An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce : an Undergraduate Literary Analysis
If one were to pick an Ambrose Bierce piece at random, there is a very good chance that you would find yourself reading a somewhat dark and somber story involving anything from the horrors of war, descriptive passages of unsettling and unnerving events, and his signature theme: a vivid and bleak account of someone’s death or execution - An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce : an Undergraduate Literary Analysis introduction. How can you really blame him either?
Given his history of close to home deaths in the family among many other life altering events and ailments, (Bierce divorced his wife in 1904 after discovering her potential infidelity, lost both his sons at young age, battled with depression throughout his life, suffered from debilitating asthma throughout most of his adult life and to top it all off, suffered from complications from a head wound inflicted during his service to the Union in Indiana’s 9th Infantry at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain) one might begin to understand why Bierce believed the cards were stacked against him and how his negativity and personal bitterness spilled over into his work. With a life mantra like, “Nothing Matters” you can see how it didn’t take long for a chipper nickname like “Bitter Bierce” to be bestowed upon him.
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Bierce’s work An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge presents a pessimistic view of the human mind, seen through main character, Peyton Farquhar’s, bleak final moments before being executed by hanging atop the Owl Creek Bridge combined with this false sense of hope given to the reader that ultimately proves useless. Just as Farquhar finds himself with his hands bound behind his back and a noose dangling from his neck atop an 19th century wooden bridge there really seems as if there is no possible way this man can get himself out of this final conundrum. It is here that the reader first sees Bierce attempting to implicate a pessimistic view of Farquhar’s mind by insinuating there is no hope for him and that death is inevitable.
Both sides of the bridge are guarded by armed sentinels and there are another few soldiers, including the captain, on the platform with him. Again through the description of an impenetrable and inescapable gallows Farquhar’s hopes are diminishing even more. Bierce paints a very gloomy and tense atmosphere here, reiterating the zero possibility of escape or hope for Farquhar except for a final last minute thought that if he could somehow free his hands from the cord tying them together he could, “Throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets, and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods, and get away home” (Bierce, 139).
But just as quick as he thought of this, the captain steps off the wooden plank that Farquhar was at the other end of, sending Farquhar plummeting with the noose and further making it clear to the reader that this man has no future. It is here that Bierce begins subtlety toying with the reader that Farquhar’s noose had miraculously snapped as he finds himself suddenly submerged and floating downstream in the rivers, “cold and dark” (140) waters. Between his dismal description of the murky waters and his patented use of direly pessimistic imagery, “He opened his eyes in the blackness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible!
” (141) the reader can really get a look into Bierce’s own views on life coming through into the storyline as well as possible foreshadowing into Farquhar’s true fate. Bierce again begins to show his pessimistic view of the human mind by giving the reader a sudden change in plot direction and instilling the possibility of hope for a miraculous escape from the gallows by Farquhar only to crush that illusion with the final plot twist. The idea that this man might not be free and scrambling home, but possibly be experiencing a vivid hallucination before or during his death first began to become apparent to the reader when upon freeing his bound hands and being, “now in full posession of his physical senses” (141), Farquhar actually has almost super human senses.
It is when he starts alluding to being able to see, “the leaves and the veining of each leaf-saw the very insects upon them, the locusts, the brilliant bodied flies, the grey spiders…” (141), while being tossed downstream that I began to question if this man truly was alive or having his “white light“ moment. That and the ability to see down a rifle scope and describe the color of one of the soldiers eyes after a 20 foot fall, all while dodging a hail of gunfire by multiple soldiers came across a little odd to say the least. But through Bierce’s enveloping writing style most readers find themselves naturally wanting this gentlemen of the south to make it out of there alive and that was enough for me to toss away the thoughts that this whole series of extremely lucky events were exactly that and that only: lucky.
The biggest conflict between Peyton Farquhar’s mind and body is how he convinces himself (as well as the reader) he has escaped in his head and is traveling home, while throughout his “escape” his body is constantly reminding him through , “these pains that seem to flash along well defined lines of ramification, and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity” (140), that maybe he was a little more then just soar from the fall. After a fatiguing chase downstream and through a bedazzled forest that lasts all night, he finds himself at the gates of his home and, “all is how he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine” (144). Even his wife is waiting for him.
Bierce shies away from his patented pessimistic doom and gloom writing style here probably in an attempt to convince the reader our protagonist ,through vivid and positive imagery, has successfully escaped the clutches of the evil Union Army and has safely return to the sunshine of his farm and the comfort of his family. Here he is setting the reader up for only what can be considered a very cruel and pessimistic twist. The imagery used here is so drastically different from the rest of the story and Bierce’s usual downer style, it was hard to make sense of what was really taking place until the final sentence. Here he is setting the reader up for only what can be considered a very cruel and pessimistic twist.
The revelation that the entire time we are reading after Farquhar is pushed off the plank that he has not escaped the clutches of the dominate battalion, but rather has been swinging in and out of consciousness as he clings to his last moments on earth with a broken neck dangling from the Owl Creek Bridge is the final nail on in coffin regarding how .. Owl Creek shows a pessimistic view of the human mind. Bierce illustrates quite vividly how he believes ones final moments unfold through using the human mind as a source of escape from the reality of what is really happening: death. Bierce then leaves the reader with the not so “bright and beautiful” concept that one can dream and hope but ultimately it is useless and death is inevitable. After all, “Death is a dignitary who, when he comes announced, is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him” (138. )