A Hanging or an Escape
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in Northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The mans hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope loosely encircled his neck.(Bierce 639) In An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce the first few sentences seem to catch the reader. The point of view within the first few sentences is very critical in capturing the attention and asking the reader where the angle of vision is coming from and who is viewing these events and details. These sentences show the third person point of view as it says A man stood, and the rope encircled his neck. Throughout the story Peyton Farquhar who is being hung is looked at through a third person point of view throughout all the flashbacks that the story goes through. Even as it flashes from the description of Peyton Farquhar hanging, to his life before this in act II, and then goes right back to him falling off of the bridge in act III. The third person view is quite deceiving however it intensifies the mood for the reader throughout the story.
The first acts purpose is to display the troublesome event that the man is in and his focus on the group of federal soldiers. Within the group of soldiers there are two privates directed by a sergeant, one captain in uniform, and a sentinel at each end of the bridge. The focus points out that each man had a job to do; the two privates set up his hanging, the sergeant directed the men, a captain to overlook the entire operation, and the two sentinels at each end who look to allow a secure hanging. After the explanation of the focus a voice comes into the scene as it says, Death is a dignitary who, when he comes announced, is to receive with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him.(639) Bierce seems to put a thought of his own or possibly Peytons into this voice within the story. The thoughts ran through his head that he could be losing everything and that his death is a serious issue and he must have the uttermost respect for the situation. As the first few paragraphs are all reality, towards the end of the fourth paragraph, the author shifts cleverly from third person to limited omniscient. Bierce transfers from reality, to the main characters thought processes, having us view Peytons thoughts and dreams also as reality. He looked a moment at his unsteadfast footing then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet.(640) within this Bierce shifts and starts to confuse us. The thought of bad footing may lead to the escape of Peyton from the noose. The next paragraph then seems to slow down time as his focus shifts to his family, He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children.(640) Then suddenly Peyton awakes from his thoughts only to hear the percussion of his watch, his focus is almost all on this counting down the moments until his own death. The thought of death reinforces his love for life and the chance of escaping the noose and jumping into the water, but the thought is only a moment in which it catches the readers view of an escape to his loved ones.
The attention the reader views to his escape is then transferred into act II and the reality of Peytons personal life and love for the South. The devotion man to the confederacy made him want to fight, but Peyton could not because of other circumstances. Peyton was said to have, the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier (641). The hero was within Peyton to do anything for the confederacy and so one day when a man came riding in on his horse and told Peyton about the Yanks at Owl Creek Bridge, he was very interested. The man on the horse told Peyton that they were repairing the railroad at Owl Creek Bridge. Peyton said, suppose a man- a civilian and student of hanging-should elude the picket post and perhaps get he better of the sentinel(641), the man responded that there was a pile of drift wood that would easily burn. This sent Peytons focus to a heroic action that may involve burning down the bridge. However the soldier did tell Peyton that anyone caught in this action was to be hung.
Bierce does not shift voices again until the last paragraph of the story; meanwhile he weaves the "fairy tale" through Peyton's thoughts. The focus point is now attached on his third person point of view escape and in act III. His death is almost certain with the darkness of the describing setting, but then he feels the plash (642) of the water. There is narration that points to Peyton seeing the light as he comes to the surface of the water, but was it a dream to his death or was he really alive. This sense of light along with others like the cold and darkness, his increased sensitivity, and other elements seem to point toward his death. If the reader looks deep into the focus of the narrator it seems unrealistic. However our focus is on his escape and we do not see the death of Peyton until the last paragraph. We are shocked and left with a sense of puzzlement as the last sentence is revealed "Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of Owl Creek Bridge."(P.645) Finally we understand we have been cleverly mislead; strung along by hope and fantasy, only to come to the realization that Peyton did not live "happily ever after".
Ambrose Bierce knits a story of fascination and deception by something as simple as shifts in point of view. As he goes throughout the story shifting from act to act and third person to limited omniscient point of view it makes the reader interested and curious. Also it pulls the strings letting allowing the author to know things that the reader does not. Overall it is a very tricky and interesting short story that really gives a shock at the end of the story.