By: Shane Lambert
Ambrose Bierce (1842 to ~1914) was an American writer. One of his enduring literary works is called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a short story that was published in 1890. This story will be looked at in this article so be warned now that the following sections CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS. If you want to read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” with the ending preserved, then use this exit link here. The point that I want to make about the short story will follow.
One thing that readers should note is that I am going off of the version of the story that first appeared in the July 13th, 1890 edition of The San Francisco Examiner. This published version is different than later versions in some small ways.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” – Plot Summary, narrative Criticism, theme, and Bierce’s method for creating a twist ending
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a short story with a twist ending. That means that the ending takes the reader in a different route that the one that seemed to already be established.
How Bierce accomplished this is actually pretty simple when you break it down into a procedure, something I will do at the end of this article. However, this goal is little more than just a motivator to look at the story in some depth. A complete look at the twist ending involves summarizing the plot, examining the narration, and exploring the theme. All of this will be done en route to understanding how to use Bierce’s simple procedure to set up a twist ending.
A front-to-back summary of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” can either tell you where the twist is when the first seeds are planted or leave that until the end. Since I’ve already warned you of plot spoilers, I’ll take the former path in this article.
Bierce’s story, broken into three short parts, is set in northern Alabama during the American Civil War in the 1860s. Bierce, in real life, was a veteran of this war, a war which was between Abraham Lincoln’s North and the Confederate States of the South in the United States of America.
In Part I of the story, we are in the present. At this point, we quickly learn that we’re about to read of a man who is about to be hanged. He is standing on the titular bridge, awaiting his fate.
In Part II of the story, we go the recent past. At this point, we learn what it was that lead to this man’s fate: Farquhar, the man who is about to be hanged, had claimed to someone who he thought was a Confederate soldier that he, Farquhar, wanted to sabotage the North’s advance into the South. However, this soldier ended up being a spy for the North and it is implied in the story that this is what lead to Farquhar’s arrest.
In Part III of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” we, the readers, are taken back to the present. It’s at this point where we are presented with Farquhar’s escape, at least before the twist ending reverses that understanding of events. In the final statement of the story, we learn that Farquhar only imagined his escape in the moments before his neck was snapped.
There is some jumping around as the presentation of the story is not linear. However, while the plot is simple enough, the narration in the story is a little more difficult to grasp. It has been referred to as “Stream of consciousness” narration which, in my opinion, seems to be little more than the tool of a writer who can’t really grasp on to a steady narrative perspective.
The narrator in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in fact, could called a third-person narrator that lacks omniscience or, perhaps better, a third-person narrator that toggles in and out of omniscience. That’s a little different than the conventional third-person narrator for the day and so this story is significant to look at.
The following narrative excerpt comes from Part I of the story. The “platform” mentioned should be understood as being on the bridge that Farquhar is on, one that he will be thrown off of with a noose around his neck. The first usage of the word “him” applies to Farquhar. The statements below are not from the protagonist but from the narrator.
Ask yourself: what perspective does this narrator have? I would submit that the perspective is inconsistent within this short passage.
From one point of view, the narrator seems omniscient as he knows the rank of an officer to be “a captain.” From this point of view, the narrator might seem all-knowing because he knows details of peripheral characters, even details that don’t seem that important.
However, in this same passage there’s uncertainty about the roles of the sentinels. The narrator claims that it “did not appear to be the duty of these two men” to know about the hanging. Furthermore, there is some question as to the “civil life” of the sergeant. Importantly, a truly omniscient narrator, a literary entity that knows everything about the fiction he’s presiding over, wouldn’t have doubts about anything. Doubts are reflected in the passivity of the narrator’s claim when he said “did not appear” (my emphasis). Normal people talk like this when they aren’t sure of something so, at first glance, it’s a bit odd for a narrator that already seemed to know some trifling details to be un-authoritative on others.
In contrast, the final sentence of the quoted passage would best have been written: “These two men did not have a duty to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge,” if, in fact, that was true. An omniscient narrator that has doubts is absurd and this passage is part of the reason I see the third-person narrator as toggling in and out of the all-knowing state. You can call that “Stream of consciousness” narration if you want but I see it as contradictory and that type of narrating style simply legitimizing writings where an author may not be good enough to stay in mode.
