“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, is one of the best American short stories and is considered Ambrose Bierce’s greatest work. First published in Bierce’s short story collection “Tales of Soldiers and Civilians” in 1891, this story is about Peyton Farquhar, a southern farmer who is about to be hanged by the Union Army for trying to set the railroad bridge at Owl Creek on fire. While Farquhar is standing on the bridge with a rope around his neck, Bierce leads the reader to think that the rope snaps and he falls into the river, and then makes an amazing escape and finally returns to his farm, to be reunited with his wife.
However the ending of the story is totally different, in fact, Farquhar is hanged and these imaginings take place seconds before his death. Ambrose Bierce’s trick ending succeeds because of the way he manipulated the text by changing the narrative point of view from one type to another.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is divided into three sections, with each section having a different narrative form.
In the first section, the author uses dramatic narration: the story is told by no one. With the disappearance of the narrator, the reader is now the direct and immediate witness to the unfolding drama. The reader views the work from the outside. In the beginning of this story the readers are informed of all the preparations for a man about to be hanged: the set up for the hanging, the characters involved and the surroundings.
The narrator gives an incredible and beautiful snapshot of the scene describing the water, the guards, and his restraints. “…Vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer rested on the forearm thrown strait across the chest- a formal and unnatural position” (Bierce pg. 90, line 10).
This type of narration is the least personal and the reader receives the least information on the character’s thoughts and feelings. Although the author describes details, the reader has to fill the blanks as to what actions and events lead up to the situation. The reason for this type of narration in the first section of the story is to get the readers curiosity going. One wonders what Peyton Farquhar could have done to be hanged; was he alone in what he did, why is he involved in a military issue when he is a civilian?
In paragraph six and seven and through the second section, the author changes his point of view to one which is third person omniscient: all knowing. The omniscient narrator is not a character in the story and is not involved with what happens. He imposes his presence between the reader and the story and controls all the events. From an outside point of view, the narrator provides enough information to summarize, interpret and wonder. As the story evolves, the reader begins to read thoughts of the characters: Farquhar, his wife and the soldiers. The reader becomes involved in Farquhar’s life as the narrator summarizes his situation. The reader is told of him being a planter and owning slaves, that he is a secessionist and devoted to the Southern cause.
Nevertheless, the narrator leads the reader to believe Farquhar and his wife are kind people, she fetched the water for the soldier to drink with her “own white hands” (Bierce pg.92, line 15) instead of ordering one on her colored slaves to do it. Farquhar’s principles and devotion towards the south is explained in this section and the reader gets to know who he really is. This makes the reader feel sympathetic towards him and his wife. The purpose of the omniscient narrator in the 2nd section is to give information of the characters and to get a glimpse into Farquhars life. The reader finds out how devoted his wife is to her husband. The reader can now relate to Farqhuar and understand how and why he got caught trying to destroy the bridge.
Section three is intended to create suspense. Bierce wants the reader to believe that what is being described actually happens. In order for the reader to believe that what is being described is actually happening, the story must be narrated from the characters point of view (limited omniscient point of view). With a limited omniscient point of view, the narrator limits his or her ability to penetrate the mind of a single character. The reader may be shown the character’s voice, feelings and thoughts through dialogue, monologue or stream of consciousness. As a result, the reader becomes more and more directly involved in interpreting the story.
By using this point of view all of what Farquhar is experiencing seems so real. The advantages of the limited omniscient point of view are the tightness of focus and control that it provides. If the third section was told in an omniscient point of view, the author would have not been able to fool the reader, for he would have “seen” what was really happening. Seeing the whole action and knowing the soldiers thoughts would have given away the ending.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was written in three different sections, with each having a different narrative form. The first, using dramatic point of view, describes where the action takes place. The second, omniscient point of view lets the reader comprehend the victim’s thoughts and actions. And finally, the third section, limited omniscient point of view creates suspense by being only in one mind. With the ability to switch from one form to another, Bierce was able to create a tale of intrigue, captivation and a twist-ending.