An Analysis of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

The plot is about a man who has been wrongly accused and is now being hanged by an organised military group. The man gradually is deprived of oxygen as the noose is tightened. He then begins hallucinating and the reader is lead astray to thinking that the man is escaping, when in reality he is simply distorted due to the rope is structured in a very manipulative way. The story begins at a point which is just before the end of the story.

The writing style is quite formal and the language used is cynical, angry and in a way ironic. The story of the narrative is developed in the first paragraph, inviting the question of why this man is about to be hanged.

The second paragraph is given in formal language and gives the reader a detailed insight of the surroundings at the bridge and tells us that soldiers stand ground there. The third paragraph tells us that man is being hanged if we didnt already gather that from the first paragraph.

It tells us more about the civilian and makes us wonder why he is at the bridge about to be hanged. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of people, and gentlemen are not excluded. However we are also told that this man is a kind-hearted man and he is no vulgar assassin. Now we feel a touch of sympathy for the man, as we know he is either innocent or does not deserve such a penalty.

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By now Bierces tone is established; dry, ironic, exact, almost pedantic and – the voice of a satirist. I say this because his point of view is ironic and obscure. From the fourth paragraph we gather that the man is now even closer to death as the sergeant is using his own weight to keep the man from hanging, and we are taught the man had been using the plank to stay alive and not suffocate. This works by the sergeant standing on one end of the plank whilst Farquhar is using the other end to stand on. The sergeant is the only person who is keeping Farquhar alive. It is as if the sergeant has absolute control of Farquhars life, and he has the duty of standing away from the plank and letting it drop into the river, as Farquhar now is hanging on by the noose.

The words unsteadfast footing are brought to the readers attention because it is actually from Shakespeare\’s 1 Henry IV. It is a similarity between Hotspur and Farquhar in that the character Hotspur dies the victim of his own optimism. Bierce is providing a famous quote which fits in perfectly with the situation which Farquhar is in. I do not think that this phrase is awfully well known and so I researched it on the internet.

This paragraph tells us that the man begins hallucinating due to wishful thinking. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move. What a sluggish stream! In the first paragraph we are told that the water is twenty feet below, therefore it is impossible that the man would be able to see and follow a small piece of driftwood down the stream. His perception of time is distraught by his stressed mind.

The distortion continues in the following paragraph as he mistakes the sound of the ticking from his watch with an unknown sound, similar to the stroke of a blacksmiths hammer upon the anvil. He describes the sound in great detail. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore or understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmiths hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing qualityThe intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.

This shows the man is obviously unaware of the general atmosphere and is now focusing on minute sounds which seem extremely exaggerated to him. I think this tells us that he is in his own world and completely obnoxious to the basic surroundings. We see that the man is falling deeper and deeper into a deprived state. The man was focusing on this sound, as it was the closest sound to him because the atmosphere must have been very calm. The time is elongating here as he closes his eyes and concentrates on the scene around him and then turns his thoughts resolutely toward his family.

The penultimate paragraph of the first section of the story makes our sympathy for him grow swiftly because he thinks that there is a possibility of escaping death. Here, the author manipulates the reader into thinking that optimism is an option of thinking for the man. In this state of mind, the man jumps from thought to thought. Again, this is a sign of distortion.

In the last paragraph the man begins to hang. This is the last action presented in sequence; we now retreat into Farquhars past. I think Bierce has been very thorough in describing the surroundings, setting, and how the Farquhar has been hung and his thoughts and feelings at the present time. Telling the story in the present tense emphasizes it as it was an imperative section.

The beginning of the second section gives us insight into Farquhars family background. It also tells us about how he gets into this position. He wasnt fit enough to get into the army but still he wanted to contribute to the Southern cause. He wanted some excitement. The interlude at Farquhar\’s estate is both emotive and ironic. At the point where he rides up to the gate we get the impression that he is a Confederate soldier, though there is a possibility he could be a Yankee spy.

A grey-clad soldier rode up to the gate Farquhar imagines himself to be a soldier and accepts the brutal and lawless outlook of war, even as he sits behind the lines, even as a Confederate soldier receives a drink from the white hands of his wife. It never occurs to him that others equally devoted to victory might actually deceive him. Otherwise, acting like a soldier gets him hanged. The writing style is elaborate.

As we read further on, we realise Farquhar was a southern farmer. I think this is put across by Bierce to increase our pity for the man and symbolises innocence. As section three begins, we are back to the hanging, though in protracted time. We are lead to believe he escapes, but it is actually his hallucination as he asphyxiates. Farquhar\’s style of speech has become self-consciously urbane and idealistic in a serious way and it quickly defines his character.

Half way through the first paragraph, Bierce uses the simile of a pendulum, the way Farquhar is swinging on the rope. Then at once, with a terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud plash This is the jerking of the rope, and he then goes on to believe the rope has broken and he has fallen into the stream. There is an absurd logic both in Farquhar\’s reflections and in his situation; the noose keeps the water from his lungs and so is a kind of protection. This ignores the other effect of strangulation: it constricts the vessels that carry blood to the brain.

The description of his effort to free his wrists should warn us of the unreal nature of this passage. He has ceased to be a participant even in his struggle for life; instead, he is an interested observer, watching and not really concerned about the outcome. We seem to return to the story at the point at which we left it. Warned by the hints that the extreme nature of the situation has changed Farquhar\’s perception of time, we recognize that his sensations are not completely reliable.

Bierce warns us in any case by such comments, as it seemed to him… There is a change in the language at this point in the story. Always rather cunning and elegant, the narrative voice now becomes increasingly Latinate. This shift in language makes the description resemble an intentional account of awareness or other real experience.

He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leafsaw the very insects upon them, the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the grey spiders stretching their web from twig to twig. He noticed the prismatic colours in all the dewdrops upon the million blades of grass. These are details that he could not possibly know of. These are all part of his stunning hallucination. He thinks he is experiencing these things but is seeing them merely because of his brain, as it is deprived of oxygen. Though there is also another possibility. He could possibly be hearing and feeling and seeing all these things around him because he is so close to death. There is a certain grotesqueness about Farquhars state of mind now, as he comes close to an end.

Farquhar\’s vision of the grey eye of the marksman is another event which suggests an experience of fantasy. He then dreams that the marksman misses him. This is an anticlimax. The details of loading and firing are touches of realism, and yet the way they are seen-from the water and often from under the water, and from a great distance, all while swirling about in the current, marks them as unachievable fantasy.

As Farquhar dives into the water, Bierce uses personification and yet more similes to stress the paragraph. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dulled thunder of the volley.

He mistakes a successful bullet with a rope burn, which he describes as uncomfortably warm. When Farquhar believes he is swimming vigorously with the current, he is simply moving about on the end of the rope. Then he imagines a cannon exploding within two yards of him. Again, this noise could be the ticking of his watch. Bierce uses the effects of light and sound to transform the actual landscape. This estrangement continues, deepening as we approach Farquhar\’s final moment of life.

He is perplexed by the beauty of the scene where he runs into the forest, into safety, where he will eventually return to his family and live a long life. After this paragraph, the language and content becomes quite general. There are no more minute details and the paragraphs become protracted once again. The heavens here are unfamiliar, and their secret is indeed malign. He is clearly dying now, his swollen tongue thrusting out from between his teeth as he strangles.

Bierce changes the tense back to the present as he describes Peyton Farquhars afterlife. He meets his wife. The language is full of grace and a confident respect for the character. As he goes to embrace his wife, he hears his own neck break, and Bierce describes the picture of Farquhar. He is hanging, swinging gently from side to side.

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An Analysis of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce. (2023, May 06). Retrieved from

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