Stories with twist endings are some of Shmoop's favorites. That's why we love The Sixth Sense, Ender's Game, and Shutter Island. Luckily, Ambrose Bierce knew how to write a twist ending, even back in 1890, when he published "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." We're not going to spoil the fun for you, but be prepared to be surprised by this strange story of a Civil War civilian's confrontation with death.
Bierce was especially suited to write stories about the Civil War, since he served in the Union army. But our author wasn't your typical soldier: he was a topographical officer. That means he went on scouting missions to make maps and determine the enemy's position. It might not seem impressive, given that these days you could do that with an iPhone, but it was quite an intensive duty. In fact, at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain on June 23, 1864, Bierce received a head wound that temporarily took him out of the action. Although he recovered and continued to serve in the army until the end of the war, he had experienced a traumatic injury and knew firsthand about the thin line that separates life from death, which is what "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is all about.
After the war, Bierce worked as a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, hired by William Randolph Hearst (you may have heard of his castle). Though "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is his most famous work, Bierce published quite a few stories about the Civil War. In all his works, he's known for his cynical depiction of the war. You're probably used to artists portraying war in a negative light, but Bierce does it with 'tude.
Big ol' spoiler alert: You should really read the story before going any further. The ending is a doozy, and we'll ruin it for you pretty soon if you don't get to reading.
Dead men tell no tales, as anyone who has been on Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride knows. So, we're never told what it feels like to be moments from death. In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Ambrose Bierce gives us the closest thing we'll probably ever get to that firsthand account of dying – that is, until we die ourselves.
Death is a major fear for most people. In fact, it's the third most feared thing by teenagers (spiders is number two, so… yeah). It is something we are curious about, but don't want to spend too much time pondering. We're in luck, though, because Bierce did the pondering for us. He reminds us that, although the distance between death and life can seem vast, the grim reaper is often just around the corner.
The imminence (coming-soon-ness) of death is especially true in wartime. This is something that we can understand even today. The Civil War is long over, but soldiers continue to fight and die, and civilian casualties are a major part of modern war. If you're lucky, you've never lived in a war zone, but you've probably watched footage from Afghanistan or Iraq, so you know that no one is safe from the ravages of warfare. When Bierce wrote his story, there were no I.E.D.s or R.P.G.s. Nevertheless, everyone – including civilians – suffered the effects of war.
So, the question remains: war, what is it good for? Everyone has an opinion (including the 1960s recording industry), and Ambrose Bierce is no exception. The sense we get from the author of this very spooky story is that, whatever the cause we're fighting for, war is about death. And not only the death of soldiers, but the death of civilians like Peyton Farquhar.
Bonus Brain Snack: In case you don't know, 2011 was the sesquicentennial anniversary of the American Civil War. That means it has been over 150 years since the firing on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the conflict that saved the Union and freed the slaves. Go ahead and check out Shmoop's information on the war and then you'll be able to read Bierce's story with a more informed eye.