Study Guide

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Summary

The story begins with a simple tableau (a grouping of silent figures), kind of like you might see in a movie: a man and his executioners stand on a railroad bridge in Alabama. The Civil War is on and military justice is about to be served; the only spectators are a handful of soldiers. The man to be executed is a civilian dressed in the clothes of a plantation owner, and his executioners are Federal (Union) soldiers. As he waits for his executioners to get on with it already, the man looks down at the water below him and imagines ways he could escape home to his wife and children. With a nod of the captain's head, the hanging begins.

Part 2 opens with the narrator introducing Peyton Farquhar, a wealthy Alabamian slave owner. Farquhar is not in the army because of personality issues, but he is determined to support the Confederate cause by any means necessary. An opportunity arises when a soldier dressed in a gray Confederate uniform rides up to his house. The soldier tells him that Union troops are repairing railroads in the surrounding area and have recently rebuilt the nearby bridge over Owl Creek. Apparently the head honcho has issued an order stating that any civilian caught tampering with the railroad will be hanged. The soldier leaves after informing Farquhar that a pile of flammable driftwood has accumulated near the bridge. An hour later, the soldier rides past the Farquhar residence heading north. It turns out that he is actually a Union scout. Tricky.

Now we know that the man being hanged at the beginning of the story and the plantation owner from Part 2 are one and the same. Part 3 of the story begins as Farquhar falls through the bridge. Unable to think rationally, he feels himself freeing his hands from their bindings, removing the noose around his neck, and pushing up to the surface. Diving beneath the water keeps him safe from the soldiers' bullets and he swims with the current toward the opposite shore. Narrowly evading a cannonball, Farquhar gets caught in a vortex that eventually flings him on the sand.

Celebrating his escape, Farquhar hurries toward home, traveling all day through a wild forest straight out of a horror movie. By nightfall, Farquhar reaches the gate to his home. He sees his wife, but, as he is about to grasp her, he feels a powerful blow against the back of his neck. Bright white light turns to complete darkness.

Farquhar is dead, his neck is broken, and his body hangs beneath Owl Creek Bridge.

  • Part 1

    • A man stands on loose boards with a rope around his neck. He's on top of a railroad bridge in Alabama and the rope around his neck is attached to a cross-timber above his head. He looks down at the river below him. Can you tell where this is going?
    • The man is being executed, and a sergeant and two privates of the Federal army serve as his executioners.
    • History alert: the Federal army was another name for the Union army (a.k.a. the North) during the Civil War. We'll use both names to refer to it, so don't forget!
    • A captain and two sentinels are also chillin' on the bridge. (Don't worry too much about the specific ranks/jobs of all these dudes. Just know that they're Union military men.)
    • There aren't many people watching the execution: just a few soldiers and their boss, the lieutenant. (Before TV, executions were public spectacles – some people even brought picnics. These soldiers bring their guns.)
    • The man with the rope around his neck is a civilian (that means he's not in the military). He's dressed like a planter. Since he is living in Alabama during the Civil War, we can assume that he's a plantation owner who owns slaves. He also probably likes mint juleps. He's about 35 years old, quite dashing, and mustachioed – not too shabby.
    • We're told that the man has a "kindly expression" (1.3) on his face while waiting to be hanged. Hmm, not the reaction we'd expect from a guy in his position.
    • The narrator lets us know that the man hasn't been condemned for murder. He has, however, done something punishable by hanging under the military code (the collection of laws governing the operation of the military).
    • The preparations for the hanging are complete, so the two privates remove their planks and move away from the man.
    • After some more shifting around (the sergeant and captain switch places), the man is on one end of a plank. Once the sergeant moves off the other end, the plank will tilt and the man will fall through two railroad ties. And military justice will be served.
    • Because the man's eyes haven't been covered (a common practice during hangings), he's able to look down at his "unsteadfast footing." It's like a Survivor immunity challenge, just way more important.
    • Looking down at the creek below him, the man notices a piece of driftwood moving slowly in the current. The stream is "racing madly" (1.4), but, from his point of view, it looks "sluggish" (1.4).
    • The man closes his eyes and thinks of his wife and children, but he's distracted by a percussive (that's a fancy word for something that beats like a drum) sound. The man can't tell what the sound is and starts to freak out a little as the interval between the sounds lengthens. The narrator informs us that the man is just hearing his watch ticking. Tick tock, tick tock – pretty eerie, if you ask us.
    • Once again, the man opens his eyes and looks down at the water. He thinks that if he could get his hands free, he could remove the noose and dive into the water below (kind of optimistic for a man with a rope around his neck). A plan starts to form: diving beneath the water would keep him safe from bullets. Then, if he were able to swim to the bank, he could run home.
    • His home, he thinks, is past the enemies' lines, and his wife and children are (so far) safe from the Union invaders.
    • The captain nods to the sergeant and the sergeant steps off the plank. Dun dun dun!
  • Part 2