That the third-person narrator in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” isn’t all knowing is clearer if more passages are looked at. But first, I want to show that the narrator has omniscience in some contexts. In the following passage, the narrator has access to the main character’s thoughts. It occurs near the end of Part I, where Farquhar is thinking about how to escape. The pronoun that starts the excerpt refers to Farquhar.
Having access to someone’s mind is either due to a first-person perspective (ie. access to your own mind) or an omniscient one. In this case, it must be the latter or else “he thought” would be written as “I thought.” From this excerpt, the narrator is clearly omniscient.
But then sticking with Part I, the narrator previously had described Farquhar as “apparently about thirty-five years of age.” The use of the word “apparently” is strange here. It’s as though the narrator is looking at Farquhar and offering an opinion on his age based on how he looks. Yet, if the narrator is omniscient, then Farquhar’s age could be stated with certainty.
If we imagine some kind of third-person narrator that’s not omniscient then the statement kind of makes sense but then how does this person know what Farquhar’s thinking so much? If the narrator is Farquhar then we’re into the Twilight Zone because it would mean a character in a story has overtaken the omniscient narration. But even then, you’d think an uppity man like Farquhar would know his own age. All that really follows is that the narrator is a little bit weird. Maybe Bierce wants to establish a narrator that doesn’t tell the whole story and/or isn’t immaculately credible.
Clearly, Bierce is using a narrator that, at least, holds back on the readers. That’s done most clearly in Part III where the narrator doesn’t divulge that Farquhar started to fantasize about an escape but simply allows us to believe he has genuinely escaped. Thus, the twist ending is dependent on the reader trusting the narrator to be comprehensive yet, as we’ve seen with some details, the narrator in this story is not.
If Bierce’s toggling in and out of omniscience is not deliberate then he could be viewed as a writer who isn’t of literary quality. It could mean that he doesn’t know how to employ an omniscient narrator properly or that he didn’t refine his work. If the toggling in and out of omniscience is to be viewed as deliberate, then we can look at why. Doing that, I submit, requires looking at Farquhar’s fantasy.
In the moments before he is executed, Farquhar, as presented by the not-so-omniscient narrator, escapes from the claws of death. The narrator allows us to believe that the rope broke when he was dropped from the bridge. A truthful narrator might instead state that Farquhar couldn’t face the stress of being executed via hanging so he fell into the world of illusion, which is actually what happens.
That the narrator isn’t square with the reader creates a bit of an Easter Egg hunt: we can look for clues that we’re watching something that sets up the twist ending. One big clue to the fact that there is deception going on is perhaps the mentioning of a snake.
When Farquhar seems to escape from his executioners, he falls into Owl Creek and a snake passes him in the water. Snakes are often a symbol of deception in literature, maybe because of their forked tongues or maybe because of the Garden of Eden as presented in the bible. A fox on the shore would have worked just as well as they, don’t ask me how, have a reputation as being tricky.
The snake isn’t the only clue that suggests that readers shouldn’t trust what’s going on. The title itself says “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (emphasis added). “An Occurrence” would be to focus on a single event and one that occurs at the single location, that being the bridge. This isn’t a short story that traverses the country side — it is bound to what happens on the bridge. It’s a tiny clue that anyone that buys into the story of escape of from that bridge is going outside the scope of the actual story.
Another Easter Egg just has to do with the head-scratching part of the fantasy-line plot where Farquhar manages to escape. In the fantasy line, Farquhar is actually dropped from the bridge to be hung. However, luck intervenes in his favor and the rope breaks.
If you actually know something of hangings, then you know this kind of luck is not actually incredibly fantastic. There are botched hangings in history so a breaking rope is not difficult to accept.
What’s hard to believe is that Farquhar got out of his predicament after he fell into the water below. He has a tightened rope around his neck, his hands are bound, and he is near the bottom of a shallow creek. Even if he avoids drowning, he would still have to avoid strangulation from the tight rope around his neck.
With this predicament, Bierce faces a challenge at this point. If Farquhar magically escapes from the bonds then the realism of the situation might not remain intact from the readers’ points of view. Yet, borderline magic is actually what is needed for Farquhar to live.
In order to save himself, for starters, he needs to free his hands. Mr. Bierce doesn’t make things difficult on himself at this point as author of this story. Instead, the following passage explains how Farquhar freed his bound hands while at the bottom of creek with a tight noose around his neck:
“What splendid effort!–what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light.”
