In the moments before his death, Farquhar believes he is escaping from his Union captors—that the rope intended to hang him breaks—and that he takes a long and desperate journey home. But his journey is strange and surreal, reflecting both a series of hyper-intense observations about the world around him and details which suggest he might not even be on Earth anymore, but rather in some strange alternate dimension. Of course, that perception proves to be solely within the protagonist’s mind. The last half of the story is an illusion, which eventually gives way to the ironic twist that Farquhar has, in fact, been hanged after all. This seems to suggest that humanity’s experience of reality is a construct of the mind, and that people can’t always trust what they see regardless of how real it feels. Reality differs from Farquhar’s perceptions, and the reader ultimately can’t rely on what Farquhar sees to reflect the truth. Yet despite the fact that he doesn’t actually experience any of his “escape,” this illusion still fills the totality of his experience in the moment before his own death. Though his experience is eventually shown to be an illusion, there’s a subtle implication that such an illusion still holds value and the potential for insight.
There is a firm dividing line at the point where Farquhar’s perceptions no longer match the reality surrounding him. The details change in distinct ways and remain so until the story’s celebrated twist. They begin with a heightened awareness of his surroundings—to the point of being superhuman. Bierce writes, “He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf—he saw the very insects upon them.”
The earlier instance of Farquhar’s watch booming loud foreshadows a similar experience now, during his imagined escape, as normal sounds and sensations take on a preternatural intensity. Yet he’s able to parse and absorb all of the sounds he experiences, with no one sound drowning out any others. “The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara,” Bierce writes, for instance. “Yet he heard the dull thunder of the volley” of the Union soldiers shooting at him. The distortion implies that what he perceives no longer matches the facts around him over and above the fact that the soldiers aren’t actually shooting at him.
At the same time, that heightened perception results from a slow process of awakening—starting when “he lost consciousness and was as one already dead” and slowly expanding from that zero point until the whole world is alive with new details and sensations. That eventually gives way to the notion that he might no longer be on Earth at all. He flees the soldiers into the forest, only to be taken aback by its density and lack of habitation: “He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.” This diverges form the familiar landscape he thought he knew, and the use of the word “revelation” suggests a subconscious realization that he’s no longer experiencing the real world.
The surrounding world becomes less and less like reality the further he goes, to the point where the trees “formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective,” and the stars appear “in strange constellations.” At this point, it’s unclear whether Farquhar is still in this plane of reality, or if he has traveled somewhere else: somewhere that only the brink of death can reveal. Wherever it is, it feels foreboding and grim, with “singular noises, among which—once, twice, and again—he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.” The passage more closely resembles a horror story than a war story, further cementing the protagonist’s warped perceptions and their ability to shape his experience.
While what he perceives doesn’t match his reality, it does suggest a strange insight—an experience that is his and his alone, separate from his executioners. As he travels on, his journey is marked by no signs of human habitation: “not so much as the barking of a dog.” That further implies that his experiences in this realm are his alone and contain some unique value simply because no one else can ever share them. Despite that, however, he ultimately gains no real benefit from it. The overtures are sinister and foreboding, suggesting that he is in some manner of hell or purgatory for his sins. That feeling breaks when he appears to arrive home: giving him one last burst of anticipation and joy before death finally claims him. There’s the implication of mercy there, or at least one last glimpse of the reality he has now left: a final glimpse of his wife before his senses go dark forever.
That, in turn, raises intriguing questions about the nature of the universe, suggesting that there is much of it humanity doesn’t see and that distorted or skewed perceptions can mask grim and often frightening truths. What one perceives might not match what is understood to be reality. But who is to say what reality is? In that brief moment between life and death, perhaps Farquhar gains a look at some new level of reality: some perception that people can’t see during life but that he is afforded a glimpse to in the moment of death. He can’t benefit from it—heightening the story’s irony and inferring how terrible wisdom can be when it brings no profit to the wise—but the readers see it, and are left to meditate on the limits of their own perceptions, and how much larger the “reality” they think they understand might be.
Perception and Reality ThemeTracker
Perception and Reality Quotes in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!
He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thought upon his wife and children.
They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.
He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert.
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.
Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great golden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which hid a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which—once, twice, and again—he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.
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.