An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
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|"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"|
|First publisher||The San Francisco Examiner, July 13, 1890|
|Also published in||Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891)|
|Online||Available at the Internet Archive|
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) is a short story by the American writer and Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce. Regarded as "one of the most famous and frequently anthologized stories in American literature", it was originally published by The San Francisco Examiner on July 13, 1890, and was first collected in Bierce's book Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891). The story, which is set during the American Civil War, is known for its irregular time sequence and twist ending. Bierce's abandonment of strict linear narration in favor of the internal mind of the protagonist is an early example of the stream of consciousness narrative mode.
Peyton Farquhar, a civilian and plantation owner, is being prepared for execution by hanging from an Alabama railroad bridge during the American Civil War. Six military men and a company of infantrymen are present, guarding the bridge and carrying out the sentence. Farquhar thinks of his wife and children and is then distracted by a noise that, to him, sounds like an unbearably loud clanging; it is actually the ticking of his watch. He considers the possibility of jumping off the bridge and swimming to safety if he can free his tied hands, but the soldiers drop him from the bridge before he can act on the idea.
In a flashback, Farquhar and his wife are relaxing at home one evening when a soldier rides up to the gate. Farquhar, a supporter of the Confederacy, learns from him that Union troops have seized the Owl Creek railroad bridge and repaired it. The soldier suggests that Farquhar might be able to burn the bridge down if he can slip past its guards. He then leaves, but doubles back after nightfall to return north the way he came. The soldier is actually a disguised Union scout who has lured Farquhar into a trap as any civilian caught interfering with the railroads will be hanged.
The story returns to the present, and the rope around Farquhar's neck breaks when he falls from the bridge into the creek. He frees his hands, pulls the noose away, and rises to the surface to begin his escape. His senses now greatly sharpened, he dives and swims downstream to avoid rifle and cannon fire. Once he is out of range, he leaves the creek to begin the journey to his home, 30 miles away. Farquhar walks all day long through a seemingly endless forest, and that night he begins to hallucinate, seeing strange constellations and hearing whispered voices in an unknown language. He travels on, urged by the thought of his wife and children despite the pains caused by his ordeal. The next morning, after having apparently fallen asleep while walking, he finds himself at the gate to his plantation. He rushes to embrace his wife, but before he can do so, he feels a heavy blow upon the back of his neck; there is a loud noise and a flash of white, and "then all is darkness and silence". It is revealed that Farquhar never escaped at all; he imagined the entire third part of the story during the time between falling through the bridge and the noose breaking his neck.
This short story suggests that there is no romance or glory in war. The word "occurrence" in the title of the story demonstrates how common the loss of life is within war, lessening the perceived value of those human lives. Farquhar's fantasy demonstrates the danger of having illusions about war, because war is not a love story that ends with running to one's wife's arms; it has ruthless and pitiless punishment.
Another theme present is that of "dying with dignity". The story shows the reader that the perception of "dignity" provides no mitigation for the deaths that occur in warfare. The final idea is the idea of psychological escape right before death. Farquhar experiences an intense delusion to distract him from his inevitable death. The moment of horror that the readers experience at the end of the piece, when they realize that he dies, reflects the distortion of reality that Farquhar encounters.
Since it is not (only) the narrator who tells a story but (also) the reader themself another aspect is of considerable importance here. As he himself once put it, (bitter) Bierce detested "... bad readers—readers who, lacking the habit of analysis, lack also the faculty of discrimination, and take whatever is put before them, with the broad, blind catholicity of a slop-fed conscience of a parlor pig". Farquhar was duped by a Federal scout—and cursory readers on their part are successfully duped by the author who makes them think they are witnessing Farquhar's lucky escape from the gallows. Instead, they only witness the hallucination of such an escape taking place in the character's unconscious mind which is governed by the instinct of self-preservation. In retrospect we see that the title—if taken literally—from the outset provides the readers with the information that there will not be any change of scenery at all because simply an occurrence at that bridge is announced.
The entire story might well be read as a parable: We are all doomed, and whatever frantic attempts we make to gain our personal salvation—in our final moment there will be no epiphany but only its absolute opposite and negation, just "darkness and silence". This is Bierce's rejection of the Christian thesis of man's final redemption, and it is the ultimate symbol of the futility of human aspiration. Farquhar's miserable end illustrates a most extreme discrepancy between aspiration and reality.
