Themes of Time and Reality in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge', written by Ambrose Bierce, the ideas of time and reality are used to advance the plot of the story. Time as a whole serves to establish the setting of the story during the Civil War period. Time as concerned with the plot, serves to explain the events prior to the narrators hanging with flashbacks. The use of realism and surrealism result in a suspenseful conclusion to this short story. Throughout this short story I will be focusing on a New Historicism analysis. This analysis will examine the short story in it’s cultural and historical contexts.

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The short story starts off describing the moments before an unknown man is about to be hung from a bridge. Many soldiers are watching this ceremony take place; while the man looks down at the river he sees a piece of driftwood that catches his eye and causes his mind to wander off. He starts to think about his family, then formulates a plan on escaping, but just as he was about to be hanged, a flashback occurs prior to this scene. Time in this story serves to drive the plot and offer an explanation for what is happening. The story takes place during the Civil War era in Northern Alabama. During this time the fight between the Union and Confederacy was raging on, along with the debate over slavery. Peyton Fahrquahr was a planter and slave owner, and just like the majority of Southerners during that time period, he supported secession from the Union. He wanted to join the Confederate army, but for reasons unknown he was not able to. When given a tip by a Union soldier in disguise that if he burns a nearby bridge it can help the Confederates out, Fahrquahr does not hesitate. Unfortunately, this is what results in his hanging.

The author cuts forward in time again back to the moment where Fahrquahr is being hung. Now with all the knowledge the reader has gained in the previous section, readers now know the backstory behind this event and who was responsible. Miracuously, Fahrquahr is able to escape and fall into the river beneath him. He is somehow able to see the snipers aiming at him from a far distance and dodge their bullets. Eventually, he gets caught in a vortex and swung to shore where he runs into the forest on his way home. Once he reaches the front gate of his house, he approaches his wife and suddenly feels a sharp pain from his neck. Everything turns black and Fahrquahr is dead from hanging.

What was real and fake within this story was sometimes blurred as time was played around with and the story progressed. Fahrquahr’s time was already limited from when the noose was placed around his neck. When he saw that piece of driftwood in the river, everything seemed to slow down. He set up a whole plan in his mind of escaping, but was not fast enough to act upon it.

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