Peyton Farquhar, the protagonist of Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” experiences a kind of “round trip” from imprisonment to freedom and back to imprisonment. Farquhar is captured and condemned to death for attempting to sabotage a Union stockade, yet just before his execution appears to experience a miraculous escape and rushes to return to his family, Union soldiers firing at him in his wake. Just when he appears to have made it back to his wife, however, he’s pulled back to the bridge and his own hanging; the escape, it seems, was nothing but a hallucination.
Bierce’s story provides a simple oscillation, starting with confinement, leading to escape, and snapping Farquhar back to confinement just as the hangman’s noose pulls taut. The push and pull between those two states—a prisoner about to die and an escaped man running desperately for freedom—constitutes the primary dramatic tension in the story. Given that much of the story takes place within Farquhar’s head, Bierce seems to be implying that the two conditions—the state of confinement or imprisonment, and that of escape—are largely emotional states of mind. Yet Bierce’s story is additionally a testament to an innate, unquenchable human desire for freedom—which is especially ironic given that Farquhar is a slave-holding supporter of the Confederate cause.
Bierce begins by stressing the details of Farquhar’s dilemma as a means of emphasizing his feeling of confinement, and presumably allowing the reader to feel the inescapable nature of his fate; escape for the protagonist is futile, and all notions of freedom are hopeless and doomed to fail. The bridge itself is flanked by armed soldiers at attention. Bierce stresses that their goal is not “to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.” More soldiers line the banks of the river, ensuring not only that Farquhar cannot escape, but that rescue is all but impossible. He’s surrounded by the enemy, who don’t seem at all concerned about whether he’s going anywhere. More directly, Farquhar’s hands are “behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircle[s] his neck.” This is the second sentence of the story, establishing his status as a bound prisoner immediately.
Despite this absolute certainty, Farquhar still yearns to break free. He thinks about his wife and children in his final thoughts, and the idea of somehow freeing his hands and making a run for freedom only just enters his mind—“flashed” rather than “evolved” in Bierce’s words—when the board is removed and he drops towards the water. So powerful is the need for freedom—so completely does it dominate his mind even in a moment of impossibility—that his mind constructs an actual hallucination allowing him to fulfill it.
Strangely, confinement is reflected as a calm certainty, with the protagonist accepting the consequences of his actions despite his secret yearning. Escape, on the other hand, is portrayed as chaotic, fretful, and confusing. Farquhar accepts his condition—and his execution—as a consequence of his actions. “The arrangement commended itself to his judgement as simple and effective,” Bierce writes, which is a very calm and measured assessment, considering that the person doing the assessing is 1. about to be killed and 2. still thinking of ways he might get out of it.
Bierce also spends a great deal of time focusing on the soldiers holding Farquhar captive: their neatness and precision, the swiftness with which they follow their orders, and the detailed procedure of the hanging. Everything moves in an orderly, workmanlike manner—the soldiers simply do their job—which in turn infers a forgone conclusion in which nothing has been left to chance.
Descriptions his escape, on the other hand, entail chaos, unpleasant surprises and danger from unexpected corners. It being immediately, as “with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark.” Furthermore, Farquhar’s escape is accompanied by a sense of doom: a feeling that no matter what he does, he’s not going to survive. The end, when it comes, is foreshadowed by the strange details he experiences during his escape, which create a sense of fleeting freedom that can be yanked away at any time.
It begins when the soldiers shoot at him as he flees the bridge, and the strange detail of a sharpshooter with gray eyes. Farquhar remembers reading somewhere that “that gray eyes were the keenest,” and when the soldier misses it’s inferred to be a minor miracle. That danger is compounded not only by the way the captain commands his troops to fire, but Farquhar’s certainty that sooner or later, the gunshots will strike him. “‘The officer,’ he reasoned, ‘will not make that martinet's error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!’” Even after he escapes the soldiers, the woods he travels through feel dark and foreboding. “By nightfall, he was fatigued, footsore, famished.” The passage implies that he could easily get lost in the woods or die of exposure or starvation—and that the longer he remains there, the greater such dangers become.
The thematic implications are supremely ironic, which in turn helps feed the story’s famous twist ending. They seem to suggest, in a very dark way, that hope springs eternal even in the bleakest circumstances, and that human beings never give up—even when death is certain and freedom, if achieved, is terrifying and chaotic. Farquhar wants to be free so badly that he dreams up a scenario where he escapes, and in the process makes his final moments strange, horrific and ultimately frustrating. The fact that he is a slave owner, and as such a supporter of a system of a brutal system of hopeless confinement for untold numbers of black individuals, also lends his final experience of the terror of confinement an air of justice.
Confinement and Escape ThemeTracker
Confinement and Escape Quotes in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck.
Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
“My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader's farthest advance.”
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.
As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him.
As he is about to clasp her, he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon - then all is darkness and silence!
Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.