An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge: Themes and Analysis

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1. Flashback and Imagination

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. The sergeant stepped aside.

This quotation appears at the end of the first section of the story, immediately before Farquhar plunges to his death, and marks an important turning point. The execution itself won’t resume until the third section of the story, so for now, Bierce uses the break in the action to give us details about Farquhar’s past. After this flashback in the second section, the action resumes not in reality but in fantasy. Although Farquhar will die in a matter of seconds after he plunges from the bridge, his final thoughts of escape and reunion with his family fuel the imaginative flight that makes up the third section of the story. By portraying Farquhar’s final thoughts and impressions as reality, Bierce reveals his preoccupation with the conventions of prose. The passage serves as an early indication of the surprise ending to come.

2. Themes of Death and Reality

Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him.

Although most of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” maintains a consistent tone, there are several moments, such as in this quotation from the end of the second paragraph of the story, where a brief shift in tone appears. This quotation, which reflects Bierce’s penchant for aphorisms and epigrams, breaks the silent and formal way the Union forces prepare for Farquhar’s hanging. The troops take their duties seriously, and there is a ritualistic quality to the event. Bierce asserts that their hushed attention is a form of respect to the man they are under orders to execute. Though death is not unexpected for Farquhar—the disguised Northern scout had warned Farquhar of this potential punishment during their brief exchange at the plantation—he is ultimately unable to accept it. Rather than “respect” the magnitude of the moment, he resists death by unspooling an elaborate fantasy of an alternate fate.

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