Essay on 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' Symbolism

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Table of contents

  1. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
  2. The fluid nature of time
  3. Driftwood
  4. Owl Creek Bridge
  5. References

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

An occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a short story that has revolved around several themes throughout the book. The purpose of the themes is to bring out different meanings and to make the reader a better understanding of the book. He has also used different literary devices to complete his works. Some of the themes that he has used are; the fluid nature of time, and the blurred line between reality and illusion.

It is also suspicious because of the memory success, setting, and use of Peyton's senses. Throughout the sequence of events, the use of flashbacks describes how Peyton Farquhar lived before he was caught disrupting a bridge. As the story describes Peyton's life and work, they refer to him as a good investor and a devoted slave owner in the South. It creates suspicion in this part of the story because a soldier comes to their house asking for drinking water. The military tells Peyton, 'The Yanks are repairing the railway… any citizen who is caught disturbing the railway line, its bridges, tunnels or trains will be suspended'. Knowing that this soldier is a Federal spy from the north and Peyton is the owner of Southern Plantation, raises doubts because these two people have completely different views of what is right.

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Standing on the plank, over the bridge he hears a sound, “striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality”. His senses begin to broaden. As Peyton falls into the water, his senses are awakened as he comes to the surface and feels the “ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they stuck”

The fluid nature of time

The first theme is about the fluid nature of time, it is discussing and focuses on the fluid nature of time. The story structure moves from the present to the past, and to what is revealed to be the imagined present or what was foreseen in the past. The structure of the story, which moves from the present to the past, which appears as the imagined present, reflects this fluidity as well as the tension that exists between competing notions of time. This setting has taken place in a forest and has also provided a major part of a sequence that shows a particular sequence in the story. As Peyton is on his deathbed he checks around to see if there is someone but “nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view”(531). He also feels that his life is over and then “He looked a moment at his “unsteady-fast footing”, then let his gaze wander to the swirling water” (531).

The second section interrupts what appears at first to be a continuous flow of execution taking place in the present moment. Perched on the edge of the bridge, Farquhar closes his eyes, a gesture of sliding into his own version of reality, free of any responsibility towards the laws of time. As the ticking of his clock slows down and more time elapses between strokes, Farquhar moves into a timeless realm. When Farquhar imagines himself sliding into the water, Bears compares him to a 'giant pendulum' that is spinning wildly out of control.

Here Farquhar moves into a transitional space that is neither life nor death, but a disjointed consciousness in the world with its own rules. In the brief window of time between the officer descending from the throne and Farquhar's actual death, time slows down and turns to accommodate a comfortable vision of Farquhar's safe return to his family. Despite Farquhar's manipulation of the times, he cannot escape reality. Whether he lives a few moments or more, death eventually claims him. It is futile to try to divert time at will. One of the most notable aspects of 'An Incident at the Owl Creek Bridge' is Byers' realistic rendering of Farquhar's alternative concept of time, which suggests that the nature of time is somewhat subjective.

The blurred line between reality and illusion.

Reality and illusion work side by side in 'An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge' and towards the end of the story, we are not aware of any division between them and Farquhar's illusion is a reality for us, as readers. Farquhar creates his fictional world out of desperation: he is about to die, and imagining his escape is a way of gaining control over the facts of his current situation. His mind supplies the flight and successful escape that his body cannot achieve on its own. In the second section, when we learn what brought Farquhar to this moment, this hybrid world of the real and the fantastic appears in the figure of the Northern Scout.

Dressed in the gray of a Confederate soldier, he presents one version of the truth while actually embodying the other reality and illusion are blurred. By the time the fantasy world of the third volume is in full swing, we are completely immersed in Farquhar's illusion, which has become reality for both him and us. It is meaningless to try to separate one from the other. Just as Farquhar's belief that the Northern Scout is in fact a Confederate soldier leads him to the death penalty, his belief that he is surviving can have only one consequence: the reality of his death.

Apart from using themes to show that His work was successful, the author also used some poetic devices like imagery and symbolism to add some taste to his writing. Some of the symbols that he used in his book are listed below.


Driftwood, as it makes its way to the bottom, symbolizes both Farquhar's unattainable freedom and Farquhar's as he begins to imagine his own escape in the water. At first, Driftwood distracts Farquhar from thoughts of his wife and children. Later, it becomes an extension of Farquhar himself, as Farquhar imagines himself floating in the water as if it were driftwood. Driftwood also points to Farquhar's distorted understanding of the times. As he looks down, he sees the water 'running madly' under him, then 'dancing' driftwood. He is amazed at how slow it is suddenly moving in a 'sluggish' stream. This sudden change in his perception marks Farquhar's transition from reality to fiction. From then on, he takes liberties with the details of his story and supplies the ending he wants: a brave escape rather than execution for being a war criminal. Ironically, although he sees himself as Driftwood, it is Driftwood that occupied him in the first place. When Farquhar initially encounters the undercover northern scout, the scout advises Farquhar to set fire to the pieces of wood that the winter floods washed away at the base of the bridge. Driftwood thus serves as his means of undoing such that it ultimately represents unattainable freedom.

Owl Creek Bridge

The Owl Creek Bridge symbolizes the connections and transitions. The bridge was destroyed by Confederate forces or sympathizers in an attempt to prevent the North from advancing deep into enemy territory. With the vital artery restored by Union forces, the North's war effort once again gained momentum in northern Alabama, leading to the final defeat of the Union and an end to the Civil War. Ironically, the target of Farquhar's sabotage attempt becomes the stage on which his execution is staged. By breaking the bridge, Farquhar was attempting to destroy order and connection by fantasizing about separating himself from his physical body, in the final moments of his life. The bridge serves as an intermediary, joining opposite banks of the creek it is neither one side nor the other, but a connection between them. Similarly, the bridge connects life and death for Farquhar. As Farquhar 'escapes' in the water, the bridge is a symbol of a transitional psychological space between fantasy and reality.

As Peyton glances over his shoulder he looks straight into the barrel of the musket from a distance where a “normal” person would not be able to see it from. From the front gate of his house, “he sees a flutter of female garments…as he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck” Throughout this short story, there has been a lot of suspense and also the use of Peyton’s senses. The story has built up all of the suspense and also through these major points it has revealed the secrets. As Peyton is waiting to be hanged, the thoughts that run through his mind are changes to dreams. This starts the chaos of his “escape.” Due to his evasion, we as the readers are attached to the story only to find out Peyton is dreaming and then dies.


  1. Bierce, Ambrose. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Strelbytskyy Multimedia Publishing, 2019.
  2. Ames, Clifford R. 'Do I Wake or Sleep? Technique as Content in Ambrose Bierce's Short Story,' An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'.' American literary realism, 1870-1910 19.3 (1987): 52-67.
  3. Powers, James G. 'Freud and Farquhar: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge?.' Studies in Short Fiction 19.3 (1982): 278.
  4. Bierce, Ambrose. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Vol. 1. Library of Alexandria, 1948.
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