University of Virginia School of Law

Class Discussion: Introduction

More than 100 years after the author wrote "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" the short story still engages and surprises readers. Why?

The reasons for the work's remarkable staying power are closely tied to its structure and to the order in which Bierce reveals information to readers.

Read this important first paragraph. In it, Bierce does much more than simply set the scene.

Although Bierce immediately lets readers know that Peyton Farquhar is an enemy of the Federal army who is about to be hanged, he does not reveal Farquhar's offense.

Beginning the story with the noose already around the main character's neck ratchets up the work's dramatic tension, but by withholding certain key bits of information, Bierce keeps his readers wanting to know more.

With the suspense and the tension heightened, so too are the senses of the main character.

The description isn't just a literary device. It is also very realistic. People often report increased awareness of their surroundings when in danger, just as they describe a feeling that time is slowing down.

Bierce captures this second sensation when he describes that the time between each stroke seems to grow longer and longer:

"The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness."

Of course, the actual time between ticks does not grow. A watch moves at regular intervals, but the apparent delays capture the feeling of time slowing down.

It's no accident that Bierce chooses the ticking of a watch to be the loudest sound that Peyton Farquhar hears.

Consider why this sound would be the most important to the character.

Yet even as he is running out of time, Peyton Farquhar is imagining what it might require for him to escape.

The first section of the story ends just as the tension reaches a high point. The sergeant steps off of the plank, which his weight was holding level. When the sergeant steps off, the plank will flip upward, and Peyton Farquhar will drop with the rope around his neck.

It is at this moment that Bierce interrupts the action in the present to provide readers with the background information contained in Section II. Section II is a flashback, and it serves several purposes.

Why Does Bierce Use a Flashback?

Using a flashback right at the climax of Section I preserves the intensity and the tension of the moment when the sergeant steps off the plank. The break also immediately creates another level of suspense for readers, coming as it does on the heels of Farquhar's imagining of what would have to happen for him to make an escape.

The flashback's second purpose is more basic: It provides important background information on Peyton Farquhar and how he ended up with his neck in a noose on Owl Creek bridge.

The story of why Peyton Farquhar is being hanged revolves around his falling into a well-set trap. Dressed as a Confederate soldier (wearing gray), a man rides up to Peyton Farquhar's plantation and lets slip some seemingly valuable information. He tells Farquhar that the Union army ("the Yanks") is prepared to further their invasion by coming over the newly repaired Owl Creek railroad bridge. Before leaving, the soldier also tells Farquhar that anyone who tampers with the bridge is to be hanged, but that the bridge would be easy to burn down.

With that, the man leaves and readers learn only then that he is a Federal scout, a member of the Union army.

Missing Information

Bierce leaves out the exact details of when and how Farquhar was caught trying to burn down the Owl Creek bridge. Why?

First, it is not strictly necessary to include it. Readers are able to piece together the hints in Section II well enough, and the details of Farquhar's arrest are of secondary importance to his present situation.

Second, delving further into the flashback than necessary would cause the story to lose momentum. It would prevent readers from returning to the action of the present, and interrupt the climax.

Third, readers often enjoy being given the chance to fill in certain blanks left in stories with their own imaginations. This makes a work more interesting and original and the act of reading more interactive.

Focus now on Section III of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," which returns readers to the present and describes the incredible escape of Peyton Farquhar. Analyze how Bierce's language paints a picture for readers and how the changes in situation and mood are reflected by changes in language.

Section III of the story picks up exactly where Section I left off.

Peyton Farquhar still has the noose around his neck, and the sergeant has just stepped off the plank.

In the second paragraph of Section III, Bierce describes Farquhar's attempts to free himself from the rope around his wrists and neck.

Once Farquhar's hands are free and he has removed the noose from his neck, his escape is imminent. He continues to be very aware of everything around him and of the danger he faces. Bierce captures Farquhar's increased sensitivity.

Refer to your student guide, and reread the passage there. As you read, look for ways that the inclusion of minor details helps convey to readers the character's alertness and awareness. Also notice how the images included relate to Farquhar's senses. He can feel more, see more clearly, and hear better than ever before.

Despite Farquhar's increased alertness, his escape is not simple or straightforward.

He is in a rushing river with armed soldiers taking aim at him from above with both guns and cannons.

Read this passage taken from the middle of Farquhar's escape.

According to the passage, why do you think the author uses flashbacks? How can you tell? Describe three ways the Union Army has captured Peyton Farqhar and why.

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He uses flashbacks to create sympathy to the readers? :)