If you ever write a short story and paint your protagonist into a corner then just write the crap in the first sentence to get him out of his spot: “What splendid effort!–what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo!”
That Bierce might be a little bit weak here is one possibility. From another point of view, that Farquhar has done something so completely fake could be viewed as a clue that we’re reading something that is likewise fake. After all, “superhuman strength” could be something that belongs to the fantasist.
As the story carries on, we’re taken through Farquhar’s imaginary escape. This fantasy ends with a reunion with his wife.
Then, right at the very end of the story, Farquhar is back on the bridge and his neck breaks from being hung. It’s at this point that we learn that his escape didn’t actually occur in the story line and we’re left to conclude that we were party plot events that were nothing except the fantasy of the protagonist.
I don’t like the narration in this story. I think the so-called “Stream of consciousness” narration is for the weaker writer that can’t surmount the challenges that come with sticking to the conventions of either a first-person or third-person narration.
Yet, the inconsistencies in the story’s narration are probably best viewed as contributory to the story as opposed to goof-ups. For the thinking reader, catching the ‘omniscient’ narrator (remember — the narrator has access to the main character’s thoughts) not knowing stuff is a hint that that we can’t trust it, the narrator. Thus, Bierce has created a backdrop of quasi-narrative-goofs that allows us to accept the part where the narrator doesn’t let us into the know when it comes to revealing that Farquhar is a fantasist as opposed to a realist. This lines up well with a theme of the story: deception.
A more particular theme for the story could definitely be self-deception. From this point of view, Farquhar is facing something that’s too harsh to face — his imminent death. Anyone that is faced with something that one can’t confront might go a little bit crazy. The entire section of the story involving his escape can thus be viewed as the imaginations of someone who goes temporarily insane in order to avoid the mental anguish of reality.
There is definitely a lesson to be learned from this story, in fact, I think it’s one that’s very pertinent and for me it rescues the short story. Consider that Farquhar is able to live vicariously in a dream world, one where he is free and one where he is back at home with his wife. This dream ends when his neck breaks in the real world.
The lesson, then, is that you can live in a dream world only so long as the real world allows it. When Farquhar’s neck breaks, then fantasy time is over.
Thus, there is a good point to be made about not living in a bubble just because you find it more comfortable. It’s something that we might all note as we’re probably all a little guilty of comforting self-deception from time to time, whether in regard to trifles or important matters.
I would say that this short story is therefore on the didactic side. It’s certainly not as didactic as the literary writings of George Orwell but a point can be taken away from the reading, one that is valuable to life. I would also state that the point that can be extracted from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is relevant to all human cultures.
For a real-life example from history, we can imagine that some people who lived in Pompeii before the eruption of Vesuvius might have been happy where they lived and, because of this and only this, they ignored the warnings of the impending volcanic eruption. However, the dream world can’t be lived in when the real world kills you. Dreams of Vesuvius not erupting end when you get covered in lava because then Cather’s the picture-making mechanism stops working.
As for a literary comparison, let’s stick with the Civil War fiction. Scarlett O’Hara was a naive rich kid of the South who paid no attention to the news of the advancing army from the North. That ignorance kind of ran into a brick wall when she almost starved to death. Her character didn’t die but the boundaries of self-deception can still be explored: she could pretend all she wanted to but a lack of food in your stomach is such a strong dose of reality that it can only be bubble bursting.
Additionally, I think there is a real-life point for those that deny human-caused global warming to take note of. The dream world, the one where we can pollute the atmosphere and deforest the world with no side effects, could end if your section of the real world becomes uninhabitable. Better smarten up.
That Bierce has made a good point about the potential futility of living in a dream world can be taken away from “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I would say that a writer that creates work with a point that transcends his life by several generations is definitely worthwhile. However, I do think his narrative style is that of a lesser writer. The writer that feels as though he can toggle in and out of omniscience as needed is not as talented as the one’s that work within the confines of more rigid conventions.
What Bierce did
One writing technique that you can note from this story is that a tongue-in-cheek narrator can set up a twist ending.
- Step one: use a narrator that appears to be authoritative, if not omniscient.
- Step two: lie to the reader with it.
- Step three: make a statement that emphatically contradicts the ‘omniscient’ narration when you want the twist employed.
What will result is a reader who is turned right around and that’s basically what the twist-ending is supposed to do.
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