Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Anyone who has ever read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is guaranteed to never forget it. The fine characterization of the unlucky protagonist, as well as the elegantly crafted style of the narrative, works together to produce the irony that so often characterizes Bierce’s writing. Not only is this a masterfully-written story, told with lyrical realism, but the twist of its shocking ending locks it firmly into the reader’s mind.
As Bierce’s story begins, the protagonist, Peyton Farquhar, is about to be executed by hanging; with a noose around his neck, he stands upon a plank on the edge of a bridge, and when the plank is removed he will tumble down toward the water below—never reaching it, however, due to the shortness of the rope which will both strangle him and break his neck.
However, in that brief second between the removal of the plank and the jerk of Farquhar’s body weight at the end of the rope, Farquhar manages to envision his escape. He pictures himself hitting the water, freeing his hands, swimming to safety, and being reunited with his family. He is even logical enough to realize that something about this scenario is not quite right, but somehow manages to rationalize away most of the clues that would tell us that death is taking place; he interprets the crack of his neck breaking as a rifle shot, and the natural protrusion of the tongue during strangulation as a symptom of thirst. But all the rationalization in the world will not save him, because his adventure is merely “life passing before his eyes” in the instant before he dies.
From this “life,” however, we learn much about the way he views his world. The time is the middle of the Civil War, and Farquhar’s plantation lies thirty miles to the south of Owl Creek Bridge. It is his hope to arrive at the bridge well before the Union Army does, and use the driftwood scattered about the area as kindling to burn the bridge down. The Union forces were infamous for burning down plantation homes as they progressed through the South, and Farquhar’s act was a last-ditch effort to save his home and family.
There are many aspects of Farquhar’s recollections about the approach of the Union soldiers that do not quite make sense, much like the thirst and the rifle shot mentioned above. For example, Bierce tells us that they were notified of the movements of the Union Army by “an old, grey-clad soldier” who stopped at their home for a drink. A soldier in a grey uniform is not a member of the Union Army—otherwise Farquhar’s wife would not have been so “happy to serve him with her own white hands”; rather, he is dressed as a Confederate soldier. But he certainly seems to know a lot about Union plans for a member of the opposing side. And isn’t his arrival just a bit too coincidental? It would seem more likely that this “old grey-clad soldier” is, in fact, himself a member of the Union Army, and his visit to the Farquhars’ home is a trap intended to tempt loyal Confederates to try to stop the Union Army in their path.
It may seem ironic that merely by dressing as a Confederate soldier, this man could convince Peyton Farquhar to risk his own life. But this is due, of course, to the man’s ability to make Farquhar believe what he wants to believe anyway. The stranger seems nice, so he must be a Confederate; he seems to be giving Farquhar an opportunity to be a hero, so he must take it. As Bierce explains, “Peyton Farquhar was a well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and, like other slave owners, a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. . . . No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.” This, in short, is his moment. He, Peyton Farquhar, would blow up the Owl Creek Bridge and stop the Northern Army in their tracks.
The one critical point on which his informer lied was the number of Union reinforcements which were guarding the bridge. The informer told Farquhar that there was only “a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge.” There were obviously more than that, for at Farquhar’s execution there are not only the executioners and officers on the bridge, but a “company of infantry in line, at ‘parade rest,’ the butts of the rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock. A lieutenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right.” Farquhar’s patriotism has overcome his common sense, and he was caught in a trap by the Union Army. We readers, likewise, have been caught in Bierce’s trap; without realizing it, we have been artfully seduced into Farquhar’s dream. We too have believed what we wanted to believe—and as Bierce warns us, we need to be careful about that.
Both Bierce stories can be found in the collection In the Midst of Life.
It is available as a paperback from Amazon here:
There’s a free Kindle download for “Owl Creek Bridge” here:
and also an audio version of “Owl Creek Bridge” available from Audible here.
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