The mystery story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, focuses on the life of a middle-aged man called Peyton Farquhar. The nineteenth century story is set at the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865). For trespassing on the Owl Creek Bridge, Peyton is condemned to death by hanging upon the same bridge.
Peyton, a Confederate sympathizer, is shown to be already bound at the edge of the bridge as the story starts. As much as the main part of the story is set in Peyton’s mind, it culminates in a curious twist in the plot. However, one does not realize this easily until the end of the story when it is clearly stated that Peyton is hanging unconsciously with a broken neck from the edge of the bridge. The story that is divided into three parts is considered a suspense-filled story.
The author captures the reader’s attention with elements of suspense throughout the story. As the story begins, the reader is introduced to a man having a noose around his neck, “The man’s hands were behind his back, his wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck” (Bierce, 1).
However, the reader is not told the reason for this sad beginning. Therefore, this beginning sentence cements the reader tightly and instantly into the story. It is later revealed that a confederate soldier had told the main character in the story about the bridge. One can only imagine that he is the one who tried to destroy the bridge since his fate is to be concealed by hanging from that same bridge.
Subsequently, as the noose breaks, the reader is on the edge to see if the prisoner can flee from the Union forces and make it back to his wife and children. All through the short story, the reader is on the edge to see if in any case Peyton is able to survive the ordeal. However, the optimism is soon taken away when the reader realizes that he was hanging from the bridge.
In the story, the author uses a third person narrator with a limited omniscient point of view that creates an analytical tone in describing Peyton’s experience before passing away. The author recreates a significant period for a man who is about to be killed. This brief moment is perceived to be the better part of a full day. As Bierce succeeds in portraying the most intimate thoughts of Peyton as he struggles to escape from the hangman, it creates a dramatic journey of suspense.
In the journey, he seems to have escaped the hangman and managed to get back to his family once again. “As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man’s brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant” (Bierce, 4). As the reader takes note of this significant period, it appears to last for the better part of the day. However, as the story ends, one realizes that it was only taking place in Peyton’s mind.
Moreover, the reader realizes that it was only the last moments of his life just before the hangman’s rope broke his neck and rendered him lifeless.
Even though the hanging is an important part in the plot of the story, it remains in the shadows of the story. The author creates and maintains suspense by tricking the reader that Peyton escapes the ordeal. With the rope around his neck, the reader expects him to die. However, he plunges into a river filled with different kinds of animal images.
Instead of dying, the author gives the main character in the story an explosion of life. This literary technique makes the reader to be hooked into the story in order to be acquainted with the details of the profound occurrence of Peyton’s demise than would a less knowing point of view.
To heighten and constantly create suspense in the story, the author uses a variation on the gothic tension-release technique. He achieves this by giving the reader images that are strange, hopeful, but quiet. He then hits the reader with barrage of bullets and pain and, all of a sudden, the main character is off and swimming or trying to escape.
Bierce intentionally employs this tension-release effect in numerous occasions throughout the story in order to maintain suspense prior to the surprising ending. Prior to enhancing the sense of peril and suspense by means of gunfire or sadness, the author takes the reader into a state of tranquil, but strange occurrences take place first.
The reader is taken back and forth from near death experiences, to good-looking illustrations of life, to illustrations of life after death, to the physical reality of getting hurt, and eventually nearly into the re-union with Peyton’s family members. Instead, the story ends on a sad note with the death of Peyton Farquhar.
Bierce, Ambrose. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Enfield, N.S.W.: Royal Blind Society, 1988.