Peyton Farquhar, the protagonist of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” is a shadowy figure who eventually becomes a two-sided character in the story. Little is known about him beyond the class distinctions that make him a seemingly unlikely candidate for execution as a Confederate agitator. Farquhar is a son of privilege and Southern dandy, and his life of ease has done little to prepare him for the rigors faced among the front lines of the Civil War. In section II, we learn that vague circumstances had prevented Farquhar from enlisting in the Confederate army, leaving him desperate to contribute to the Southern cause and prove his devotion. Because he is so determined to achieve distinction, he is vulnerable to the trap set for him by the disguised Northern scout. Unprepared and foolish, Farquhar allows his desire for renown to lead him right into his captors’ hands. He has placed his own motives ahead of his responsibility to his family. Farquhar exhibits a damning gap between his true character and inflated perception of his abilities and role in the world.
The fantasized escape that runs counter to the actual execution in the story mirrors the gap between who Farquhar actually is and who he would like to be. In his world of illusion, he is able to outwit his captors and make it back to the family fold—whereas the reality of his situation is much more grim. Farquhar’s overindulgence of fantasy in both his image of himself and his reimagining of his fate ultimately undoes him. He cannot realize his desires in the real world, and at the end of his life, he is prey to the same delusions and misinterpretations that led him to the gallows to begin with.
Farquhar’s wife emerges as an embodiment of innocence and domestic safety, although throughout the story, she is an almost entirely imagined presence. The only time she appears as an actual physical being, as opposed to the object of Farquhar’s projections, is when the Northern scout asks her to fetch him a drink of water. Even then, when she returns with it, she is depersonalized in Bierce’s referring to her simply as “the lady.” She exists to reflect her husband’s glory and buttress his need for position and praise. She is a repository for Farquhar’s various fantasies, fulfilling her function as an attractive ornament. She stands as a stereotypical feminine ideal, subservient, beautiful, silent, and ultimately dispensable in the name of Farquhar’s higher cause. In the final moments of Farquhar’s life, she is a source of the comfort that Farquhar is ultimately denied.