An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge: Theme & Analysis

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

How can such a long and harrowing event be crammed into such a short story? Find out in this lesson when we explore and analyze the profoundly human thematic elements of Ambrose Bierce's 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.'


'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' is a short story written by Ambrose Bierce in 1890, and it is divided into three sections. The first section opens on the impending execution of Peyton Farquhar, a civilian Confederate sympathizer. A contingent of Union soldiers has gathered to carry out his execution by hanging on the railroad bridge over Owl Creek, and nearly everything is in order to proceed. A sergeant is performing his last duties in the procedure when the scene flashes to the story's second section.

In the second section, we move into the past to learn more about Peyton, a wealthy planter and slave owner who wishes desperately to prove his loyalty to the Southern cause. When a man dressed as a Confederate soldier appears at his home, Peyton offers him water and learns that Union troops have posted an execution order for anyone tampering with their progress in the area. This whets Peyton's appetite for vigilantism, which is precisely what the soldier - actually a disguised federal scout - had hoped.

The third section jumps back to the action at the bridge, beginning abruptly with Peyton's falling to his presumable doom. Miraculously, however, the rope snaps, and he is able to affect a harrowing escape through a barrage of rifle and cannon fire. After finding a road, he quickly falls asleep, and when he awakes, he finds that he is already home. His glorious reunion with his family is cut short, though, as the noose snaps Peyton's neck and plunges his racing mind into silent darkness. He never escaped the bridge, after all.


The secret to eternal life is something that has mostly eluded us for millennia. So, why do we keep looking for it? Truth is, most of us really aren't that comfortable with the idea of our own mortality. Inevitably, then, we either eventually make peace with the fact, or continue to deny the coming day of our own deaths. This often unconscious, yet nonetheless illogical denial of our mortality serves as the major thematic element of Bierce's story, and it is illustrated in a number of ways:

First, we see the 'orderliness of death'. Death is represented by the menacing group of Union soldiers assembled on the bridge and the hillside. Peyton, the would-be soldier, takes great pains to note the specific stances and formations the men assume, demonstrating death's cold precision and regimented timing.

Next, we see 'irrational fantasies'. Peyton clearly wants nothing more than to become a hero in the name of the South. However, he isn't even experienced enough to recognize his deception at the hands of the federal spy. What's more, with such little experience, would he really be able to escape in such a daring fashion?

Finally, there is 'ultimate denial'. Until the very end, it seems Peyton's mind refuses to acknowledge the inevitable. The entire escape was his mind's final fantastic vision, devised to shield him from the painful reality of the doom it ultimately denies.

Now that we have the story's theme, let's take a closer look at its elements to get a better picture of just what happened at Owl Creek Bridge.


Despite the comforts of any philosophy we may subscribe to, our most primal selves have an extreme aversion to death. The 'fight or flight' responses of our bodies are proof that we're biologically programmed to avoid death at all costs. Nevertheless, death comes to us all in time, and this machine-like disregard is what we find most disconcerting.

Innately, we are often irrational in our thinking, so death's highly logical nature is somewhat alien to us. Bierce uses the faceless federal brigade, with its clockwork precision, to represent death's indiscriminate outlook, particularly when he notes that the liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.

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