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“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890). Ambrose Bierce . Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914). Journalist, essayist, fiction writer known for his biting wit and mysterious death Born in Ohio, 10 th of 13 children, all with names beginning with “A”; raised on farm in Indiana

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ambrose bierce 1842 1914
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)
  • Journalist, essayist, fiction writer known for his biting wit and mysterious death
  • Born in Ohio, 10th of 13 children, all with names beginning with “A”; raised on farm in Indiana
  • Worked as printer’s apprentice on anti-slavery newspaper
  • Union soldier in Civil War, rose to rank of lieutenant; at Kenesaw Mountain, bullet in skull behind ear
ambrose bierce 1842 19145
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)
  • 1870s-80s: journalist and writer in San Francisco (later with Hearst publications)
    • 1872-75: magazine writer in London
  • Wrote stories about the War and about California: unsentimental & disillusioned; he read Stoic philosophy
  • Married wealthy miner’s daughter in 1871; divorced in 1905
  • The Devil’s Dictionary (1911) is his often-quoted book of cynical definitions: Happiness: “an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.”
ambrose bierce 1842 19146
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)
  • 1900-1913: mainly in Washington as political lobbyist for Hearst and journalist
  • Sept. 10, 1913, age 71: "I am going away to South America, and have not the faintest notion when I shall return.”
  • He posted a letter from Mexico, then vanished; possibly killed in Mexican Civil War
film version
Film Version
  • French, directed by Robert Enrico, 1962, 28 min. Starring Roger Jacquet
  • Best short subject at Academy Awards, 1963
  • Broadcast as an episode of the TV series The Twilight Zone, in 1964
  • Images from the film are featured in this presentation
vision vs reality
Vision vs. Reality
  • “Occurrence” plays games with vision and reality, on two levels
    • The apparent Confederate soldier is in fact a “Federal [Union] scout”
    • Farquhar’s apparent escape is only imaginary
  • The confusion is not only Farquhar’s but the reader’s as well
  • Ultimately vision & reality are clearly defined; no supernatural dimension as in “Rip Van Winkle”
  • Section I: Present; Realism: Military Ritual of Hanging; hint of subjectivity/fantasy
  • Section II: Flashback; Realism/Satire: Framing of Peyton Farquhar by Union spy
  • Section III: PresentFuture; Fantasy; ends realistically in present
realism military ritual
Realism: Military Ritual
  • Section 1; ¶1-2: Bierce establishes texture of reality through close description of execution scene: bodily positions, military rank, physical equipment, etc.
  • ¶2, end: the formality of the scene associated with Death
  • ¶3: description of protagonist appeals to historical reality and reader’s sympathy: “kindly expression”
realism satire framing of peyton farquhar
Realism/Satire: Framing of Peyton Farquhar
  • Section II; ¶8-17: Southern gentry portrayed through Bierce’s Northern satiric perspective:
    • “Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause” (¶8)
    • “the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war” (¶8)
    • “Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands” (¶9)
    • Ultimate irony: Soldier was a Union spy
subjectivity fantasy 1
Subjectivity/Fantasy (1)
  • Section 1; ¶4, end: subjectivity enters narrative:
    • Narrator’s detached intellect:
      • “simple and effective”
      • “‘unsteadfast footing’”: quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I
    • Time appears to slow down:
      • “stream racing madly” “sluggish stream”
      • Slowing of his watch, increase in volume
subjectivity fantasy 2
Subjectivity/Fantasy (2)
  • Section I; ¶6: “Flash” of thought expressed as words: “If I could free my hands. . . .”
  • Section III; ¶18: loss of consciousness; reawakening “ages later, it seemed”; pain of hanging, “unaccompanied by thought”
  • Thought restored: impression that rope has broken and he is in stream
  • ¶19: Detached from himself: “watched” his hands free themselves and remove noose; he surfaces
subjectivity fantasy 3
Subjectivity/Fantasy (3)
  • ¶20: Senses “preternaturally keen and alert”; observes natural world
    • Ripples of stream
    • Leaves of trees, insects
    • Dewdrops on blades of grass
    • Gnats, dragon flies, water spiders, fish
subjectivity fantasy 4
Subjectivity/Fantasy (4)
  • ¶21: Sees his executioners: “their forms gigantic”
  • ¶22: One of sentinels fires rifle; Farquhar sees his “gray eye” looking into the rifle sights: an impossible perception
    • Note: Farquhar’s own eye is gray (¶3)
  • ¶25: Bullets fired; one lodges in his neck and “he snatched it out” (unrealistic detail)
  • ¶30: cannon fired
subjectivity fantasy 5
Subjectivity/Fantasy (5)
  • ¶31: whirling: “Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color”; similar to painterly expressionism, e.g., The Scream (1893; same decade as Bierce’s story) by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944); see next slide
subjectivity fantasy 6
Subjectivity/Fantasy (6)
  • Details suggest artificial, dreamlike setting:
    • ¶31: Sand like “diamonds, rubies, emeralds; trees “giant garden plants; he noted a definite order to their arrangement”
    • ¶33: “forest seemed interminable”; “He had not known that he lived in so wild a region”: uncanny
    • ¶34: Nightfall: road “wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwellings anywhere.”
subjectivity fantasy 7
Subjectivity/Fantasy (7)
  • Some details hint at menace, threat:
    • ¶34: “black bodies of trees formed a straight wall on both sides”
    • “strange constellations”: “secret and malign significance”
    • “whispers in an unknown tongue”
re emergence of reality
Re-emergence of Reality
  • ¶35: Hints that Farquhar is still in the noose:
    • Neck pain
    • Eyes congested, unable to close
    • Tongue swollen, thrust out
    • Feet suspended above ground
final fantasy then reality
Final Fantasy, Then Reality
  • ¶36: Morning: approaches home
  • Wife standing to meet him: “fresh and cool and sweet,” “smile of ineffable joy”
  • Farquhar “springs forwards with extended arms”; “stunning blow to back of neck”; “blinding white light”; “darkness and silence”
  • ¶37: “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.”
  • “Occurrence” is a psychological study of consciousness and its struggle against death
  • Like the other stories in this section, it portrays a man lost in a journey beyond the home, trying to regain his place
  • Like “Rip Van Winkle,” there is a political dimension: here the Civil War
    • Southern Plantation life portrayed as fantasy