An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ambrose Bierce's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce was born in Ohio, the tenth of thirteen children whose names all famously began with the letter “A.” He began his career working for an abolitionist printer and enlisted in the Union Army at the start of the U.S. Civil War. Bierce fought in a number of prominent battles—including the Battle of Shiloh and the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, where he suffered a terrible heat injury—and his experiences formed the basis of many of his later stories (including “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”). After the war, he travelled west with the military, stopping in San Francisco where he resigned his commission and became a journalist. He worked in England from 1872 to 1875, then returned to San Francisco where he remained for many years. His biting pieces of journalism were his calling card in those days, but he spent several years engaged in fiction writing as well. He joined Pancho Villa’s army in 1913, there to observe their efforts in the Mexican Revolution. He disappeared in their company in late December of 1913, somewhere in the Chihuahua region of Mexico.
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Historical Context of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a comment on the American Civil War, which pit the agrarian Southern states, who wished to secede from the Union, against the industrial Northern states, who wished to preserve it. Slavery lay at the core of their dispute; the Southern economy depended on the ownership of human beings to function and seceded in large part because they feared that abolitionist forces in the north would force them to free their slaves. Bierce, who fought for the Union and was wounded in battle, penned “An Occurrence as Owl Creek Bridge” as a way of illuminating both the political divides that caused the war and the stark realities that came with the fighting.

Other Books Related to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a notable (if unorthodox) example of the realist movement in American Literature. The movement champions facts and details as they are, without embellishment or flourish. It arose in part as a response to Romanticism, which emphasized grand or noble qualities in its subject. Among the movement’s most noted practitioners were Mark Twain, who applied realistic techniques to works such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; Henry James, who penned Portrait of a Lady and The American; and Jack London, who told stories of the American wilderness such as The Call of the Wild and White Fang. More specifically, Bierce uses realistic techniques to depict the realities of the U.S. Civil War—a subject shared by the likes of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and William Dean Howells’s “The Battle of Lookout Mountain.”
Key Facts about An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
  • Full Title: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
  • When Written: 1890
  • Where Written: San Francisco, CA
  • When Published: 1980
  • Literary Period: Realism
  • Genre: Short Story, Supernatural
  • Setting: Alabama during an undefined point in the American Civil War
  • Climax: Peyton Farquhar believes he has escaped execution and returned home, only to be snapped back to the point of his death just as the rope snaps taut
  • Antagonist: Union soldiers charged with Farquhar’s execution.
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient, though the stream-of-consciousness structure focuses largely on Farquhar’s perceptions

Extra Credit for An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

It Was on The Twilight Zone. French filmmaker Robert Enrico adapted the story into a short film, which won both the Best Short Subject Award at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival and the 1963 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. It was so good that the producers of The Twilight Zone bought the rights and aired it as an episode of the famous show—the only episode not to be produced by the show’s staff.