An Analysis of "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "Young Goodman Brown"

For an author, time is a tool manipulated for specific purposes. In the story “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, time is condensed and shifted in accordance with the changes of the main character’s reality. In “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne it is not time that is altered but Goodman’s dreaming mind. Both time and the subconscious mind affect reality in varying ways. How does time-manipulation or dreams affect a character’s reality, and how does this affect the reader?

In the first story “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” we encounter a man apparently being hung by a squadron of Federal soldiers.

As the unnamed man looked down into his watery grave, he becomes fixated on a dancing piece of driftwood. He then closes his eyes to “focus his last thoughts upon his wife and kids”. Similarly as the driftwood floated in the sluggish stream, his thoughts begin to slow. He focuses on the water, the light, the mist.

The “sharp, distinct, metallic percussion” of his ticking watch which invades his thoughts distinctly shows how time is suspended in those brief moments. The “immeasurably distant” ticking with its “greater infrequency…increased in strength and sharpness”. The piercing noise begins to define the man’s reality. It is only when he “uncloses” his eyes, does he notice the water below him and his impending death.

Identity, and therefore reality, becomes clearer when the second section introduces the hanged man by name. The third section begins with Peyton Farquhar falling into the water and, importantly, describes the moment he lost consciousness and “was as one already dead”.

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Luckily he awakens from this state, “ages later, it seemed to him”. Time once again has been distorted for the character.

It is at this moment, when the rope is tightening around Farquhar’s neck, that he begins to hallucinate. The story describes how thought abandons him. Without thought or consciousness, reality becomes a nonentity. Even those who are asleep have thoughts or dreams. In that singular moment, the man has nothing. Luckily for Farquhar, the rope breaks and “the power of thought was restored” as he hears a splash. It is a confusing moment for the reader, whether or not to accept this instance of death as reality or not.

The reader must be asked to what extent they believe Farquhar’s apparent death. There is held within the reader’s mind the dichotomy of the character’s death or his survival and escape from bondage. The reader has already accepted the character’s revival from a “dream” so it is not much farther of a stretch to assume the captive’s freedom. When Farquhar begins to untie his wrists and swim to the surface, freedom has become his reality. This causes the reader to challenge their perceptions and either suspend disbelief in order to allow this new development or reject it entirely.

Farquhar’s own perceptions become altered when his senses become “preternaturally keen and alert” to the point where he notices new sensory details which are normally impossible, including when he notes the eye color of a sentinel who is shooting at him. This superhuman boost to the escapee’s hearing and sight are yet another way in which his reality changes within the story. This continues when Farquhar dodges bullets. It is also noteworthy, however, when he falls down “caught in a vortex” and a volley of gunfire once again “roused him from his dream”. The question remains; did he ever truly awake?

The story of “Young Goodman Brown” is another story of reality-bending. At the end of Goodman’s nightly stroll through the forest, he returns to town with an immense distrust for his neighbors. The entire story hinges on how one explains Goodman’s journey. If the journey happened as it is told, then Goodman must accept supernatural involvement. The other option is the possibility of a dream. Both realities affect how the story is read.

When Goodman ventures into the forest, he encounters a shadowed figure who takes the likeness of his grandfather (and, it appears, Goodman himself). This figure makes several allusions to intimate knowledge of Goodman’s ancestors. This is the first of many hints of the figure’s supernatural identity. There is also the note of the traveler’s staff crafted in the likeness of a serpent. When Goodman sees the staff “wriggle itself like a living serpent”, he assumes it to be an “ocular deception, assisted by the uncertain light”.

Of course, a demon of any power (this figure is assumed to be the devil, Satan) could easily change wood into a live snake. Goodman is forced to at least acknowledge the strangeness of this man, even mildly. Even with the realization of demonic influence, Goodman only briefly hesitates at the strangeness of his situation in the forest. Goodman, in fact, seems to have been expecting supernatural events, seeing as how he is not overtly disturbed by them.

Goodman’s reality is distorted by this demonic figure’s influence. As soon as he takes the offered walking stick, he “vanished into the deepening gloom”. Goodman then is faced with a stark dichotomy between his goodly wife, Faith, and his “guilty purpose.” Goodman accepts the consequences of his dark actions, and in that abandons his Faith. That decision alone is the culmination of the story. In this climax, Goodman fully recognizes the full extent of his journey.

As the gathering unfolds around him, he faces the full scope of a witches’ gathering. In this moment, Goodman’s reality changes dramatically. As he loses his Faith and all of his morals, Goodman also begins to lose his mind. Goodman begins to laugh, “maddened with despair”. He begins to embody the demon he followed into the cove. Reality once again begins to bend.

The reader cannot easily distinguish between the demonic figure and the transformed good man Brown. When there finally is a clear distinction between devil and husband, it is already too late. In vain, Goodman tries to have Faith look away from the ceremony, but he has already succumbed to the power of sin. Sin and darkness became Goodman’s reality that night.

The story then switches to the following morning where Goodman is returning from the forest into the town of Salem. Goodman stands conflicted, remembering the evil acts from the night before. He is unable to make sense of his memories in contrast to the genteel behavior of the townfolk. Goodman was so affected by his “dream” in the forest that he forever is changed in how he sees his neighbors, the priests, and even his wife. He lives out the rest of his life in fear.

Young Goodman Brown becomes a “stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man”. A dark dream in the forest of Salem altered Goodman’s reality to the extent of shaping his future into one of distrust and solitude.

Despite his own dreams of death, Peyton Farquhar still perseveres in his escape. The hallucinations continue in subtle ways when he hears “whispers in an unknown tongue” and loses sensation in his feet. He also imagines “great golden stars” above the forest trail leading to the gate of his own home. As he approaches his home, the reader’s perception changes because the tense of the story switches from past tense to future tense. At this shift, reality is once again blurred. Farquhar continues to dream about his wife, absorbed in how joyful and dignified she is.

The spell is only broken as they embrace, when he feels a “stunning blow upon the back of the neck”. There is no separation between memory, sensation, or even the pain of death. Time is no longer an issue for Farquhar, because it has ceased. It is here that the readers must face what has already been predicted; Farquhar is dead. The harsh truth arises when the reader realizes that Farquhar never had the chance to swim, but his body swings gently beneath the timbers of Owl Creek Bridge.

Both of these stories twist time, space, and reality in a chaotic fashion. The reader is often forced to follow blindly as a captive audience. The reader watches, helpless, as characters are subjected to twisted scenarios which redefine reality. At times the reader will accept the author’s chosen reality for characters, other times the reader is forced to make a choice. In the end, the reality of the reader will forever be changed by exposure to the strange worlds of Story.

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An Analysis of "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "Young Goodman Brown". (2023, May 06). Retrieved from

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