27 pages 54 minutes read

Ambrose Bierce

An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1890

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

Ambrose Bierce, an American writer and Civil War veteran, wrote “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” in 1890. Bierce’s story was first published in The San Francisco Examiner and later became part of his collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians published in 1891. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is considered one of Bierce’s best works for its use of the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique and the hero’s journey as well as its exploration of death. Most of Bierce’s stories are historical fiction set during the Civil War. His investigation of the horrors of the war cemented his stories in America’s literary canon. The French film La Rivière du hibou (1961) is based on the story. That film aired in the United States as an episode of The Twilight Zone television series. In 2005, the story was adapted again as a short psychological thriller.

This study guide cites the edition of the story found in the 2009 e-book The Floating Press. The story is in the public domain and can also be accessed online for free.

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is written in three parts in the third-person past tense. For a moment in Part 3, however, Bierce switches to present tense. Part 1 begins with an unnamed man about to be hanged from a railroad bridge, which readers later learn is the Owl Creek Bridge in northern Alabama. Standing behind him, the narrator says, are “his executioners—two private soldiers of the Federal army” and their commander (4). At the ends of the bridge are soldiers assigned to prevent anyone from crossing. Other soldiers watch the hanging from a hillside leading to the river below. No one is moving except the men on the bridge.

The reader learns that the man being hanged is about 35 and a civilian. He is good-looking and from his dress seems to be a planter. The narrator describes him as having “a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp” (6). The man is standing on a plank held up by the weight of the sergeant. It is rigged to fall when the weight is removed. As the man is awaiting his fate. He sees a drifting piece of wood. He notes that the stream is sluggish.

The man decides to close his eyes in preparation for death. He tries to think of his wife and children, but he can’t. He is distracted by the scene around him. Adding to this distraction is a sound that “he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil” (7). It pierces the silence around him. The man equates it to a death knell. But it is merely the sound of his watch.

The man thinks of escaping by freeing his hands and jumping into the water. He believes he can avoid the bullets and swim to the far bank. While he is thinking these things, the captain nods to the sergeant, and the sergeant steps off the plank.

In Part 2, the reader meets a man named Peyton Farquhar, who is a planter from, the narrator says, a “highly respected Alabama family” (8). Farquhar is a secessionist devoted to the Southern cause. He wants to fight in the Confederate Army but can’t for reasons that are not made clear to the reader. Farquhar longs for glory and the soldier’s life.

Farquhar’s wish to become a hero of the South seems to be answered when a Confederate soldier comes to his house and tells him that the Yankees are fixing the railroad and have reached the Owl Creek Bridge. A Union order was issued that says: “Any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels, or trains will be summarily hanged” (10). Farquhar sees his chance to become a hero by sabotaging the railroad. He asks about the bridge and its location. After dark, the same soldier is seen heading back to the bridge. He was, in truth, a Union scout.

Part 3 begins with Farquhar falling through the bridge. The reader realizes that the unnamed man in Part 1 and Farquhar are the same. Farquhar momentarily loses consciousness and, when he awakes, he feels the pressure of the rope around his neck. He is suffocating and cannot form thoughts. He feels himself swinging like a pendulum. Suddenly, the rope breaks. Farquhar falls into the water and sinks to the bottom.

He begins to rise toward the surface and thinks, “I do not wish to be shot” (13). He tries to free his hands and soon succeeds. He removes the noose. Farquhar now feels a new pain. His head is on fire and his heart is “trying to force itself out at his mouth” (14). He reaches the surface and becomes acutely aware of the world around him, seeing not just trees but individual trees with their leaves and even the insects that are on them. Farquhar notices the bridge with the soldiers. They are yelling at him. They seem to him “grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic” (15). The soldiers fire at him.

Farquhar stares through the sight of a rifle at the eye of the man shooting. He notes that the eye is gray and remembers “having read that gray eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them” (16). The shot misses.

Farquhar is soon caught in a current that turns him around (16). He hears a sound behind him and recognizes it as the voice of the lieutenant. He is not a soldier, but he knows what the chant means. The lieutenant is about to have the whole unit fire on him. Farquhar dives beneath the surface to avoid the spattering of gunfire around him. The bullets brush against him underwater. He feels one become stuck between his collar and neck and pulls it out.

Coming up for air, Farquhar notes he is farther away from the bridge and the guns. The soldiers are reloading and firing again. A loud noise comes from the bridge and an explosion rocks the river. The cannon has fired. The ball flies over his head and into the forest. Farquhar notes that they will use grapeshot next.

Eventually, he is spit out onto the riverbank. Farquhar is hidden from the soldiers, and he weeps with joy. He does not wish to leave the spot, but the grapeshot above rattles him. He springs to his feet and runs into the forest.

By the evening, Farquhar is tired and hungry, but he cannot rest because he wants to make it back to his wife and children. He finds a road that goes in the direction he wants. He looks above and sees the stars “looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations” (20).

He notices again that his neck is in pain. He realizes that it is swollen and his eyes are congested. He is thirsty. He falls asleep walking. When he awakes, he is looking at the gate of his home. Everything is bathed in the morning sun. The narration shifts to the present tense as Farquhar enters his home after traveling all night. He sees his wife and reaches for her. As he does, he feels a sharp pain.

Everything falls silent, and the narrator confirms that “Peyton Farquhar was dead” (21). He did not escape his hanging. His neck is broken, and he is swinging from the Owl Creek Bridge.

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