- Setting -The entire story takes place at Owl Creek Bridge in northern Alabama during the Civil War. The story’s protagonist believes the story takes place at Owl Creek Bridge in northern Alabama, down stream from Owl Creek Bridge in northern Alabama, and at his home.
- Conflict -The obvious conflict is Peyton Farquhar vs. the Federal army (not really a fair fight, if you ask me). There is also an internal conflict as Farquhar battles the fear of dying by remembering what is most precious to him.
- Major Story Events - Farquhar is hanged. During the short interval between his dropping and dying, he hallucinates plunging into the water, freeing his hands and neck, swimming to safety, and running into the arms of his wife.
- Plot Structure - The story is broken into three parts. Part 1 is the exposition. Part 2 gives background information on the story’s protagonist. Part 3 contains all the action.
- Theme - “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” themes include the realities of war, the suddenness of death, the fluidity of time, and the distortion of reality and illusion.
Now that we’ve reviewed the main events, let’s take a closer look at the themes in the story with these questions and answers.
Question: How does the story’s structure reflect “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” themes?
Answer: The rigid narrative structure symbolizes the rigidity of the military and military code, a code that Farquhar has learned painfully. Within this rigidity is violence and death. Part 3 of the story distorts time insomuch that it is the longest section, contains most of the action, yet encompasses only a few seconds.
Question: At what point does the reader suspect Farquhar is only dreaming his escape?
Answer: Bierce incorporates realism in his literature. Farquhar’s escape is unrealistic. The reader, therefore, should be skeptical immediately. In addition, the contrast between the soldiers' martinet description before the escape and their undisciplined behavior after the escape indicates a break from reality (although the contrast in behavior is explained). The point at which most readers (including myself) become suspicious is the appearance of the perfectly tree-lined road leading to Farquhar’s house and the preceding swollen tongue and neck pain.
Question: List details that add to the story’s realism.
Answer: (1) the detailed description of the hanging apparatus in the first paragraph; (2) the accurate portrayal of Union soldiers (Bierce was a Union soldier during the Civil War); (3) The description of Farquhar in paragraph 3; (4) the description of pain in part III as Farquhar loosens his rope and noose.
Question: How accurate do you think the movie portrays the events in the story?
Answer: Considering the story has no dialogue, takes place exclusively on a bridge, and contains mostly hallucinations, I was skeptical about there being any decent movie version. I was wrong. The music’s great too.
This post is part of the series: Short Story Study Guides, Part II
This look at commonly taught short stories will help you prepare for class discussion.