Right now my students are reading Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge“. The short story always brings forth different reactions from my students, mostly that some of them see the ending before it hits them, but this is because Bierce is dropping hints throughout the text that illustrate the fact of the surprise ending.
Of course, there are still students who complain that they have to read anything at all, but that is for another post. We are here to examine Bierce’s writing techniques.
There are five interesting things that Bierce does in his short story that all of us can learn to do, with much practice, that can enhance any text.
- Effective Use of Flashback – The second section of the short story might seem unnecessary at first glance, but it is indeed necessary to set up the reasoning for why Peyton Farquhar is standing on the bridge awaiting execution at the start of the story. If Bierce were to begin the story with the second section, it would not grab the reader’s attention or heighten the suspense like placing the protagonist on a bridge with a noose around his neck. It is necessary in that it sets up the reason for why Farquhar is on the bridge. The tone is also dreamlike, which will lead me to my next point.
- Dropping Hints – The most masterful thing that Bierce does in this short story is drop hints in the third section that Farquhar is dreaming between the time he is dropped from the bridge to the moment his neck snaps. Evidence can be seen in the following passages:
He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived.
It seems strange that he is able to suddenly see “the veining of each leaf” and notice every animal and plant nearby when he just escaped from his bonds underwater after the rope broke and dropped him in the river. Another example follows:
The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle.
It is also strange that someone in the water would be able to make out the color of someone’s eyes standing on the bridge. Another hint:
A strange roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of aeolian harps. He had no wish to perfect his escape – was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.
I would think he would want to escape regardless of how beautiful his surroundings were. Farquhar seems content listening to the strange music coming from the trees, music that should be played in heaven (aeolian harps).
3. Detailed Description – The first section of the short story is a textbook examination of what can happen when a writer is a trained journalist. Bierce writes the account of Farquhar being brought to his execution with the precision of a surgeon. All images are neatly laid out for the reader in a careful description of the scene. It is also a testament to the author living in a time when we were not overstimulated with movies and television images. Most writers don’t write like this anymore because they don’t feel that they have to, but reading Bierce causes one to rethink that position when we see just how masterful he crafts the setting.