An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge: Life in the Blink of an Eye
If you found yourself about to be executed, how would you respond? Would you beg for your life? Would you resist defiantly until the very end? In Ambrose Bierces short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Peyton Farquhar is a man standing in the face of his own mortality, about to be hung from the very bridge he attempted to destroy. Bierces narrative continually interweaves the present to the past and back to the present, leading the reader into a state somewhere between dream and reality. This tale is an examination into the response to certain death, exploring the reflections on lifes priorities when all is threatened to be lost, mans natural instinct and fight for survival, and the concept of time is relative to the situation.
As the story unfolds, the author supplies intricate detail of the preparations required for the evolution to take place. A meticulous description is given as to how the prisoner is bound with his wrists behind his back, the length of the rope around his neck, and the timber boards used to construct the temporary platform, all producing imagery that there is no escape from fate. Reinforcing that concept is the presence of the Federal troops. Sentries standing at each end of the bridge and a company of infantry standing at parade rest (22) along the river bank promote a sense of impending doom. Bierce reinforces the solemn nature of the proceeding as the infantry company is illustrated as staring stonily, motionless (23) and describes the sentries standing so still that they might have been statues to adorn the bridge. (23) His executioners, a captain, sergeant, and two privates methodically assemble the platform without saying a word, demonstrating typical military efficiency with cold detachment. This sentiment is summarized by the author in the lines: Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference. (23)
Bierces description of the main character seems somewhat ambiguous at times. In Part I, there is significant emphasis on the physical description of Peyton Farquhars grooming habits and the fit of his clothing, unmistakably portraying him as coming from a life of privilege. This is strengthened in the statement, Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded. (23) In Part II however, as the story flashes back to how Farquhar came to be in his predicament, there is only a vague reference to his not being able to serve in the war effort. What is remarkable is that these contradictory methods for describing him still leaves this reader with the impression that Farquhar feels like he is missing out on history and wants to prove his devotion not only to the cause, but prove his self-worth.
With only the weight of the sergeant holding his footing in place and his inevitable fate looming, Farquhar closes his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. (24) Contemplating life in his last moments, reality starts to fade. Time starts to become fluid as Farquhar hears a metallic banging, with the intervals growing steadily farther apart, but the strength of each strike grows stronger as it continues. Then he realizes that it is only the ticking of his watch. With only seconds left, he starts to think that if he could just get his hands free, he could throw off the noose and dive into the water and escape back home. Even as time appears to slow in Peytons final seconds, the author closes the gap with the final lines in Part I. As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed mans brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside. (26)
While Part II takes us back to reveal that Farquhar was duped by a Federal scout, Part III flashes back to the present. At this point the lines between reality and illusion start to blur. As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. (28) Snapping awake, he feels a sharp pain around his throat and feels suffocated as he discovers himself underwater. The rope broke! Struggling underwater to free his bound hands, Peyton is not about to drown after being hanged. His survival instinct kicks in as he rises to the surface, intent on escaping home to the arms of his wife.
As Peyton swims to the bank, his senses become almost superhuman. Colors are vibrant, he can see individual leaves in all of the trees, smells the fragrance of the plants, and can even hear the wings of a dragonfly beating; the entire time the Federal army has taken position and is firing at him. Swept away by his imagination, he believes he sees directly into the eye of one of the sentinels firing at him, noting that it is a grey eye, and remembering that grey eyes were the keenest, ideal for marksman. Continuing to dodge gunfire, and even cannon shot, he miraculously makes his escape into the woods.
The concept of time continues to fluctuate as Farquhar travels all day through the woods. By nightfall he is tired and sore, but again he reflects on his wife and children. He discovers a road in the dark, lined with trees that form a wall on both sides, but instinctively he knows it will lead him home. As he makes his way through the unfamiliar surroundings, he hears whispers in an unknown tongue, (38) leaving the reader to wonder if the reality of death is starting to sink in. Thinking that he must have fallen asleep while walking, Farquhar finds himself standing in front of his house in the morning sunshine. Suddenly, he sees his wife in flowing garments smiling and waiting for him. As he rushes forward with open arms, he feels a sharp blow to his neck and sees a blinding white light, then all is darkness and silence! (39)
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge. (39)
As Peyton Farquhar stared death in the face, reflections on his life left him wanting. Thoughts of disappointment and regret, coupled with memories of family and a burning desire to survive; wanting was all that was left. When all is said and done, life is over in the blink of an eye.
Bierce, Ambrose. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Tales of Soldiers and Civilians.
San Francisco: Steele, 1891. 21-39. The Ambrose Bierce Project. Web. 2 Nov. 2011.