In one sense, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is an examination of the line between life and death, and at times, how the latter can heighten and enhance the former. The bulk of the story takes place in the instant of Farquhar’s death: a kind of waking dream in which he envisions a flight back to his home and family before death finally claims him. The famous “twist” ending—in which his escape from the bridge is shown to be an illusion—highlights the immediacy of life, and the way it contains myriad little details that people rarely notice until they are about to be taken away.
The prospect of death makes the little details about life stand out in sharp contrast. Farquhar is aware of tiny aspects of his surroundings before the Union soldiers pull the noose tight: things that might not register during the mundane trivialities of life, but which take on increasing emphasis as the protagonist’s death approaches. The first instance of this occurs as Farquhar watches a piece of driftwood floating on the current of the water below him: “How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!” Bierce’s writing style is sparse and direct—the entire story is just a few short pages—and by focusing on such a seemingly trivial component of the stream, he stresses how aware Farquhar is of his surroundings just before the noose ends his life.
Similar details occur a few sentences later. Bierce notes “the water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers,” which Bierce connects to the driftwood not only in the plethora of details that his protagonist notices, but in their seeming randomness and inconsequential connection to the action. The most telling is the ticking of his pocket watch, which resembles “the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil” and reflects an acute awareness of the passage of time brought about by Farquhar’s proximity to death.
Those details are further described as a “distraction” from Farquhar’s wife and children, who are not present, but whom he wishes to focus on in the last moments before his death. It’s a subtle way of reminding the reader that his perceptions—the details described—are among the very last he will enjoy. They serve as a reminder of death intruding onto life and suggest that Farquhar is madly latching onto as much of the living world as possible before his certain demise.
Once the rope snaps taut, signs of Farquhar’s death become more directly intrusive. Bierce isn’t coy about Farquhar’s enhanced senses in the moments following his seeming liberation from the noose. He describes the protagonist’s senses as “preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived.” This is borne out by increasingly intense descriptions of his physical surroundings, including details that no normal person should be able to notice. The most obvious example is the grey eyes of the sharpshooter, noted as he made swims away from the bridge, struggling to breathe and escape his bonds. Such observation borders the supernatural in its accuracy and suggests that his awareness stems from his impending doom.
Even more striking than his perceptions of the world around him, his awareness of his own body comes into the forefront. The first description after apparently escaping the noose concerns “the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation.” The emphasis on physical sensations continues throughout his hallucinated flight, notable in the final paragraphs where injuries to his neck, a swollen tongue, and “congested” eyes become apparent. These are signs of his hanging: death intruding upon his body even as he believes himself to be free.
Death, too, is examined as a part of the human condition in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Bierce uses his protagonist’s surreal journey through the woods as a way of inferring that other planes of reality exist—that there are worlds beyond that of human beings and that death may be the gateway to them. Though the author doesn’t speculate extensively on that front—death remains as mysterious as ever—his prose does invite serious contemplation as to what might happen after human beings pass on. The two conditions—life and death—are thus not distinct, but rather interweave with each other as the story progresses. This occurs both in mundane details—such as the prospect of the hanging and the soldiers’ lethal weaponry—and in the increasingly strange sensations that Farquhar experiences in the instant that his life ends.
Life and Death ThemeTracker
Life and Death 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.
He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thought upon his wife and children.
“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.
He observed that it was a gray eye and remembered having read that gray eyes were keenest, in that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.
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.