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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Ambrose Bierce

Foreshadowing and Tone

Realism

Narrative Structure and Conventions

Bierce uses subtle instances of foreshadowing in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” to gesture to the gap between reality and illusion that widens throughout the story. Bierce’s story hinges heavily on the unexpected final revelation—that Farquhar, far from escaping, has actually been hanged. Although Bierce intends the unexpected ending to startle the readers’ assumptions, he peppers his story with various clues to signal in advance the unreliable and completely fantastical nature of the concluding section. For example, the description of the soldiers’ weapons in the first section—with the company of infantrymen holding their guns at “parade rest” with the butts to the ground and the commanding officer standing with the point of his sword also to the ground—stands in stark contrast to the rounds fired and volley of shots lobbied at Farquhar during his imagined escape. The weapons are in truth merely ceremonial and harmless, and Farquhar is and remains in the company’s custody throughout.

To separate his authorial voice from Farquhar’s thoughts and signal the unreliable nature of Farquhar’s sensory impressions, Bierce qualifies Farquhar’s perceptions, describing how things “seem” to him as opposed to how, in reality, they truly are. In doing so, Bierce adds an unreliable slant to the otherwise realistic style and authoritative tone, and this slant foreshadows the revelation that things are not as they appear. The shifts in tone also call attention to Bierce’s manipulation of the narrative. For example, when Farquhar frees his hands after plunging unexpectedly into the river, the narrator’s voice contains a hint of sarcasm, as though Bierce is mocking storytelling conventions. Adventure fiction, in particular, often involves elaborate and seemingly impossible means of escape. By tipping his hand in this way, Bierce calls into question readers’ assumptions about reality and foreshadows the eventual revelation that the “action” of the story was not actually action, but fantasy.

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