An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce
In An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce we have the theme of conflict, time, freedom, acceptance, escape, commitment, control and reality. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises from the beginning of the story that Bierce through the setting of the story may be exploring the theme of conflict. The story itself is set during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and Farquhar has been captured by Federal troops and is about to be hanged. What is interesting about Farquhar’s position is that he doesn’t give up the hope of not being hung. As his watch is ticking he is thinking of being able to free himself before he is hung. This may be significant as Bierce could be using the element of time to suggest that should an individual find themselves in a position similar to Farquhar. They too will try and figure out a way to escape and in turn not accept their fate. If anything Farquhar is driven by his desire to escape. Something that is noticeable by the journey he believes he takes after he is hung by the Federal troops. It is as though Farquhar is living an alternative and more pleasant reality. In whereby he believes he has made it back home to his wife.
Which may be the point that Bierce is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that should an individual be under enough pressure. They will try and alleviate that pressure by thinking of an alternative situation or reality. Something that Farquhar clearly does when he is standing on the bridge. However Farquhar does not appear to realise what he is doing. Symbolically the river or rather the water underneath the bridge may also be important as for Farquhar it represents freedom. It is also possible that Bierce is exploring the theme of control or rather the lack of it. Despite Farquhar’s best intentions he is not in control of what is happening. He may think he is however the reality is very much different. Which may also be symbolically important as the Confederate army lost the Civil War just as Farquhar loses his life. There is also a hint to the reader that something is wrong as Farquhar travels home. The roads look different to him which would suggest to some readers that all is not well for Farquhar. That his journey home may be more spiritual than physical.
Though Farquhar is not a soldier he still nonetheless shows commitment to the Confederate cause. This could be significant as Bierce may be suggesting that during the war civilians also took part and it may not have necessarily been restricted to soldiers from both sides. It is also noticeable that Farquhar never lets go of his will to live. Despite being in dire circumstances he is still thinking of ways to escape. The comfort that Farquhar imagines he will feel at home is also interesting as home is a safe environment for Farquhar. The Federal soldiers are yet to reach his home so he is very much outside their reach. Also by running home to his wife Farquhar may be attempting to say goodbye to her. Though this is not something he would be conscious of. After all Farquhar never leaves the bridge. Everything that he thinks has happened is only happening in his imagination. Perhaps a safety device in his mind has kicked in to protect him from what is really about to happen to him.
What is also interesting about the end of the story is how blunt the ending is. In the space of one sentence the reader realises that Farquhar has died on the bridge. Which may be important as the bluntness of the sentence in many ways mirrors what has actually happened Farquhar. There is no real victory or peace of mind for Farquhar. He has paid a heavy price for his attempt to set the bridge on fire. Though he believes his cause was just he has sacrificed his life for a lost cause. However some critics might consider Farquhar’s actions to be honourable. While others might suggest that Farquhar was a desperate man who took desperate action. Thinking of others rather than of himself. Like many Americans who fought on both sides during the Civil War. Such was their beliefs they were prepared to risk their lives for what they believed in. Unfortunately for Farquhar his moment of happiness when he believes he is returning home to his wife is an illusion. It is not real. Farquhar is to die for what he has done regardless of the fact that he is a civilian. If anything Bierce could be highlighting the cruelties of war not only on soldiers but on civilians too who believed it was their duty to hinder the opposing army.