An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge Summary

Ambrose Bierce

An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge

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An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge Summary

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Ambrose Bierce’s short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge takes place during the Civil War. Union soldiers are preparing to hang Peyton Farquhar, a civilian who tries to plan his escape with a noose around his neck. There is a stream below, and though there are other soldiers standing guard, he things he can make it home. A sergeant stands opposite him on the same loose board and he knows that as soon as the other man steps off of the board, he will fall and die. With his hands tied, it’s difficult to make his escape happen. Just as he is thinking of getting outside of the territory held by the Union Army, the sergeant steps off of the board.

Bierce then flashes back in order to show readers how Peyton came to be on the bridge over Owl Creek, with his life about to end. Peyton had been a plantation owner who was unable to serve in the Confederate Army, though he wanted to. When a soldier stops by his plantation, he asks the man how the war is going. The soldier describes how the Union Army is taking more and more territory, and how it is constructing a railroad over Owl Creek. He tells Peyton it could be stopped if someone managed to burn the bridge at Owl Creek. However, he also tells Peyton that the commander of the Union Army plans to arrest and hang any civilian who tries to interfere with the construction of the railroad. The soldier passes by again, this time heading north to return to his army—the Union Army—after his scouting mission.

Peyton’s thoughts return to his present tribulations as he falls from the bridge, the rope around his neck choking him. He is brought from his thoughts of how he got there by the blinding pain of being choked. When the rope around his neck breaks, Peyton plummets into the water below and manages to free his hands, and then his neck. The soldiers begin to shoot at him in the water, missing his face by mere inches. Despite being shot at multiple times with bullets and even a canon ball, Peyton manages to get out of the water and into the woods. From there, he finds a road that will take him closer to home. The road is wide but strangely empty. Despite his pain from being choked, he continues walking home. His throat is swollen, as are his eyes and tongue. When he sees his home, he can see his wife waiting to greet him. Just before he is about to hold her, he sees a blinding light and then nothing.

His neck is broken and Peyton Farquhar swings, dead, from Owl Creek Bridge. Everything that happens, from when the sergeant steps off the board until the end of the story, happens only in his imagination. The rope didn’t brake. The soldiers didn’t fire at him. He didn’t escape to make his way home. The commander kept his word and hanged the civilian who tried to disrupt the Union Army’s progress with the railroad.

The ability to tell what’s real from what isn’t is a major theme present in this short story. From the beginning, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is about deception. The soldier who tells Peyton about the railroad is deceiving him. While he is honest about the Union Army’s efforts to build the railroad and the consequences of disrupting that work, he deceives Peyton about who he is. He is a Union soldier pretending to be a Confederate, and in so doing, removes one more plantation owner from the south. Similarly, Bierce’s reader is susceptible to deception. The details of Peyton’s escape are vivid enough to convince the reader that perhaps he truly found freedom. However, the end of the story proves that Peyton is, in fact, dead.

Stylistically, Bierce’s treatment of time in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is worth noting. Bierce is able to use language to speed time up or slow it down, depending on the needs of the story. For example, the scenes of the execution seem to happen quickly, while Peyton’s escape seems to take longer, even though it happens in the split second that it takes for Peyton to fall and for his neck to break.

A third, and equally important, theme is the idea that people will do anything to convince themselves that they can cheat death. Before his own, Peyton imagines a stroke of luck that lands him in the water below the bridge. The fall does not injure him. He doesn’t drown. The soldiers don’t manage to hit him, and he finds a road to travel that is void of any soldiers despite the armies being active in the area thanks to the war—not to mention there is no one else around. As unrealistic as this turn of events seems, Peyton believes it to be true because he does not want to die.