Bierce, himself a veteran of the American Civil War fighting on the Unionist side, uses that historical setting in a number of his short stories, of which An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is perhaps the most famous. The story is structured in three distinct stages to give the reader different perspectives of Peyton Farquhar before the story’s surprise twist at the end.
A Man on a Bridge
The first section employs a detached narrative point of view, observing a man on a bridge. The reader has to wait until the second sentence to realise his predicament, with ‘wrists bound with a cord’ and a rope which ‘encircled his neck.’ His executioners too are described in the same unemotional detached manner, as if interpreting events from the standpoint of military observation. The context is developed gradually, with reference to ‘the Federal army’ and the military lexis of ‘stockade’, ‘rifles’, ‘embrasure’, ‘sword’ and ‘muzzle of a brass cannon’. However, that detached tone gradually shifts. While the identity of the victim at first has to be worked out, indicated in phrases such as ‘He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit’, the narrator restricted to observing external details, that perspective shifts between the fourth and fifth paragraphs, using the man’s watching a ‘piece of driftwood’ to enter his mind as he ‘fixed his last thoughts upon his wife and child.’ This narrative shift towards the end of the first section is important, as it invites greater reader sympathy for the man before he is identified and the background of his arrest is given in the second section.
The change of section also includes a change of time; it is a flashback to fill in information to clarify what the reader has seen in the first section. It perhaps surprises the reader to discover that Peyton Farquhar is a respectable citizen, ‘a well-to-do planter of an old and highly respected Alabama family.’ This information causes the reader to question how he came to be on the bridge facing hanging by the army. The clue, in the Civil War setting, is that he is from Alabama, in the deep south of the United States, and is a ‘slave owner’, so is at the centre of the issues which drove the Civil War between the Unionist and the Confederate states. A passing soldier, apparently Confederate, gives information about Owl Creek Bridge. In the dialogue it emerges that it is ripe for dangerous sabotage, but the last sentence gives the twist, as structural foreshadowing of the twist at the end of the story – the soldier is a Federal spy and it is clear that Farquhar has fallen into his trap.
Farquhar’s Incredible Escape
After that interlude, Bierce’s final section of the story takes the reader back to the bridge and the narrative, though still third person, is focalised entirely in Farquhar’s perspective as, right at the start of this section, he drops from the bridge with the noose round his neck. For the final twist to be effective, the reader has to be immersed in Farquhar’s consciousness as he experiences his plummet – the ‘poignant agonies’ in his neck, the sense of ‘pulsating fire’ and consciousness of ‘motion’ before ‘the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud plash’. It becomes clear, from Farquhar’s perspective, that ‘the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream.’ The following paragraphs are full of action as Bierce describes Farquhar’s struggles in the water, freeing his hands and congratulating himself – ‘what superhuman strength! … Bravo!’ This part of the story becomes action-packed, as Farquhar emerges from the water to be met by a fusillade of shots from the Federal soldiers; it carries all the hallmarks of a stereotypical adventure story, an amazing escapade, and indeed ultimately, escape. Some of the details are still convincing – that he is ‘fatigued, footsore, famishing’, linked by the alliteration, and that he finds his neck ‘horribly swollen’ – but in the penultimate paragraph, the certainty begins to wobble as he feels he may be suffering ‘delirium’ as he arrives home to have his homecoming blanked out by first ‘a blinding white light’ before ‘darkness and silence’.
While the final sentence reveals the twist, Bierce delays it until even the end of the sentence; the reader knows immediately that he is dead, with the shift back to the detached narrative perspective, but the end of the sentence reveals his body as it ‘swung gently’ from Owl Creek Bridge. The entire third section has been a trick on the reader; the twenty paragraphs have explored the last split second of consciousness before Farquhar met his death.
Narrative methods to consider:
- Third person narration
- Changing perspective