Any narrator who describes a condemned man as "engaged in being hanged" (1.4) automatically qualifies for the Sardonic Tone Award (the Tone-y Awards ceremony is only slightly less boring than the Oscars). Sardonic basically means bitter or cynical, and boy is our narrator both of these things.
The narrator describes the execution with precision, but also with his tongue in his cheek. Check out how he describes Farquhar's commitment to the southern cause:
No service was too humble for him to perform in the 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. (2.1)
The narrator calls the famous saying – "all is fair in love and war" – "villainous," but refrains from calling his protagonist "villainous." Basically, he aligns Farquhar with a villainous creed, but leaves it up to us to decide about Farquhar's action. This is fitting, since this is a story focused on perception and interpretation.
Although sardonic might not be the nicest word to describe someone, it actually works incredibly well for the story. Because the narrator remains sardonically detached, he is able to describe Farquhar's fantastical escape as though it is actually happening.
Bierce wrote his stories of the Civil War a few decades after the conflict ended, so he was writing about a historical era that was long gone. In 1890, however, the effects of the war were still ever-present, even if the memories were fading. Historical fiction stories like "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" preserved the memory of the war.
The story also reproduces the emotions of a man shortly before, and during, his death. Farquhar's imaginary journey is a physical and emotional adventure. Bierce's description of Farquhar's sensations during his miraculous escape and his perception of the world around him raises a dying man's thoughts to the level of epic adventure. Freeing himself of his bonds while sinking in a creek, swimming away from bullets, and traveling through a strangely unfamiliar landscape, Farquhar goes on an exhilarating adventure.
At first the title of the story seems pretty straightforward. It seems mostly descriptive: this is a story about something that happens at Owl Creek Bridge. All true enough. What we find interesting is Bierce's word choice. He could have gone with any word in the dictionary, but he chose "occurrence." We're pretty sure that anyone being hanged would think that the word "occurrence" was a bit too casual a description. But maybe that's the point? The word "occurrence" seems so laid back, so blasé, that it almost sounds like he's writing it off as a no-big-deal, everyday kind of a situation. Is this a cynical commentary on military violence? Sure sounds very Ambrose Bierce to us.
An occurrence, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is an event or a happening. Simple enough, right? Not so fast. The "currence" part comes from the Latin word currere, meaning "to run."This is very much related to the word "current," as in running water. We can't be sure whether or not Bierce was thinking about this when he wrote his story, or even if he knew this little etymological nugget to begin with. But, the story begins with a man staring down at a creek (a creek with a current!), and so we're going to go ahead and (over)analyze.
If we really wanted to go off the deep end, we could say that present in both the title and in the creek below the bridge, a current runs through the story. The current could represent life, or time, or fate, or freedom. But maybe that's digging a bit too deep into the word "occurrence" – you decide.
Bierce's story and Farquhar's journey end with a simple, declarative sentence:
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge. (3.20)
This, friends, is one heck of a twist ending. The final sentence compresses the time structure of the story and directs our attention to the strange nature of time in the story. Here we basically find out that the whole story takes place in the course of about one minute, or maybe just a few seconds.
Since we learn that Farquhar never falls through the bridge and down into the water, we have to reevaluate large portions of the story. What actually happens between the moment the sergeant steps aside and the moment Farquhar is dead? Just as Farquhar walks through a forest that he thinks should be familiar, we must return down the same road of the story that we thought we knew. This time, however, we have different and important information. Farquhar can't tell the difference between an imaginary escape and death by hanging. Bierce seems to ask, can you?
Because we're talking about a story very much rooted in history, it's important to think about the historical setting. In the story itself, Bierce never tells us the date of the famed occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Though the first version of the story included the phrase "summer of 1862," subsequent versions did not (source) – and if it didn't make the final cut, we can't use that as evidence. What the narrator does tell us is that the Confederate army has recently suffered setbacks and that Corinth has fallen. Aha! Evidence of the American Civil War. Looking at our dusty history books (or this handy website), we learn that the Confederates pulled out of Corinth, Mississippi in late May of 1862 when the Union invaded. So, even without the original date marker, we can guess that the story takes place in the summer of 1862 (or maybe late spring, if you want to be a stickler).
Now that we have the date set, what does that mean for our story? Well, in the summer of 1862, the Civil War has been in full force for about a year and it is far from over. Alabama, home to Owl Creek Bridge, has already seceded (pulled out of the Union) and its citizens are largely committed to the Confederate cause. That's all to say that we're in a majorly Confederate area. When the story begins, Union troops have entered Alabama. Peyton Farquhar, a civilian slave owner, is determined to serve his newly formed country.
Bierce goes into great detail about the bridge and the surrounding landscape, and he uses his protagonist's heightened senses to observe and describe this setting. Though Farquhar is a native of this part of northern Alabama, his journey home takes him through a seemingly unfamiliar landscape. A forest in Alabama becomes a threatening, eerie dreamscape as Farquhar moves toward death. So, throughout the story, we have a strange mix of detailed reality and imaginative fantasy. Before we reach the revealing ending, it's hard to determine which is which.