    • The narrator introduces Peyton Farquhar (what a name), a wealthy planter and slave owner from an old, prestigious Alabama family.
    • Farquhar, like many other slave owners, supports secession and is devoted to the Confederacy. (Interested in learning more about the Civil War? Take a look at Shmoop's information on the struggle.)
    • Even though he's a big fan of southern independence, Farquhar isn't a soldier. The narrator doesn't explicitly tell us why. You'll have to read the first paragraph of Part 2 and decide for yourself.
    • The narrator informs us that the Confederate army has suffered recent setbacks. The town of Corinth (near where our story takes place) has been taken over by Federal troops after an unsuccessful military campaign.
    • Here's a little AP US History action for you: Corinth, Mississippi, was strategically important in the Civil War because many major railroads in the Mississippi Valley passed through it. One pretty big-deal battle went down in the area. Union commander Henry Halleck had planned to attack Corinth, but Confederates under Albert Sidney Johnston and P.T. Beauregard managed to attack first at what is now known as the Battle of Shiloh. The Confederates ended up having to retreat after suffering more casualties than the Union. Score one for the Union. Now that we've dropped some Civil War trivia on you, we can move on.
    • Farquhar feels that an opportunity will come for him to serve the South. In fact he feels like he has already served the cause in some small ways.
    • The narrator then describes Farquhar and his wife sitting together outside one evening.
    • A soldier in a gray uniform (translation: a Confederate soldier) approaches them and asks for some water. Rather than summoning a slave, Mrs. Farquhar decides to serve the soldier herself.
    • While his wife fetches a glass of water, Farquhar asks the soldier if there is any war news. Since there wasn't an Us Weekly of the Civil War, they had to get their information through word-of-mouth.
    • The soldier tells Farquhar that Union troops are repairing railroads and preparing to advance. (A common tactic on both sides of the war was destroying railroads to cut off armies from their supplies and home bases. Pretty tricky.) According to the soldier, the Yankees (a common term for Union troops) have recently repaired the bridge over Owl Creek and built a stockade (an enclosure made of wooden posts). The soldier also tells Farquhar that the guy in charge has ordered that any civilian found tampering with the railroad will be hanged (yep, it's hanged, not hung. Isn't grammar fun?) without a trial.
    • Perhaps a bit more than idly curious, Farquhar asks how far away the bridge is. Who needs Google when you have a real, live soldier? The bridge is 30 miles away and is guarded by a picket a half a mile away from the bridge. In case you aren't versed in military terminology, a picket is basically a human watchdog. A sentinel (another word for a guard) is on the side of the bridge closer to Farquhar's home.
    • Farquhar, with all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, asks what a "civilian and student of hanging" (2.8) could do if he got past the sentinel and the picket.
    • The soldier (apparently not at all concerned for Farquhar's safety) tells him that a pile of driftwood has accumulated against the pier. According to him, the driftwood is dry and ideal for starting a fire. This is what we call aiding and abetting.
    • Mrs. Farquhar returns with the water. The soldier drinks and then leaves.
    • But wait! An hour later, the soldier in gray rides by the plantation again on his way north. Turns out that he is actually a Federal (Union) scout. Now that's a twist and a half.
  • Part 3

