has ordered anyone that tampers with the bridge will be hanged. Being the overconfident person he is, he referred to himself as a "student of hanging" implying that he believed he wasn't going to actually die. Peyton's obvious external conflict was that he was in fact going to be hanged, but his internal conflict was facing the fact that he would never see his family ever again thanks to his naiveness.


A major theme that the author tries to portray is the fact that our feelings can alter the way in which we perceive events in our lives- if we believe strongly enough, we can see things that aren't there. He truly was convinced that he had made it home, when in reality it was all an illusion, fueled by the determination to escape home to his family which he loved very much.

This sudden turn of events completely changed the readers perception of the outcome of the story. The author went into great detail in writing Farquhar's imaginary escape home, by making him so convinced that he was going to make it home, therefore making the reader believe that as well. If someone that is about to be hanged can imagine such a realistic escape, how can we distinguish in our lives what is reality and what is just a figure of our imagination?

Plot Line

Exposition: The story stars off with the establishment of the main character, and the fact that he is going to be hanged.

Rising Action: The main character, Peyton Farquhar, slips out of the noose and plunges into the water in the river below. After an intense escape of the gunfire from the soldiers on the bridge above, Farquhar runs through the woods, eventually ending up at his home.

Climax: Just as Farquhar is about to embrace his wife at his home, he feels a sharp pain in the back of his neck. This is when reality hit him, and he was hanged at the bridge.

During his imaginary escape during the Rising Action, reality hits Farquhar and he is hanged by the bridge. His death is the end of the story, and since his death is the climax, there is no Falling Action or Resolution.

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Peyton Farquhar

The main character of this story is Peyton Farquhar. She has a family with wife and children, and lives in Alabama. He is a very caring man, and he loves his family very much. He is indirectly characterized in many different ways, but mainly in the fact that he completely imagined an escape back to his home. "The thought of his wife and children urged him on." (20). This shows that his family is what he cares about the most. Despite the many near death experiences and extreme exhaustion, the idea of him being home safe with his family motivated him to not give up.


A major literary device that the author uses frequently throughout the story is symbolism. An example of this is the driftwood. When Farquhar first noticed the driftwood, it is what distracted him from thinking about his wife and kids. Later, he imagines himself floating in the water, as if he is the driftwood. In this case, the driftwood represents Farquhar's unattainable freedom, but also Farquhar himself. Additionally, right before his imaginary escape, he sees the raging water beneath him. However, he notices how slow the driftwood is moving in the suddenly "sluggish" stream. This change in perception was Farquhar's transition from reality to imagination. A final example of how the author applies symbolism to this driftwood was that it was what brought him to the bridge in the first place. When he was talking to the scout about the bridge, the scout is the one who told him that there was a pile of driftwood close to the bridge. Farquhar believed that he would be able to burn down the bridge, thus the driftwood being the reason he went to the bridge in the first place.

Can our interpretations of our lives alter the way we distinguish reality from imagination?

In the story, Peyton's imagination completely tricked him into thinking that he had escaped and was home safe, that he wasn't going to be hanged after all. But this was the combination of a number of characteristics that pertain to Peyton. These include his overconfidence, his naiveness, and his love for his family. Peyton's overconfidence is what got him his death sentence in the first place. He thought that he could get away with attempting to burn down the bridge and get in the way of the army. His naiveness contributed to this thought, in the way that he did not know how big of a risk he was taking, and that he would have an extremely small chance of accomplishing his goal and coming out alive. However, his love for his family was one of Peyton's stronger characteristics. The fact of seeing his wife and kids is what urged him to push through the excruciating pain he was experiencing and continue on his escape to safety. These were the characteristics that Peyton had on his life. If any of these characteristics weren't in place, would Peyton's imagination not have tricked him in the first place?

The surprise twist at the end of this story confuses, but also engages the reader and allows his/her to question their own life and their own perspective. As humans, we have all have different interpretations of our own lives. If Peyton's views on his life created a completely imaginary escape from his death, what distinguishes us from Peyton? What if the perspectives that we have on our lives cause us to imagine things as in depth as Peyton did? This story forces us to question our lives. It forces us to question wether or not we can trust the perceptions that we have of the world.