This classic story, first published in Ambrose Bierce’s short story collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, continues to intrigue new generations of readers. Although set during the civil war, it is notable not for the combat scenes that other Bierce stories portray but for the ingenious blending of realism and fantasy that inevitably leads to the surprise ending. Although some readers protest that Bierce uses this ending to trick them, most agree that, to the contrary, the author includes ample cues for the attentive reader to see that the condemned protagonist, Peyton Farquhar, escapes the reality of death only in his imagination.
The structure of the story is crucial to its effects: It opens as Farquhar, a Southern noncombatant, stands on the platform above Owl Creek Bridge while the Union soldiers enact the ritual of the military hanging. Thinking of ways to escape, Farquhar imagines he can free his hands. In a flashback, we learn that Farquhar, a happily married planter and ardent supporter of the “Southern cause” (194), was tricked by a federal scout disguised as a Confederate: Eager to help his compatriots, Farquhar attempted to burn Owl Creek Bridge and was immediately captured by the Yankees, who lay in wait for him. With this information that humanizes Farquhar, we return to the present with him, mentally cheering him on as he plummets from the bridge, and appears to escape his bonds, swim the river, and head through the forest toward home, children, and his beautiful wife, who awaits him on the verandah. In fact, the escape occurs in Farquhar’s imagination as he resists death, which, fi nally, is the inevitable reality common to us all.
Bierce, Ambrose. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” In American Short Stories. 6th ed. Edited by Eugene Current-García and Bert Hitchcock. New York: Longman, 1997.