    • The third part of the story brings us back to the present. Farquhar falls through the railroad ties of the bridge and loses consciousness on the way down.
    • He wakes up a while later (it's unclear how much time has passed), brought back to consciousness by horrible pain in his throat and the feeling of asphyxiation (basically, he can't breathe – hangings tend to do that to people).
    • We're guessing that Bierce hadn't ever been hanged, but he provides an interesting description explaining the sensation (read the first paragraph of Part 3 – you'll probably agree with us). Pain shoots through Farquhar's body, pulsing rapidly. His head is congested and he is unable to think. He feels as though he's moving within a cloud of light.
    • Suddenly, the light shoots upward, Farquhar hears roaring, and everything goes dark.
    • When Farquhar is able to think again, he realizes that the rope has broken and that he has ended up in the creek.
    • Because the rope around his neck is blocking the passage, water can't enter Farquhar's lungs (thank goodness for small blessings).
    • Farquhar sees light above him, and, as it brightens, he realizes that he is rising to the surface. Martha Stewart would call this a "good thing," but Farquhar is somewhat reluctant to emerge from the water. Hanging and then drowning is one thing, but hanging and then getting shot just isn't fair. His words, not ours.
    • Without even realizing he's doing it, Farquhar begins to free his hands. Like a spectator at a sporting event, he watches as his hands remove both the rope that binds them and the noose around his neck. Impressive.
    • Removing a noose seems like a good thing, but it causes Farquhar horrible pain. Still, instead of listening to his brain's command to put the noose back on, Farquhar's arms propel his head above the surface of the water.
    • Farquhar's perilous underwater journey has heightened his senses. He is suddenly completely aware of everything around him and he begins to observe the natural world very carefully.
    • Turning around in the water, Farquhar sees the bridge and the group of soldiers standing on it. Uh-oh.
    • The soldiers shout and point, and the captain draws his pistol.
    • Farquhar hears a bullet being fired and watches as it hits the water near his head. Then one of the sentinels shoots and misses with a rifle.
    • It's not over: as Farquhar turns toward the opposite shore, he hears the lieutenant issuing commands and instructing his men to fire. This can't be good.
    • Hoping to escape the bullets, Farquhar dives beneath the water. As he rises to the surface, he notices flattened bullets floating near him. (According to the Mythbusters, water stops bullets.)
    • Upon rising to the surface, Farquhar realizes he has made some progress. He's farther away from the soldiers, who have almost finished reloading. The two sentinels shoot and miss.
    • Farquhar swims with the current, thinking as quickly as he swims. He realizes the lieutenant won't continue to order his men to fire their guns together again, since a volley (a bunch of bullets fired at the same time) isn't any more effective than firing single shots. Farquhar panics, since he knows he won't be able to dodge all of the random shots.
    • Suddenly, he feels a huge splash, followed by a loud sound and a wave of water. The soldiers are using a cannon.
    • Farquhar figures that they won't use the cannon again, but will instead use grapeshot.
    • Time for an Ammunition Not-So-Fun Fact: Grapeshot was the name for a canister containing metal balls, a weapon widely used during the Civil War. When shot from a barrel, the canister would fall apart and the balls would fire in all directions. Used against advancing enemies, grapeshot was devastating and caused a lot of damage.
    • Swimming for his life, Farquhar fears that he won't be able to tell when the grapeshot is fired. While worrying about this new threat, he swims into a vortex (like a whirlpool) and is whirled around (like a record, baby, right round round round).
    • The vortex flings Farquhar onto the south bank of the creek, kindly depositing him in a place that that blocks him from the Federals' view.
    • Crying tears of happiness (he made it!), Farquhar throws sand up into the air and quickly becomes entranced by the beautiful trees along the shore.
    • When Farquhar hears grapeshot fired above his head, he realizes he needs to move on, so he scrambles up the bank and enters the forest.
    • He travels all day through the forest, following the sun. He marvels at the size and wildness of the forest he thought he knew so well. He's kind of lost his focus.
    • By nighttime, he is tired and hungry. Thinking of his wife and children, he presses on and finds a familiar road.
    • The road shows no sign of human beings, and the constellations above are unfamiliar. Farquhar hears strange noises and words whispered in a language he doesn't know.
    • Feeling horrible pain in his neck, Farquhar reaches up to discover that it is extremely swollen. His eyes are congested and his tongue is swollen, too.
    • In the second-to-last paragraph of the story, the verb tense shifts to the present and the narrator describes what Farquhar sees as he finally approaches at the gate of his property.
    • Farquhar opens his gate and watches as his wife comes to greet him. He has made it all the way home. As he moves toward her, he feels a horrible blow against his neck. White light surrounds him and then everything goes dark.
    • The narrator returns to the past tense for the final sentence of the story, just to inform us that Farquhar is dead. His neck is broken and his body hangs from a rope attached to Owl Creek Bridge.