Reality, Dream, Death: A Long Way Down
Ambrose Bierce has filled his fiction with a suspenseful game leading on the reader through all the necessary precursors until he grabs you to delve into all the twists and turns, surprises, and unexpected occurrences that are in his finest works. Also he was “one of the earliest of the realists in American Fiction… the element of suspense is also strong in his work” (“Bierce”). An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge depicts a nationalist planter’s last moments alive before being hanged during the Civil War.
Peyton Farquhar, the planter, experiences an unnatural distortion of his senses in his final seconds on Earth. This is followed by a dream that could only last in reality for a few seconds but to Farquhar seems to cover hours. Bierce’s writing has a sense of fascination towards the supernatural that seems to be his way of escaping a disgustingly bland reality.
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As his death approaches, Farquhar perceives the sound of ticking from his watch beginning to slow and the time between each tick increases. When he falls he loses consciousness and awakes in a dream so clear he thinks its real and also thinks more time has passed than actually does. Ambrose Bierce successfully portrays a juxtaposition of reality and fantasy immediately before Farquhar’s death when his sense of time is skewed and he experiences a different reality where his fantasy of escape is realized.
Several key aspects in the text of this short story point towards the conclusion that Peyton Farquhar experienced a world that is not real, a realm created by his brain projected on his memory as clearly as a projector does on a white board. His senses become incredibly increased, “preternaturally keen and alert” starting with his vision: “The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle.
He observed that it was a gray eye and remembered having read that gray eyes were keenest” (Bierce 364). The man in the water is Farquhar and in his mind thinks that he just observed the color of a dime-sized iris of a man standing at least one hundred feet away. The split second where he realizes the marksman has gray eyes is too short a time to have recalled ample knowledge on the subject.
These subtle sup er human-like clues given to the reader by Bierce is foreshadowing hinting towards the presence of a dream state, “He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf- saw the very insects upon them.” Along with new aspects of vision comes increased hearing “He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck.”
As if there are not enough clues towards an implied second reality, Bierce offers another red flag buried in the text in the form of a contradiction. More towards the beginning of the story the reader picks up that “[u]pon the same temporary platform was an officer of his rank armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle” (360). The captain and both sentinels are armed in case of an emergency.
Later comes this addition during the dream, “The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed.” All details in a dream seem plausible while dreaming, it is not usually until after the dreamer wakes that they are aware of an inconsistency between what they conjure in their mind and what actually is in reality. The paradox between these two instances is the climax of this argument; Farquhar experienced a split second dream before his death.
Do you ever think about something before a good night’s sleep and then dream about the matter at hand? Peyton Farquhar death experience is the epitome of that concept. He plans his escape only seconds before it comes true in his false reality, “ ‘If I could free my hands,’ he thought, ‘I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home’” (361).
Step one is to dive, next is step two: evade the bullets. Following that is step three, swim vigorously to achieve step four, reaching the bank. This thought process was taken from his thoughts, copied and pasted into his imagination and therefore the brain plagiarized; the process is identical when it happens in the dream. It starts with “Farquhar dived…” step one is completed, “the two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.
The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current.” Thus evading the bullets and swimming vigorously are finished. Finally, “he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream” (364-365). Farquhar’s brain becomes lazy and incapable of conjuring up a unique set of events to take place in the dream state so instead it thrives off of what he was planning earlier. The occurrence of the second reality is further proven by the lack of clear thought in the dream.
While dreaming, dreamers tend to fade back and forth between absolute, and in tune mindsets to experiencing blurred time and cloudy mindedness. This skewed ability to perceive clearness is a common trait while unconscious.
For example: “He was not conscious of an effort” Farquhar has just fallen and begins dreaming when he feels around for a way to untie his hands. Only moments later, as though he were a hypocrite, “He was now in full possession of his physical senses” (363) this constant back and forth between clear to cloudy thoughts is portrayed throughout the entire dream segment of this story.
Towards the end of the dream, and consequently the end of the story, Farquhar is walking through the woods until suddenly hours have passed and he is not aware of how the time went by so quickly. The brain has multiple ways of tricking one into belief during a dream; this is yet another example of the skewed sense of time accompanied with unconscious realities.
Ambrose Bierce portrays a juxtaposition of reality and fantasy where the protagonist’s sense of time is skewed and unfortunately is tricked into thinking his escape was true. This short story is filled with twists and turns as well as genius literary devices. The plot of the story can be broken down into a reality, a dream, and a fall: “Consisting mainly of his illusion of a surprise escape and ending abruptly with the fatal shock of his breaking neck” (Ulrich). The evidence of a different reality consisting of hyper senses, distorted evaluation of time, and cloudy mindedness all point to and validate that the presence of a dream was the occurrence at Owl Creek bridge.
- Bierce, Ambrose. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. F. New York: Norton, 2012. 360-366. Print.
- "Bierce, Ambrose Gwinett." The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2009. Questia. Web. 6 May 2012.
- Ulrich, Ursula O. "'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge': The Short Story." Proceedings of the 7th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association.
- Ed. Joseph Palmisano. Vol. 72. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 27 Apr. 2012.
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