Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.
Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is one of the most famous and frequently anthologized short stories.
It's known for its surprise ending, but it's also an engaging story along the way. It's not simply a set up for its ending.
This article starts with a summary and then looks at themes, the ending and the title.
Summary of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
A prisoner with his hands tied behind his back and a noose around his neck is on a bridge in Alabama. Federal soldiers guard him, and there's a sentinel at each end of the bridge. There's rushing water beneath them.
A line of infantrymen stand on one bank of the river facing the bridge, motionless.
The prisoner is a civilian gentleman in his mid-thirties, and has a kindly expression.
There's movement on the bridge, leaving only the sergeant and the condemned man standing on the same plank. The sergeant's weight is all that prevents the prisoner from falling through the bridge.
The man, previously distracted by his surroundings, closes his eyes to think of his wife and children. He's distracted by the sound of a hammer hitting an anvil, which turns out to be the ticking of his watch.
He thinks about freeing himself, jumping into the stream, swimming to the bank and escaping into the woods.
The sergeant steps off the plank.
The prisoner, Peyton Fahrquhar, is a well-off planter from a respected family, devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances prevent him from joining the army, but he helps the South as a civilian in any way he can.
One evening, a soldier rode up to his gate and asked for some water. While Mrs. Fahrquhar fetched it, Peyton asked about the war effort. He said the Yanks had secured Owl Creek bridge and were preparing an advance. Anyone caught interfering would be hanged. The soldier further indicated that the bridge is lightly guarded on this side. There's also an accumulation of driftwood against it that would easily burn.
The soldier left. He returned after dark, heading northward. He was a Federal scout.
Peyton Fahrquhar falls through the bridge and loses consciousness. He awakens to pain and congestion. The sound of a splash and the sensation of coldness make him realize the rope broke.
He sinks first, then rises toward the surface. He frees his hands and removes the noose.
He feels pain everywhere, but manages to break the surface of the water. His senses have fully returned. They're even heightened, as he notes small details in his surroundings.
There's activity from the soldiers on the bridge. Some shots from a sentinel strike the water near Peyton.
He hears the order for the infantrymen to fire on him. Peyton dives as deeply as he can. Some of the bullets touch him under the water. He swims with the current and resurfaces farther downstream.
The soldiers reload. A cannon blast hits the water by Peyton, sending a tidal wave of water over him.
The current spins and flings him to the southern bank. He's out of the line of fire.
He's overwhelmed with delight. He rushes up the bank into the trees.
Peyton walks all day through the seemingly unending forest. At night, he gets on the road that will lead him home. He's tired, hungry, thirsty and his neck hurts.
He suddenly finds himself at his gate. As he goes up the walk, his wife comes to meet him. She's graceful and beautiful.
As they're about to embrace, he feels a blow to the back of his neck, a blinding light and a jarring sound. Then, there's nothing.
Peyton Fahrquhar's dead body swings from Owl Creek bridge.
When the story ends, we realize it has taken liberties with the passage of time. As much as it feels like this was sprung on us suddenly, the groundwork was laid for it earlier.
As Peyton tries to think about his wife and children, he's distracted by "a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil," which were "as slow as the tolling of a death knell" with the intervals between them getting "progressively longer; the delays became maddening." This turns out to be "the ticking of his watch."
Here, Peyton experiences a time dilation as each passing second feels longer and longer. The entire third section is dilated in the same way.
After Peyton falls through the bridge, he awakens, "ages later, it seemed to him."
After he breaks the surface of the water, he's able to note details about the trees, leaves, insects, dewdrops and other things. Time is again stretching here. In this moment where his survival is at stake, he somehow has the time to analyze his surroundings.
The final image of the story, the one that tells us time has been manipulated, is of Petyon swinging gently from Owl Creek bridge, like a pendulum clock.
Theme: Imagination and Fantasy
Peyton's perceptions involve a lot of imagination and fantasy.
While on the bridge, he looks down at the stream, which is racing madly, and notices a piece of driftwood. He thinks, "How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!" His perception doesn't match reality.
Peyton's view of the war is also rooted in fantasy. He feels "inglorious restraint" as a civilian who couldn't join the "gallant army", and wants "the larger life of the soldier . . . the opportunity for distinction." He sees only the potential for glory, as "No service was too humble . . . no adventure [was] too perilous for him to undertake." Peyton doesn't acknowledge the reality of the war, that his involvement is dangerous, and these adventures mean people's lives.
This attitude is what leads Peyton to his death. He volunteers for a mission against the Union that doesn't require his presence. If the bridge is as lightly guarded and vulnerable as the scout indicates, it could be burned down by a Confederate soldier, or a small task force.
It's possible that Peyton had been talking about his support for the Southern cause; after all, the recognition he wants would only come if others knew his exploits. This could be why Peyton was seemingly targeted with this set up. He wanted an "opportunity for distinction", and one was handed to him. His denial of the reality of the war's dangers might have distinguished him in the enemy's eyes.
The most obvious example of imagination is the whole final section. Peyton's heroic and unlikely escape, and his difficult trek home, all turn out to be an illusion. This is a fitting end for Peyton, who's been denying the reality of his actions. What would no doubt be one of the best war stories anyone in the area could tell happens only in his mind.
Peyton's been living in a fantasy since the war started, and it takes death to snap him out of it.
1. Is the ending "fair", or is it just a trick on the reader?
Although the ending might be jolting, it doesn't come out of nowhere. The reader is given lots of clues along the way.
The third section describes Peyton's sensations with some uncertainty, qualifying them with "appeared to," and "seemed like."
He frees his hands with "splendid effort!" and "superhuman strength!"
When his senses fully return, they're "preternaturally keen and alert." This is when he starts noticing things that no one would notice, or that would be impossible to notice, such as:
- the separate sounds of the ripples,
- the individual trees,
- the leaves and the veins on them,
- the insects on the leaves,
- the colors of the dewdrops,
- the humming of the gnats and beating of the dragonfly wings,
- the stroke of a water spider, and
- the sound of a fish parting the water.
Shortly after, he sees "the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle." This is another impossible thing supposedly experienced by Peyton.
On his journey home, Peyton finds a wide, straight, untraveled road that, while unfamiliar, he knows will lead him home.
From this road, he finds the scene suddenly shifts to his front gate. This is exactly the kind of shift that occurs in a dream, that we accept without question.
As he reaches his home, we might remember his thoughts of a potential escape. Everything has worked out almost exactly as he wanted. This is another signal that his mind has created the scene.
Despite all these clues that make the illusory nature of his escape seem obvious, I think readers can be forgiven for missing them, or ignoring their significance. It's natural for us to get caught up in Peyton's unlikely triumph over his captors, and enjoy the ride.
The twist ending teaches us the lesson that Peyton needed to learn: living in a fantasy world is dangerous.
2. What's the significance of Peyton thinking the stars "had a secret and malign significance," and that the woods were full of "whispers in an unknown tongue?"
This represents a shift for Peyton, who had thus far viewed everything with optimism. Everything has been working out for him during his escape. Suddenly, he starts to feel like his surrounding are conspiring against him.
These thoughts occur to him just before he finds himself at his gate. His fantasy is nearing its end, and his belief in it is breaking down. It also foreshadows an unpleasant turn in the story.
3. What is the significance of the title?
Calling a man's hanging "an occurrence" is an understatement. This tells us how common death is in war. That's the reality of it. It draws attention to the unrealistic view of the war that Peyton holds.
In hindsight, it also anticipates the ending. The occurrence, the entire story, actually takes place at Owl Creek bridge. Peyton was there the whole time.