An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

What makes Ambrose Bierce a realist Author “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” can be considered a work of realism for two reasons. The first is Bierce’s utilization of his own military background giving this story a sense of realism. Bierce also conveys his pessimism after leading the reader to believe otherwise. This story provides social critique of the south during the Civil War.

Bierce goes to great lengths to describe the opening sequence in terms of its military arrangement. He provides brilliant images of group formations and soldier stances like “a single company of infantry in line, at ‘parade rest’ the butts of the rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock”. He also takes the time to describe exactly how fortified the Owl Creek Bridge is. He shows his military experience by describing a road that stretches out of site and assuming that “Doubtless there was an outpost farther along”. The procedures of a military execution were explained thoroughly including the code of conduct: “In the code of military manners silence and fixity are forms of deference”. Bierce earned the nickname “Bitter Bierce” early in his life for his pessimism. This is not evident in this story until the end. The third and final part begins with a sequence of miraculous occurrences allowing Peyton Farquhar to escape from his hanging. The description of these events leads the reader to believe that Bierce is a Romantic author rather than a realist.

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The rope breaks dropping him into the creek. He then uses his “superhuman strength” to remove the rope from around his neck. Peyton is then blessed with better senses seeing the veins on leaves in the forest and hearing gnats and dragonfly wings in the distance. Then he sees the eye of a marksman on the bridge through the range on the rifle. Amazingly, this marksman misses what should be an easy target and allows Farquhar to swim farther downstream. Peyton then manages to avoid a barrage of bullets, big gunfire, and finally grapeshot and is only wounded by one bullet. In contrast to the first part, the scenery is now described as a dream world of “strange roseate light”, trees that look like “giant garden plants”, and “great golden stars”. He describes the arrangement of the trees as having “definite order” and the stars are in order of “secret and malign significance”. This suggests what Peyton is seeing is contrived rather than real. The author also gives more direct hints to what happens in actuality. In the first part, Farquhar imagines how he would escape while he is waiting to be hung which accidentally is how it happens. In the end, his final thought is of his wife greeting him at the front gate. This is revealed initially in the first part: “He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children”.

Another indication is the reference to the single bullet to hit him in the water. The wound is to his neck and described as uncomfortably warm. This is much like the description of how the noose felt around his neck. The cannonball that hits nearby creates a wave that “strangles” Peyton. Later in Farquhar’s journey, his tongue is swollen and his eyes no longer shut. His tongue is stuck out and he loses the feeling of the ground. These are all physical manifestations of his hanging that intrude on the escape fantasy. Just as Peyton approaches his wife is when Bierce finally reveals Farquhar’s true fate. He feels a blow to the back of his neck and then there is darkness and silence. After painting a picture of Peyton Farquhar’s miraculous escape, Bierce brings cruel reality by allowing him to be executed thereby showing his pessimism. Bierce’s writing that makes him a realist was his use of social critique of the Civil War southerner. Peyton is a wealthy Alabama plantation and slave owner who is therefore devoted to the southern cause. His patriotism can be seen by his desire for service in the “gallant army that fought in the disastrous campaigns”. Peyton knows that his “opportunity for distinction” will come and feels that no task is too small. He is not to serve in the partner army due to “circumstances of an imperious nature”. This statement shows that the only people who didn’t fight the battles were the only ones who stood to gain from victory. Volunteering for the Union Army himself, Bierce mocks the Confederate cause. It is when a Confederate soldier arrives at his home that Peyton knows his opportunity has arrived. He asks the soldier enthusiastically about the Owl Creek Bridge and despite hearing the warning of execution continues to ask, “Suppose a man-a civilian and student of hanging-should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of a sentinel, what could he accomplish?” While it shows that he wants to be a hero for the South it also reveals that he has most likely hung slaves before. This is probably done to show another flaw in the southern cause. Peyton and his wife view the soldiers of the association with the greatest of respect. Peyton’s wife “was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands”.

In conclusion, this could be interpreted in two similar ways. The first is that her delicate hands are typically not put to work due to wealth. The other is a direct reference to race. She respects the ideal of a soldier so much that she is willing to do a slave’s work to show her appreciation. To show his appreciation, Peyton is willing to leave his family and risk his life to do something to help the South. It is this blind loyalty, which causes him to lose sight of what is really important, his family. The illusion of his escape from execution finally made him realize that he wanted nothing else than to be with his family. Unfortunately, Bierces cynical style of writing only lets him find out when it’s too late.




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