At a railroad bridge overlooking a small creek in Northern Alabama, a man stands with a noose around his neck and his hands tied behind him. He’s guarded by Union soldiers at either end of the bridge. A Union stockade stands on the far side of the stream, with a row of soldiers in front of it, standing at parade rest. The man to be hanged is about thirty-five and is dressed in the expensive clothes of a gentleman.
Bierce uses the first few paragraphs to set the scene and to establish the dramatic tensions inherent in the story. Most of the details in this section concern the story’s Civil War setting, but they also sharply contrast the man to be executed (a genteel, well-dressed Southerner acting alone) with the Union soldiers charged with executing him (anonymous men moving in sync, all wearing the same clothes with little to differentiate them). That allows the reader to focus on the divide between the two, as well as quickly ascertaining what the story will be about.
The Union soldiers finish their preparations, leaving the man to be executed standing over the stream at the end of a plank. A sergeant stands on the other side of the plank as a counterweight. When the sergeant steps aside, the plank will drop the condemned man to the river and snap the noose tight—breaking his neck.
This passage further emphasizes the precision and efficiency of the Union soldiers preparing to hang this man. There’s a feeling of enhanced doom about the soldier’s preparations, with an emphasis on Farquhar’s vulnerability and the fact that there’s no way out of his condition.
As he contemplates his last moments, the condemned man fixates on a piece of driftwood moving lazily down the stream. He attempts to set his final thoughts on his family, only to be distracted by a new detail: a steady, inexplicable booming sound, which turns out to be the ticking of his watch.
The ticking watch is the most potent symbol of one of the story’s most pervasive notions: as Farquhar approaches death, the last few moments of his life are experienced in a state of heightened awareness. Little details take on enhanced importance, and become even more pronounced as his odyssey continues. The ticking watch enhances the idea that death is coming for Farquhar no matter what he does to avoid it.
The man thinks of his family again and contemplates some final means by which he might escape his predicament: freeing his hands and diving into the stream to swim away. As he thinks about such an escape, the sergeant steps away.
This passage represents Farquhar’s last moments before he dies, and as such the last moments of “objective” reality before his hallucination takes over. It establishes how what he’s thinking of in that moment—his family—becomes a beacon for everything he wants to live for. He even plots some fantastic means of escape in order to get back to them, a fantasy that he lives out in the ensuing hallucination. The passage serves both as foreshadowing for what is to come and an ironic juxtaposition between the perceived purity of his family (and the society they represent) with the slavery that allows them to live such “pure” lives.
The story flashes back to the events that led to the man’s execution. His is a slave-owning farmer named Peyton Farquhar, dedicated to the Southern cause in the U.S. Civil War. He has a plantation near Owl Creek Bridge.
This is where the story’s Civil War aspects take their most potent form. Farquhar is portrayed as a slave-owning Southern patriot willing to do anything for his cause, and his wife is subtly portrayed as a beneficiary of the slaveholding society that Farquhar wants to preserve. It’s a subtle implication of the character and his politics: even though he’s technically a non-combatant, he’s devoted to the South and directly benefits from slavery. Therefore, he is guilty of the same crimes as his cause, and deserving of the punishment he’s about to receive.
One evening, a man in a Confederate uniform rides up to Farquhar’s home and asks for a drink of water. While Farquhar’s wife gets the water, he and the soldier converse about the war. The soldier reveals that a union stockade has been built at Owl Creek Bridge, and that a large amount of driftwood has built up against it. A cunning saboteur could reach it and burn the stockade down. Farquhar resolves to do so, despite a warning from the solider that civilians caught in the act of sabotage will be hanged.
At the same time that Bierce condemns Farquhar’s politics, he also shows how the Union scout acts duplicitously, suggesting that he tricked Farquhar into attempting sabotage in order to execute him. That’s in keeping with the story’s realist tone: Bierce neither champions nor condemns the Union’s methods, but simply notes that such methods were used.
As Farquhar falls towards the river, he seems to lose consciousness. He appears to slowly regain his senses, starting with the intense pains he feels throughout his body. He believes that the rope has broken and that he is now at the bottom of the stream.
