Ambrose Bierces An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge can be perceived in different ways, depending on how the reader distinguishes the illusions used in the story. Bierce incorporates the illusions of imagery and time to help the reader get a better understanding of Peyton Farquhar’s many experiences in the story. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is about a man named Peyton Farquhar who is “a well-to-do planter” and slave owner who lets his sense of curiosity get the best of him and is later hanged for his interference of the railroad repair. Although it does not clearly state that Farquhar’s trial is based on his interference, the reader can assume by the foreshadowing of the information given by a soldier who visits Farquhar’s home. The soldier informs Farquhar that the “Yanks” are repairing the Owl Creek bridge and that “any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels or trains will be summarily hanged.” After hearing the soldier’s warning, Farquhar starts to question how strong the force of the soldiers is. Little does Farquhar know that his sense of curiosity would lead him to the end of his life in a tragic hanging. The story swiftly switches from Farquhar’s life at home visiting with the soldier to his imaginary escape from his trial on the bridge (Bierce 71). Farquhar’s imagination creates a sense of false hope: hope that his vision would be the final outcome instead of execution. In the time that Farquhar is awaiting his hanging, the illusions of his imagination also lead the reader to believe that the present time is being extended longer than it actually is. The illusion of imagery and time helps the reader see different perspectives of the story instead of just one perspective.
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While reading the story, the reader is led to believe that Peyton Farquhar makes an escape from the soldiers when, actually, he is still standing on the bridge and anticipating being hanged (Cheatham 1). Instead of being hanged, Peyton Farquhar imagines that he hits the water and struggles to get free by stating, “The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward; the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light (Bierce 74).” Farquhar’s imaginary efforts to break free from the cords that are tying his hands together makes the escape believable to the reader that Farquhar is successful in his getaway.
Bierce’s strong use of details throughout the story helps persuade the reader that Farquhar’s imagination is reality. “The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dulled thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward (Bierce 75).” The details used in his imaginary escape help to persuade the reader into thinking he is really successful in his getaway. The author’s use of detail, such as Farquhar struggle to break free from the rope that is binding Peyton Farquhar’s hand together makes the escape realistic and believable. Also, Bierce persuades the reader to believe Farquhar is escaping by stating some of the physical pain that Farquhar is imagining. “Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out (Bierce 75).” This illusion of imagery the Farquhar is actually feeling physical pain persuades the reader into believing that Farquhar is actually escaping.
The reader’s focus is drawn away from the fact that none of the escape is really happening, and Peyton is still awaiting the soldier’s signal for his hanging. Peyton Farquhar envisions himself swimming away and dodging bullets from the soldiers. “Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle (Bierce 75).” The description of Peyton Farquhar dodging the soldiers’ bullets makes the reader believe that Farquhar is really being shot at in his escape.
Farquhar’s realistic visualization of his beautiful wife makes the reader believe that he has made it to safety. “He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him (Bierce 76).” As Peyton Farquhar finally reaches safety, he visualizes his house and his beautiful wife, and, just as he is reaching the house, he feels the excruciating snap of the rope on his neck, which brings the reader back to actuality and realization of his illusion (Fabó 4). “As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon- then all is darkness and silence (Bierce 76)!” Up until this point in the story, the reader is lead to the deception of believing that Peyton Farquhar has actually been able to escape successfully from his trial and the soldiers’ bullets and cannons. Once the reader learns that Farquhar is only imagining his escape, he or she is able to better understand the illusion that Ambrose Bierce uses. Ambrose Bierce’s usage of vivid details describing what Farquhar was feeling, both physically and mentally, helps to depict Farquhar’s imaginary escape. Peyton Farquhar is envisioning this escape only because he is hoping for this outcome instead of his hanging.
Ambrose Bierce’s unusual use of time in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” can be very misleading to the reader. The fictional time used in the story makes the reader think that Farquhar used a significant amount of time to escape while, in reality, he has only been standing on the bridge for a little amount of time. While Farquhar envisions himself escaping from bullet-range of the soldiers, he is also taking in great detail of what is going on around him. “He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf-saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies’ wings, the strokes of the water-spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat- all these made audible music (Bierce 74).” This moment of the story is equivalent to only a few seconds, but by using such great detail of Farquhar’s surrounding it elongates the actual time Farquhar spends in the water (Fabó 4). While Peyton Farquhar is standing on the edge of the board on the bridge, he is imagining his escape as if it would happen.
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The reader of the story is tricked into thinking that Peyton Farquhar’s escape is lasting longer than it really is. In reality, the escape is played out while he is standing on the edge of the bridge in a matter of only a few seconds rather than minutes at a time. The detail used in his imaginary escape elongates the actual amount of time that Peyton Farquhar is on the bridge with the soldiers. Peyton Farquhar’s visualization of his escape makes the reader believe that Farquhar safely gets away from the soldiers, when in reality, in the short amount of time, he is being hanged. The amount of time that Peyton Farquhar’s imaginary escape took was actually equivalent to only a few seconds.
The fact that Farquhar is imagining the escape with such great detail draws the reader’s focus towards the actions taking place in Farquhar’s mind rather than reality where Peyton Farquhar is standing on the edge of the bridge. Bierce’s detail that is used in the illusion of imagery helps the reader see different perspectives of the story instead of just one perspective. Towards the end of the story the reader is led to believe that Farquhar manages an escape, but in the last line of the story, the reader is shocked to learn that Farquhar did actually die at the end of the rope (Samide 1). The reader is able to realize the difference in time when Peyton Farquhar finally snaps back into reality during the process of being hanged. To help the reader have a different perspective on the story, Bierce used a lot of thorough details to make the imaginary escape more realistic to the reader (Stoicheff 2).
Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” can be perceived in an endless number of different ways. By incorporating the illusions of both imagery and time, it helps the reader to get a better understanding of what Peyton Farquhar is experiencing in the story. In the story, the author’s use of detail, such as Peyton Farquhar’s struggle to break free from the rope after hitting the water, makes the escape more realistic and believable for the reader, which also helps give a different perspective to the story. The detail used in Peyton Farquhar’s imaginary escape helps to create an illusion of false time that elongates the actual amount of time that Peyton Farquhar is experiencing on the edge of the bridge with the soldiers. Farquhar’s curiosity towards the repair of the Owl Creek bridge made for a useful set-up for Ambrose Bierce’s use of the illusions of imagery and time. After using the elements of imagery and time, Bierce is able to help the reader understand what Peyton Farquhar’s “occurrence” and the actual amount of time he is experiencing his trial. Using details in the story aided Ambrose Bierce’s use of imagery and time to persuade the reader into believing that Peyton Farquhar got out alive; if only that were the case.
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