Stories with similar structure
The plot device of a long period of subjective time passing in an instant, such as the imagined experiences of Farquhar while falling, has been explored by several authors. An early literary antecedent appears in the Tang dynasty tale, The Governor of Nanke, by Li Gongzuo. Another medieval antecedent is Don Juan Manuel's Tales of Count Lucanor, Chapter XII (c. 1335), "Of that which happened to a Dean of Santiago, with Don Illan, the Magician, who lived at Toledo", in which a life happens in an instant. Charles Dickens' essay "A Visit to Newgate" wherein a man dreams he has escaped his death sentence has been speculated as a possible source for the story.
Bierce's story highlighted the idea of subjective time passing at the moment of death and popularized the fictional device of false narrative continuation, which has been in wide circulation ever since then. Notable examples of this technique from the early-to-mid 20th century include H. G. Wells's "The Door in the Wall" (1906) and "The Beautiful Suit" (1909), Vladimir Nabokov's "Details of a Sunset" (1924) and "The Aurelian" (1930), Jorge Luis Borges's "The Secret Miracle" (1944) and "The South" (1949), William Golding's Pincher Martin (1956), Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) as well as Julio Cortázar's "The Island at Midday", and Leo Perutz's "From Nine to Nine".
Among more recent works, David Lynch's later films have been compared to "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", although they also have been interpreted as the Möbius strip storylines. A particularly strong inspiration for the 1990 film Jacob's Ladder, for both Bruce Joel Rubin and Adrian Lyne, was Robert Enrico's 1962 short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, one of Lyne's favourite movies. Tobias Wolff's short story "Bullet in the Brain" (1995) reveals the protagonist's past through relating what he remembers—and does not—in the millisecond after he is fatally shot. John Shirley's 1999 short story "Occurrence at Owl Street Ridge" about a depressed housewife is modeled after Bierce's story and Bierce plays a minor role in it.
In the 2005 film Stay (with Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and Ryan Gosling; directed by Marc Forster; written by David Benioff) the entire story takes place in a character’s mind after a tragic accident. The film Identity (2003) is also largely within a character’s mind.
The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Inner Light" featured a similar plot where Jean-Luc Picard experiences an entire lifetime on an alien world in the span of a few minutes of objective time.
Author Kurt Vonnegut wrote in 2005: "I consider anybody a twerp who hasn't read the greatest American short story, which is '[An] Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,' by Ambrose Bierce. It isn't remotely political. It is a flawless example of American genius, like 'Sophisticated Lady' by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove."
Several adaptations of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" have been produced.
Movies, television, and videos
- The Spy (also released as The Bridge) is a silent movie adaptation of the story, directed in 1929 by Charles Vidor.
- A TV version of the story starring British actor Ronald Howard was telecast in 1959 during the fifth season of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television anthology series.
- La rivière du hibou ("The Owl River"), a French version directed by Robert Enrico and produced by Marcel Ichac and Paul de Roubaix, was released in 1963. Enrico's film won Best Short Subject at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, and the 1963 Academy Award for Live Action Short Film. In 1964 La rivière du hibou aired on American television as an episode of the anthology series The Twilight Zone.
- In 2006, the DVD Ambrose Bierce: Civil War Stories was released, which contains adaptations of three of Ambrose Bierce's short stories, among them "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" directed by Brian James Egan. The DVD also contains an extended version of the story with more background and detail than the one included in the trilogy.
- Owl Creek Bridge, a 2008 short film by director John Giwa-Amu, won the BAFTA Cymru Award for best short. The story was adapted to follow the last days of Khalid, a young boy who is caught by a gang of racist youths.
- "An Incident at Owl Creek" was a 2010 episode of the TV series American Dad!
- The 2010 Babybird music video "Unloveable", directed by Johnny Depp, retells the Owl Creek Bridge story.
- The 2011 Grouplove music video "Colours" also retells the Owl Creek Bridge story.
- A 2013 short film, The Exit Room, starring Christopher Abbott as a journalist in a war-torn 2021 United States, is based on the story.
