“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.
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.