“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce

11Jan05

I don’t remember how old I was when I first read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—I think I was 13 or so—but it was one of the first “serious” short stories that I read and really enjoyed. Bierce’s irony, manipulation of the reader, and exploration of human self-deception create a truly unique storytelling experience. As much as Bierce wants the reader to believe that Peyton Farquhar is escaping from his hanging, he writes Farquhar’s getaway in such a subtly fantastic manner so that the reader knows subcobsciously that the man is not really escaping but becomes so involved in the fantasy that the reader still hopes that he is escaping. Only the most oblivious reader can ignore the omninous tones of Farquhar’s eyes feeling congested and his tongue feeling so swollen that he pushes it out of his mouth.

Farquhar’s fantasy of escape seems somehow appropriate considering the character details the reader learns in the flashback. Farquhar thinks of himself as capable of being a hero—he attempts something very dangerous at the suggestion of a complete stranger. He sees himself capable of extraordinary things even though he is only a farmer. Thus, his fantasy includes extraordinary incidences of his eluding his pursuers. I’m not certain that every person would make such an elaborate fantasy as Farquhar constructs. He notes that the person who takes the first shot of him has gray eyes—and those with gray eyes supposedly have the best accuracy—but the shot misses him. The grapeshot fired at him goes over his head in “some kind of farewell.”

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