You won't tear your hair out trying to understand this story, but you might spend some time pondering what exactly happens after Farquhar falls through the bridge. Does Farquhar imagine his entire escape in the space of a few seconds or minutes? Is his journey home a figment of his imagination, or does it parallel his process from life to death? Put your analyzing caps on and figure it out.
Bierce's style qualifies as both descriptive and ambiguous. He provides a lot of information but also withholds important aspects of the story. Here are just some of the story's components that are described to us in great detail:
Because Bierce provides so much information about Farquhar's situation, it is even more shocking that we don't know Farquhar is dead until the very end of the story. Ambrose Bierce sure put the "amb" (and the "big") in ambiguity.
Still, our first time reading the story, we don't quite realize things are ambiguous. So let's focus on the "descriptive" aspect of Bierce's writing.
Bierce's description of Farquhar's hanging is particularly detailed. It seems as regimented and precise as the soldiers performing the execution and the military code they follow. Bierce tells us exactly how the hanging works, down to the little detail about how the soldiers hold their guns:
A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as 'support,' that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest – a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. (1.1)
Bierce's attention to detail also extends to what it feels like to be hanged (though we can't comment on whether or not his description is accurate). Take a look at this diagnosis of Farquhar's state after he falls into the water:
Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well-defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fullness – of congestion. (3.1)
Bierce was a newspaperman so he knew how to drop a lot of knowledge in a really concise way.
However, Bierce doesn't just give us the cold, hard facts. He waxes poetic when he describes Farquhar "encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance [swinging] through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum" (3.1). In a sea of majorly precise and often brutal detail, it's nice to get a break and read some slightly more poetic language once in a while.
Peyton Farquhar begins the story looking down at the flowing creek below him, imagining how he might escape from the Union soldiers that are planning to execute him. His fantasy of escape depends on the current of the stream, which pulls him to safety and tosses him ashore. In this sense, water literally provides our protagonist with freedom.
Even before it saves his life, water is associated with freedom. Having followed the "dancing driftwood" (1.4) with his eyes, Farquhar, in the moments before his death, becomes as free as the floating branch. As the ending of the story proves, however, Farquhar's body is never free and he never escapes military justice. Though his mind flows freely (perhaps a normal reaction to imminent death), his body stays in one place. By making a flowing current central to his story, Bierce makes his protagonist's wandering mind – his freewheeling imagination – fit right in.
Time, it seems, is not on Farquhar's side. He's out of time when the story begins, his watch ticking down the seconds to his death. The jig, as they say, was up before it began – Farquhar's plan to burn down the bridge was pre-planned by a Federal scout.
The strange flow of time throughout the narrative only highlights this point. The narrator takes us back and forth between the present and the past. In fact, it is only after Farquhar falls through the bridge that we learn his name and what led him to his execution. This non-linear flow of time reflects Farquhar's lack of control over the course of events.
Farquhar's lack of control over time and the limited time left in his life are very evident in his reaction to the ticking of his watch. The watch ticks off the seconds left in Farquhar's life like a "death knell" (1.5), a bell rung to announce that someone has died. As he hears his watch ticking, he knows he can't control the time that is passing. Instead, his mind creates an alternative reality, one in which he escapes.
One last note on time: if you think about it, most of this story takes place over the course of just a few seconds – an interesting and challenging narrative technique, we'd say.
The narrator knows what Peyton Farquhar thinks and how he feels, and is able to go into great detail about Farquhar's hanging. Since the narrator's knowledge is limited to Farquhar, we don't know much about the Union soldiers who execute him. What are they thinking? Do they feel the execution is justified? Do they feel guilty? Who knows? If the narrator let us into the minds of the soldiers, we might have a very different understanding of Farquhar's hanging. Instead, the limited point of view focuses attention on the inner workings of Farquhar's mind as he faces his death.
By the end of the story, the narrator seems both reliable and unreliable – we know that Farquhar is dead, but we also know that he imagined an escape. The narrator keeps that last bit of important information from us till the end. Does this make the narrator more mysterious than unreliable?
The first few paragraphs of the story set the scene by describing the moments before a man's execution. We don't know who the man is or why he is being hanged, but we do know he is a civilian who has disobeyed military law.
Farquhar learns from a disguised Union scout that Union troops have rebuilt a bridge above Owl Creek. An enterprising civilian could find a way to burn it down, but any civilian caught tampering with the railroad will be hanged without a trial.
Farquhar falls through the railroad ties of the bridge and manages to free himself from the ropes binding him. Now he just has to avoid drowning and getting shot.
Farquhar swims toward shore as the Union soldiers fire on him. Just as they are about to use deadly grape shot against him, Farquhar gets caught in a vortex that flings him on the opposite shore.
Farquhar makes his way through the forest toward his home. The landscape is unfamiliar and foreboding. Though he has miraculously survived hanging, drowning, and getting shot at, something seems wrong.
Farquhar reaches the gate to his property. As he rushes toward his wife, he feels a blow against the back of his neck.
Despite his seemingly miraculous escape, Farquhar's body hangs from Owl Creek Bridge.