This marks the beginning of Farquhar’s dreamlike “escape.” It starts with a kind “reset,” where he loses consciousness and all goes black. Then, step-by-step, he regains his senses and his feelings, accompanied by frantic activity to escape his bonds. He seems to be living out his last wish—to somehow free himself and get back to his wife—but that escape is accompanied by constant pain. The pain emphasizes the fact that there’s something wrong with his escape, and that he hasn’t stopped suffering just because he thinks he might be free of his bonds.
Farquhar struggles towards the surface and takes in a huge gulp of air. His senses have become preternaturally alert, allowing him to notice the tiniest details in the natural world around him. He can spot the veins on the leaves of the surrounding trees, for instance, and hears the gnats humming as they move along the stream.
The earlier passages about his ticking watch and the driftwood set the stage for this sequence, when the details of life around them magnify to almost superhuman portions. The descriptions break from Bierce’s previous tone of strict realism, but retain their sparse, no-nonsense structure: creating a dream-like tone of surreal details. The reader is more keenly aware that these are Farquhar’s perceptions—not the objective truth—and the enhanced details emphasize an increased subjectivity in the narrative.
The Union soldiers begin to shoot at Farquhar and he swims away, after noting that one of the Union sharpshooters has gray eyes—supposedly a sign of marksmanship—and yet had missed him with the first shot. Farquhar dives to avoid their initial volley, then surfaces away down the stream. Farquhar reasons that he doesn’t have much time before the soldiers begin firing at will, making it much harder for him to dodge the gunshots. He soon comes to shore around a bend in the stream, safe for the moment from their gunshots.
The gray eyes make a strong example of how Bierce achieves such a surreal tone for this section. Farquhar notices that the marksman’s eyes are gray despite being a long distance away, in a great deal of pain, and swimming madly for his life. The idea that such a detail could be perceived in such circumstances is far-fetched and stresses how “supernatural” Farquhar’s senses have become. More to the point, Bierce connects the color of the eyes to the shooter’s marksmanship—something that has no logical link, but which might make sense in Farquhar’s mind because “he remembered having read that gray eyes were the keenest.” Bierce’s realistic tone doesn’t change, but by marrying it more closely to Farquhar’s subjective perceptions the tone becomes strange and dreamlike.
Farquhar runs into the forest, away from the Union soldiers. As he does so, he notes how strange and surreal the landscape is. There are no signs of human habitation, not even a woodsman’s path. As the day turns to night, his surroundings become even more alien and bizarre: the sky features constellations in strange patterns and dark whispers in an unknown language seem to come from the woods.
This is the first sign that Farquhar isn’t experiencing reality, but is either in some kind of afterlife or is experiencing a hallucination. His surroundings are overtly unnatural. More importantly, they hold some sinister significance, and the story starts to feel more like a horror tale instead of a war story. Considering Bierce’s status as a Union veteran and his protagonist’s status as a slaveholder, it’s reasonable to assume that the sinister overtones of this journey suggest a kind rough justice: that Farquhar deserves such creepy surroundings, and that the haven he thinks he is traveling to is an illusion.
The scene shifts, and Farquhar stands at the front gate of his home. As he moves forward, his wife comes out of the family’s house to greet him. Just as he is about to embrace her, he feels a sharp blow to the back of his head, followed by a blinding light and then darkness.
Thoughts of his wife and children become a strong motivation for Farquhar as his hallucination continues. They represent peace, serenity, and purity: strong enough for him to travel a nightmarish landscape to get back to them. Yet they’re snatched away just before he reaches them. That continues the sense of cosmic justice form the passage above—that Farquhar is being tormented for his sins before his life is snuffed out—while also making a keen point about the antebellum society his family represents. That society was destroyed by the Civil War and can never come back. Farquhar’s destination is an illusion, and he can never achieve the peace and comfort his family represents.
Farquhar’s escape was a figment of his imagination. He’s hanged dead at the end of the rope over Owl Creek Bridge.
Bierce keeps the writing no nonsense here by pulling us out of Farquhar’s hallucination and retuning to the staccato realism of the first section of the book. That helps give the famous twist an extra bit of irony, while hammering home the notion of inescapable doom so strongly emphasized in the story’s first passages. The shorter the passage, the more effectively the emotional punch; Bierce allows the reader to revel in the sudden, surprising twist and meditate on what Farquhar’s strange final “journey” might have really been.