The ending of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” has drawn many reactions from critics. Some believe the ending is contrived and more appropriate for a thriller, suspense, or mystery tale than for a literary work. Others see the ending as Bierce’s attempt to transform the traditional conventions of narration. The story of Farquhar’s execution, like a traditional story, follows a logical order: from introduction to development to conclusion. Bierce’s “trick” is that the conclusion is not what it seems. Although the story does not end after the first section, Farquhar’s life does, extended for a few agonizing seconds as he swings from the end of the rope. By adding the third section, Bierce calls into question the essential nature of a story’s resolution. Endings, his story reveals, can often be unresolved or manipulated. They do not always have to be tidy, as they often are in more traditional prose.
Read about another short story that uses a non-linear narrative structure, William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”
Bierce’s innovations in the story’s structure reveal his unique understanding of plot. For Bierce, competing versions of the truth can exist within the same story. The third section takes us into Farquhar’s interior life, marking a departure from the more objective tone in the story’s first section. In making this shift, Bierce shows that a short story can portray both internal and external points of view. Bierce also has a unique understanding of the way time can be used in a story. The first two sections occur in real time, whereas the final part plays out over just a few moments—in the time it takes for Farquhar to die from his violent plunge from the bridge—although it seems to Farquhar to take place during the course of the next day. Bierce’s greatest innovation comes in the way the seemingly consistent, seamless surface of his story nearly hides the competing versions of reality.