An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Fluid Nature of Time
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is an elaborately devised commentary on the fluid nature of time. The story’s structure, which moves from the present to the past to what is revealed to be the imagined present, reflects this fluidity as well as the tension that exists among competing notions of time. The second section interrupts what at first appears to be the continuous flow of the execution taking place in the present moment. Poised on the edge of the bridge, Farquhar closes his eyes, a signal of his slipping into his own version of reality, one that is unburdened by any responsibility to laws of time. As the ticking of his watch slows and more time elapses between the strokes, Farquhar drifts into a timeless realm. When Farquhar imagines himself slipping into the water, Bierce compares him to a “vast pendulum,” immaterial and spinning wildly out of control. Here Farquhar drifts into a transitional space that is neither life nor death but a disembodied consciousness in a world with its own rules.
In the brief window of time between the officer stepping off the plank and Farquhar’s actual death, time slows and alters to accommodate a comforting vision of Farquhar’s safe return to his family. Despite Farquhar’s manipulation of time, however, he cannot escape reality. Whether he lives a few moments or days longer, death ultimately claims him. Attempting to bend time to his own will is for naught. One of the most remarkable aspects of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is Bierce’s realistic rendering of Farquhar’s alternate conception of time, which suggests that the nature of time is to some extent subjective.
The Blurred Line between Reality and Illusion
Reality and illusion operate side by side in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” and until the end of the story, we aren’t aware of any division between them—Farquhar’s illusion is, for us as readers, reality. Farquhar creates his fantasy world out of desperation: he is about to die, and imagining his escape is a way of regaining control over the facts of his current state. His mind supplies the flight and successful escape that his body cannot achieve on its own. In the second section, when we learn what brought Farquhar to this moment, this hybrid world of the real and fantastic is mirrored in the figure of the Northern scout. Disguised in the gray attire of a Confederate soldier, he projects one version of the truth while actually embodying another—reality and illusion are blurred. By the time the fantasy world of the third section is in full swing, we are fully immersed in Farquhar’s illusion, which has, for both him and us, become reality. Trying to distinguish one from the other is beside the point. Just as Farquhar’s belief that the Northern scout is indeed a Confederate soldier leads him to execution, his belief that he is escaping can have but one outcome: the reality of his death.
Distorted Sensory Experience
As Farquhar faces death, he slips not only outside time but also outside his physical body. He is reduced to a network of raw, inaccurate sensory impressions, which allow him to create his fantasy of escape. Farquhar’s distorted sensory impressions reveal the widening gap between reality and illusion. For example, Farquhar notes a gap between the sound of the cannon firing and the arrival of the shot. Similarly, he believes he can see the gray eye of the marksman through the rifle sights. The unrealistic, imagined realm he enters in the third section of the story is indicated through these increasingly chaotic and unreliable impressions. Churning in the eddies, Farquhar’s distorted vision, in which the landscape is transformed into a series of swirling colored horizontal bands, suggests not only the lack of sound judgment Farquhar displayed in ending up in this predicament in the first place but also the distortion of reality that Bierce skillfully portrays.
The Color Gray
The color gray appears throughout the story, suggesting the vague color lines dividing friend from foe as well as the clouded sense of reality in the final section of the story. Gray indicates the Confederacy and thus the cause to which Farquhar foolishly sacrifices himself, and the “gray clad” rider approaches Farquhar and his wife in the second section. However, the color gray is a misleading indication of the rider’s affiliation, as he is only pretending to be a Confederate soldier. In this sense, the color gray indicates a distortion of the truth—the soldier is actually a Northern scout disguised in the enemy’s colors. When Farquhar begins his fantasized escape, he operates under a gloomy gray sky. Gray is the color of Farquhar’s eyes as well as the eyes of the sentinel who takes aim at him from the bridge. Farquhar recalls reading that the most famous marksmen, and thus those with the keenest eyesight, had gray eyes, and he can see the sentinel glaring ominously at him through the rifle’s sights. This seemingly paranoid detail, impossible to actually see from such a distance, establishes a link between Farquhar and the man who is apparently attempting to kill him. At that moment, the distinctions separating North from South, aggressor from victim, and ally from enemy are collapsed, as Farquhar slips deeper into his fantasy realm.
Driftwood, as it makes its way downriver, represents both Farquhar’s unattainable freedom and Farquhar himself as he begins imagining his own escape in the water. At first, the driftwood distracts Farquhar from thoughts of his wife and children. Later, it becomes an extension of Farquhar himself, as Farquhar imagines floating in the water as though he is driftwood. The driftwood also indicates Farquhar’s distorted sense of time. As he looks down, he sees the water “racing madly” beneath him, then sees the “dancing” driftwood. He is struck by how slowly it seems to be moving in the suddenly “sluggish” stream. This abrupt change in his perception marks Farquhar’s transition from reality to fantasy. From then on, he takes liberties with the details of his own story and supplies the ending he desires: a brave escape rather than an execution for being a war criminal. Ironically, although he envisions himself as driftwood of sorts, it is driftwood that led to his capture in the first place. When Farquhar initially encounters the undercover Northern scout, the scout advises Farquhar to set fire to the pieces of wood that the winter flood swept to the base of the bridge. The driftwood thus serves as his means of undoing just as it ultimately represents an unattainable freedom.
The Owl Creek Bridge
The Owl Creek bridge suggests connection and transition. Confederate forces or sympathizers had presumably destroyed the bridge in an attempt to prevent the North from advancing deeper into enemy territory. With the important artery restored by Union forces, the North’s war effort once again gained momentum in northern Alabama, ushering in the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy and bringing an end to the Civil War. Ironically, the target of Farquhar’s sabotage attempt becomes the platform on which his execution is staged. By sabotaging the bridge, Farquhar was attempting to erode order and connection, just as he erodes order by fantasizing, in the final moments of his life, about disconnecting himself from his physical body. The bridge serves as an intermediary space, joining the creek’s opposite banks—it is neither one side nor the other, but a connection between them. Similarly, the bridge joins life and death for Farquhar. As Farquhar “escapes” into the water, the bridge suggests a transitional psychological space between fantasy and reality.