An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Summary and Themes

Amanda Knapp, Joshua Wimmer
  • Author
    Amanda Knapp

    Amanda Knapp has taught and tutored English at the college level for over ten years. She taught English to Chinese children for over two years. She has a Master of Arts degree in English from Northern Illinois University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in advertising from Marquette University where she also minored in marketing and psychology. She has numerous articles and essays published.

  • Instructor
    Joshua Wimmer

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

Discover who wrote ''An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge''. Review the story's setting, meet Peyton Farquhar, and study the summary, analysis, themes and style. Updated: 05/10/2022

'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'

''An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'' is a short story that explores the last moments of a person’s life. What happens as a person is about to die? What changes in the way their brain functions? What thoughts do they focus on? Are their thoughts rational and worthy of trust? All of these questions are explored in this short story set during the Civil War.

Who Wrote ’An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge?’

Ambrose Bierce wrote ''An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'' in 1890. It was first published in 1890 in The San Francisco Examiner, and it was republished in 1891 in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, a collection by Bierce.

Bierce was born in 1842 in Ohio, but he was raised in Indiana. In 1861 he joined the Union cause during the American Civil War and fought in a number of battles. He was wounded in the war but continued fighting. After the war, he moved to San Francisco and developed a career in both writing and editing. He was a newspaper columnist and a short story writer.


Ambrose Bierce

Black and white photo of an unsmiling middle aged man looking at the camera


Summary

'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.

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’An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ Setting

''An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'' is set during the American Civil War time period. It takes place near a river in Northern Alabama. The water of the river is described as swift. The action begins at the top of a railroad bridge over the river.

’An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ Characters

''An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'' has only one main character; his name is Peyton Farquhar. He is a wealthy southern planter and a slave owner, and while he is not a soldier for the Confederacy, he was a secessionist sympathetic to the southern cause and wants to help that cause in whatever way he can. Of him is said, ''no service too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake.''

Farquhar’s wife and children are mentioned in the story. The reader does not know much about these characters except that the wife goes to get a Confederate soldier water instead of asking a slave to do it. The wife and the children are Farquhar’s main motivation for escaping death.

Another character is a Union scout described as a gray-clad soldier. He meets Farquhar and his wife at their house. The two home owners believe he is a Confederate, but Bierce later lets the reader know that he was actually a Yankee soldier who most likely tried to trick Farquhar into sabotaging the Union in order to hang him for his crimes.

’An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ Summary

''An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'' can be summarized according to its three sections. Each section tells a slightly different part of the story.

Section I

The action in ''An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'' begins on top of a railroad bridge over a river. A man, Peyton Farquhar, is about to be hung because he attempted to sabotage the Union. The story begins as Bierce describes the actions of the soldiers, all very business-like, as they prepare to execute Farquhar.

As he waits for death, Farquhar hears a loud, piercing noise. Eventually it is disclosed that the noise is actually the ticking of his watch. It sounded so loud because his senses were so heightened due to his fear of and proximity to death.

Farquhar attempts to close his eyes and imagine his wife and children because they are the last thought he wants to experience before death. Suddenly, he imagines being able to break his hands free, break loose of the noose, and swim to safety. The sergeant steps aside, plummeting Farquhar to his death.

Section II

Section two opens with a description of Farquhar and his circumstances as a well-to-do farmer from a respected, slave-owning family. He and his wife were sitting down when a soldier they believe from the Confederacy comes to ask for water. Bierce makes a point to note that the wife was happy to serve him with her ''white hands,'' meaning she did not ask a slave to do it.

The scout tells Farquhar, ''any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels or trains will be summarily hanged. I saw the order.'' When Farquhar asks what needs to be done for the Confederacy, the soldier tells him of a specific place where a person could cause trouble for the Union. The section ends after the soldier leaves and Bierce lets it be known that the soldier went away but later backtracked and went back where he came from. He was a Union scout.

Section III

The time flashes back to Farquhar hanging from the bridge. The reader is told that he lost consciousness but then came to and was in excruciating pain. He begins swinging. Suddenly, the audience is told that the rope broke, and he falls into the water. Eventually he gets his arms loose and starts swimming for safety as gunfire and a canon are shot at him. His senses are again heightened as he notices the veins on leaves in the forest near him. He gets to land and runs along a path in a forest. Suddenly he realizes that he is at his home. He reaches for his wife when suddenly a white light shows around him, and he is dead. His body is hanging above Owl Creek Bridge.

’An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ Analysis

In short, ''An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'' is a story about death. One way death is explored is through the denial that occurs in Farquhar’s mind as he is dying. As with most people, he has a fear of death that is so strong that it leads him to fantasize a highly unlikely escape scenario. He cannot face what is about to happen, and so he escapes into fantasy.

Another key aspect of this story is the motivations we have to live. Farquhar wants his last moments to be spent thinking about his wife and children. He wishes to escape to them. He purposefully tries to train his mind so that his final thoughts are what he wants them to be. While he goes through a lengthy escape fantasy first, his last thoughts are, indeed, of his wife and his pending embrace of her.

Farquhar also has illusions of grandeur. He is not a soldier, and yet he wants to play a heroic role in the war. This, ultimately, leads to his death. The fact that he is not able to succeed in his attempt to foil a Union plan make his escape scenario even more unlikely.

Themes

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.

Analysis

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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Video Transcript

Summary

'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.

Themes

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.

Analysis

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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Frequently Asked Questions

Why did Farquhar get hanged?

Farquhar got hung because he attempted to help the Confederacy during the Civil War. He was most likely set up to commit this breach and was caught by a Union spy who came by his house.

What is the short story ''An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'' about?

This story is about the final seconds of the life of a southern planter during the Civil War. As the main character is about to be hung, his mind flashes to an elaborate escape fantasy, and it is not until the last sentences of the story that the reader understands fully that this escape did not happen. At that moment, the main character dies.

What does the bridge symbolize in ''An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge''?

In literature, bridges often symbolize change or transition as they physically connect one place to another. The bridge in this story symbolizes the main character's transition from life to death.

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