Within Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, time is the main component in which the plot finds itself revolving around itself. Time itself is shaded behind a thin veil, in which what is real and what is fake can not be distinguished. Perceived time is the cornerstone within this story, and with this the idea of an entire escape happens in a mere cloud of death. Time within “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, plays a major role in the realistic and surrealistic events that occur.
Peyton Farquhar finds himself among the Union soldiers after being given a tip about the manageable ways to sneak into Owl Creek Bridge. But, how did he manage to get here, hanging from a bridge, staring at the water below? It all starts with his devotion to the southern cause. During which, southern pride was key during the Civil War. Peyton merely goes to the bridge in order to destroy it to aid his fellow Confederates in their fight for independence from the north. But, this charade, rather this fatal attempt to destroy the bridge leaves Peyton Farquhar hanging above Owl Creek.
He falls, and this begins his narrow escape from Union officers with only intent to kill him for treason. As soon as he awakes, he feels a “sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs.” (Bierce, Page 14). He feels the pain of death, but yet feels alive at the same time, employing an oxymoron which shows the distant point of view of the narrator. Time is directly correlated with the point of view used within the story. The narrator is using a third person limited point of view, in which is perfect because we only know of Peyton Farquhar’s thoughts and his alone, so we only see his perception of time, cleverly shielding the true timeline of the current moment. As well as, no one else can influence the reader’s hope of Peyton’s survival because we only know his thoughts. Peyton’s direct characterization with him being round and dynamic, helps us to more fully relate and coerce with his character because of his fluid personality. “We see his hanging as harsh and unfair. Thus, we are disposed to hope that Farquhar will escape execution and are less likely to question the escape when it seems to happen.” (Samide). This point of view helps to further sympathize with Farquhar, and makes the story just all that believable.
Plot and time go hand and hand with one another. Plot also directly correlates with the setting, and with the setting the correlation of time finds headway. This story is directly set during the Civil War in American history in which we can be led to believe that this burning rivalry between the north and south could be entirely plausible. Therefore, this said rivalry sets the basis for this event of possibly occurring. Although, the Civil War “often appears morally ambiguous…” Within this story, we are still aware of its happenings. (Samide). The time period as well could be the reason for Peyton’s supposed survival, because in the first challenge he faces with the gun fight of which it is said that the “ two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually”. (Bierce, Page 16) Guns of that age, were mostly “breech loading carbines that would be promoted in 1861, however they were mainly utilized and created through advancements in the previous century. They were loaded with linen or copper, or whatever ammunition could be used to fire.” (Bilby). Reportedly the 8th’s troopers of West Virginia said that they, “did the principal part of their fighting with their fists and butt ends of their guns…” because the carbines were inaccurate and “worthless” guns. The regiments leader, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Youart said that “the worthlessness of the…carbine with which my command is armed gready endangered my success”. It is safe to assume that the guns of this time would have been severely inaccurate and virtually unusable, clearly showing how time plays an important variable in Farquhar’s “survival”.
Throughout the story, the plot moves at a very fast pace, and there is a reason for this. During which the action occurs, since the plot moves so fast, there is no time to sit and process the event that occurred. Before we even have the chance to ponder his broken neck, we have to experience through the narrator’s eyes, Peyton’s struggle to save himself from drowning. After he untangles himself and rises above the water, he is thrown into a war of bullets and willpower, seemingly, he is miraculously escaping every bullet. We don’t stop to think about the events unfolding because of the point of view in which the story is told through. We only hear Farquhar’s thoughts so we know of his unending resolve to return to his family, which makes us sympathize with him even more. His death is timed within this story as well. After every major event that occurs, he explains his state, both mentally and physically. After he is “dropped” from the bridge he felt “like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fullness—of congestion.” (Bierce, Page 14). Throughout all the major events, the clear distinction of reality and falsehood is found through the pain Peyton feels as he moves through the stages of death. He then become tangled in the ropes and feels “on fire, his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish!” (Bierce, Page 15). His body is shutting down at a rapid pace, showing the only kind of reality to aid the story going on within. The story Peyton has painted in his head is the surreal aspect of the story that we want to believe. After the scene in which he is being shot at by the Union soldiers, he has aswollen neck, can’t close his eyes due to them being swollen and he was dehydrated; this bein the reality in his illusion of him about to reach his home to see his family.
It’s not until the end when we see “Peyton Fahrquhar… swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.” (Bierce, Page 19). This at the end is the twist in a sense, but this is the true reality. When we thought Peyton was on an adventure or journey for seemingly hours, days, weeks; he was in a cloud of death in which resulted in a whole journey occurring in mere seconds. His death was a result of the times, his story was a result of the clouded sense of death. Real and surreal moments occur within this story that happened in a mere few seconds, and we can see glimpses of the reality within the pain and trauma that Peyton feels. Time is the major player in one man’s hope for survival.
- Bilby, Joseph G. “Cantankerous Cosmopolitan and Joslyn Carbines Proved That Yankee Ingenuity Sometimes Fell Short of the Mark.” America’s Civil War, vol. 19, no. 6, Jan. 2007, pp. 19–20. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=23129634&site=ehost-live.
- Samide, Daniel E. Anatomy of a Classic: Ambrose Bierce Cleverly Used Some Key Literary Tools in Crafting His Civil War Tale ’An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Kalmbach Publishing Co.
- Bierce, Ambrose, and Sunand T. Joshi. The Devils Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs. Library of America, 2011. Pages 10-19