- In Bon Jovi's video clip for the song "Dyin' Ain't Much Of A Livin'," the Owl Creek Bridge story is featured.
- In 1936, the radio series The Columbia Workshop broadcast an adaptation of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".
- William N. Robson's first script adaptation was broadcast on Escape December 10, 1947, starring Harry Bartell as Peyton Farquhar.
- Suspense broadcast three different versions, all with slightly different scripts by William N. Robson:
- CBS Radio Mystery Theater broadcast an adaptation by Sam Dann on June 4, 1974 (repeated on August 24, 1974, and September 15, 1979) starring William Prince.
- Winifred Phillips narrated and composed original music for an abridged version of the story for the Tales by American Masters radio series, produced by Winnie Waldron on May 29, 2001.
- The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas (2002) broadcast an adaptation of the story by M. J. Eliot directed by JoBe Cerny, starring Christian Stolte as Farquhar and featuring Stacy Keach as the narrator.
- Issue #23 of the comics magazine Eerie, published in September 1969 by Warren Publishing, contained an adaptation of the story.
- Scottish composer Thea Musgrave composed a one-act opera, An Occurrence at Owl Street Bridge, which was broadcast by the BBC in 1981. The opera was released on CD (NMCD 167) in 2011 and performed by Ed Bishop, Gayle Hunnicutt, Jake Gardner and the London Sinfonietta.
- An Occurrence Remembered, a theatrical retelling of Bierce's An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge and Chickamauga, premiered in the fall of 2001 in New York City under the direction of Lorin Morgan-Richards and lead choreographer Nicole Cavaliere.
The story's irregular time sequence and "blink-of-an-eye" twist ending has inspired numerous works, including:
- The plot of the radio play "Present Tense", written by James Poe, starring Vincent Price and broadcast on Escape on January 31, 1950, has similarities to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The same script was used (with Price again starring) on Suspense on March 3, 1957.
- The album Stampede from The Doobie Brothers includes a track called "I Cheat the Hangman", authored by Patrick Simmons and released November 12, 1975. It is a somber outlaw ballad that was inspired by the story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". "It's about a ghost returning to his home after the Civil War and not realizing he's dead," said Simmons about the song.
- The 1985 film Brazil has a similar final act.
- The fourteenth track on Bressa Creeting Cake's self-titled 1997 album is entitled "Peyton Farquhar".
- The heavy metal band Deceased retold the tale in the song "The Hanging Soldier" on its 2000 album Supernatural Addiction.
- The film The Descent from 2005 has a similar final act.
- The 2002 Spike Lee film 25th Hour engages in an extended version of this idea as Monty is being taken to prison by his dad.
- Adam Young has said that this story was the inspiration for the name of his 2007 electronica musical project, Owl City.
- The Escapist is a 2008 film directed by Rupert Wyatt. In an interview with Trevor Groth, Wyatt said "The structure of the film's plot was inspired by a well known short story written in the 19th century by Ambrose Bierce called 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'." In the final scene, Frank Perry visits Rizza's cell, brings the book, and says he must have read it about a dozen times.
- In The Simpsons, season 25, episode 6, "The Kid Is All Right" (2013), Lisa Simpson's campaign speech is cut short when she notices the shadow of a noose around her neck, explained by Mr. Largo as a prop for the school's production of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".
- In an interview with Afterbuzz, Teen Wolf writer and creator Jeff Davis said that the final sequence of the Season 3 finale (2014) was inspired by "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".
- The song Mendokusai on Tellison's 2015 album Hope Fading Nightly features the refrain "We are all broken necked, swinging from the timbers of Owl Creek Bridge."
- In Black Mirror, season 3, episode 2, "Playtest" (2016), involves a similar plot point.
- The 2017 movie, 47 Meters Down, follows a similar end structure, with the main character's "rescue" ending up being a figment of her imagination.
- In Scrubs, the episode "My Occurrence" has a similar plot structure, where the main character J.D. believes that a clerical mistake was made with his patient Ben. J.D. spends the entire episode trying to get it rectified, only to realize at the end that this was all a fantasy to avoid the reality that Ben had been diagnosed with leukemia. The episode's title is also a reference to the story.
- Bierce, Ambrose (2012). "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories. Courier Corporation. p. 7ff.
- "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge: Ambrose Bierce". in Joseph Palmisano, ed. Short Story Criticism, volume 72. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2004, p. 2.
- Khanom, Afruza (Spring 2013). "Silence as Literary Device in Ambrose Bierce's 'The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.' Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice. 6.1: 45–52.
- "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Themes - eNotes.com". eNotes. Retrieved 2016-11-01.
- Prattle, The San Francisco Argonaut, 22 June 1878, as quoted in F.J. Logan The Wry Seriousness of Owl Creek Bridge in: American Literary Realism, 10, No. 2 (Spring 1977), pp. 101-113.
- Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge": an annotated critical edition. Robert C. Evans ed. 2003, Locust Hill Press, West Cornwall, CT. ISBN 0-9722289-6-9.
- Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena, Tales of Count Lucanor, https://archive.org/stream/countlucanororfi00juaniala/countlucanororfi00juaniala_djvu.txt
- This story was rewritten by Jorge Luis Borges in "The Wizard Postponed", in his book A Universal History of Infamy (1935).
- Tabachnick, Stephen. "A Possible Source for Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owlcreek Bridge." ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews. 26.1 (2013): 45–48. Print.
- "Thain". Retrieved 13 February 2017.
- "Metaphilm ::: Reading Inland Empire". Retrieved 13 February 2017.
- Bruce Joel Rubin, Jacob's Ladder, Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 1990
- Hartl, John (1990-11-01). "Adrian Lyne Met A Metaphysical Challenge". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2010-02-06.
- Vonnegut, Kurt (2005). "Do You Know What a Twerp Is?", A Man Without a Country, New York: Seven Stories Press, pp. 7–8.
- "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962)". NY Times. Retrieved 2010-01-09.
- "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 23 October 2008.
- Pulleine, Tim (28 February 2001). "Robert Enrico". The Guardian.
- "The Exit Room". Retrieved 2014-05-04.
- Buxton, Frank and Owen, Bill. The Big Broadcast: 1920-1950, New York, Avon Books, 1973, p. 56.
- ""An Occurrance[sic] at Owl Creek Bridge"". Escape and Suspense. 2008-04-06. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
- ""An Occurrance[sic] at Owl Creek Bridge"". Escape and Suspense. 2008-04-06. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2016-03-10.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-03-12. Retrieved 2016-03-10.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
- Civil War Times Illustrated, December 2001
- "Escape and Suspense!: Escape - Present Tense". Retrieved 13 February 2017.
- "When the Dead Dream: Films Inspired by 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' - Cineleet". Archived from the original on 2017-02-07. Retrieved 13 February 2017.
- "Why I Call Myself Owl City". Adam Young Blog. Archived from the original on 2015-12-22. Retrieved 2015-12-16.
- Barrett, Gerald R. (1973). From Fiction to Film: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Encino, CA: Dickenson Publishing. ISBN 978-0-822100-83-6.
- Blume, Donald T. (2004). Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press. ISBN 0-87338-790-2.
- Evans, Robert C. (2003). Ambrose Bierce's Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge: An Annotated Critical Edition. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press. ISBN 978-0-972228-96-1.
- Owens, David M. (1994). "Bierce and Biography: The Location of Owl Creek Bridge". American Literary Realism, 1870–1910 26(3), pp. 82–89. (Online edition hosted by the Ambrose Bierce Project)
- Stoicheff, Peter. (1993). "'Something Uncanny': The Dream Structure in Ambrose Bierce's 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'". Studies In Short Fiction, 30(3), 349–358.
- Talley, Sharon. (2010). Ambrose Bierce and the Dance of Death. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 978-1-57233-690-2.
- Yost, David. (2007). "Skins Before Reputations: Subversions of Masculinity in Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane". War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, 19(1/2), 247–260.
- The full text of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge at Wikisource
- Media related to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge at Wikimedia Commons
- "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", collected in In the Midst of Life at Internet Archive (scanned books original editions)
- "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" at Project Gutenberg (plain text and HTML)
- Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". An Annotated Critical Edition
- Photographs of Sulfur Creek Trestle, the actual location which inspired Owl Creek Bridge.
- An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge public domain audiobook at LibriVox