Throughout most of United States history, our nation has been involved in wars against those who threaten our freedom, and against our own brethren. The American Civil War was an American tragedy that affected hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, including author Ambrose Bierce. Bierce’s experiences in the American Civil War inspired many short stories that show the realistic shock and terror that war can have on a man’s psyche. Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a piece of fiction that accurately represents the realism and the horrible truth of war that Bierce wished to present to his audience.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is typical of Bierce’s style of subject matter, but brings to the table an additional element of storytelling progressing through the fantastic and includes aspects of human nature that persuades many scholars to consider the story as one of Bierce’s finest works. Among the course of human history, war has been an integral facet of what we as a race have become accustomed to; war not only refers to the names put onto large conflicts between nations, but also small skirmishes dating back to the mythical ages of Cain and Abel, along with wars in our minds.
Joseph Carroll describes the basic “human natures”, and the reasons for Bierce’s use of human satire: In common parlance, when people use the phrase “human nature,” they usually have in mind basic human motives: survival, mating, parenting, favoring kin, and acting as members of a social group. In all affiliative social relations–lovers, friends, families, communities–there is a perpetual tension between egoistic and prosocial impulses.
Since people tend to hide or mute expressions of self-interest and magnify prosocial dispositions, hypocrisy and deceit are endemic to social life–hence the prevalence of satire in literary representations of human behavior. (Carroll) Bierce’s short stories are commonly known for being of the war fiction genre, specifically the Civil War. Bierce typically wrote about war fiction that reflected his own experiences on the frontlines, and based on other well-known stories he has written, he believes that in order to accurately tell his stories, he needs to follow realism as closely as possible.
This element of war realism can be shown in another one of his stories, “Killed at Resaca. ” Like the former story, the latter details the death of the protagonist of the story in a gruesome and grotesque manner. The element of death and destruction between each character is so prevalent that it embodies itself into the theme of realism that Bierce conveys. The scenes in both stories can be shown as very dramatic, but they are not at all theatrical nor do they show unreal characteristics (Bierce, Killed at Resaca). Bierce’s use of direct realism in his stories shows the dread and panic of what war can do to a person.
He tries to show how pseudo-glamorous war really can be, and how while the audience may perceive the story as something of art, Bierce wants the reader to know that this type of death and destruction actually happened. This element of grotesque realism is also prevalent in another story by Bierce titled “Chickamauga”. The protagonist of “Chickamauga” is introduced as being as being a young, naive boy who lives in a small home (assumingly at the location of the Battle of Chickamauga). Bierce goes through the story by explaining the seemingly carelessness of the boy as he trots throughout the woods, enjoying his youthfulness.
In the latter half of the story however, Bierce introduces the toil and destruction of everything the boy had ever known. The boy had truly lost everything- his home, his town, and even his mother. All of this carnage and wreckage was happening to the boy, but he did not even know it was happening due to the fact that he was a deaf mute (Bierce, Chickamauga). The common theme of realism in war can also be attributed to the young child earlier in the story, as according to the child’s mind, “he suddenly found himself confronted with a new a more formidable enemy . . . rabbit! (Chickamauga)” Bierce includes the element of war in the child to show how common and prevalent distress and war is among humans.
To the reader, this would seem as literal childish behavior, but upon discovering that the child is a deaf mute, it becomes understandable that something as feeble as a rabbit may cause turmoil to the child. Throughout all three stories, there is a thematic presence of war and distress that is common is a Biercian story. The three stories line up in subject matter, and show the common idea that Bierce wished to present to his audiences.
While “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a prime example of Bierce’s typical style of writing, it is also considered by other scholars to be one of his finest pieces of literature. One of the most intriguing ideas that Bierce brings to the table is the use of pseudo-fantasy throughout the story, even though it is still regarded as a story based on realism. Bierce is able to provide two aspects to his story telling that can make the reader confused on what is real and what is not: what the main character, Peyton Farquhar is interpreting as real, and what Farquhar is actually experiencing.
Bierce constantly shifts in between these two ideas, and “‘[s]omehow the reader is made to participate in the split between imagination and reason, to feel that the escape is real while he knows it is not’ (157; Woodruff’s emphasis)”(Stoicheff). The continued use of fantasy cause a split in interpretation with the reader. The reader believes that Farquhar has, somehow, escaped from the grasp of his captors. Bierce continues on the anecdote of Farquhar escaping for so long that the reader interprets it as reality; this is not the case, as the reader finds out at the end of the story that the false reality Bierce painted was just that- false.
Bierce used the third section of the story as a sort of “dream” state that Farquhar was in. Bierce was then able to model the dream as something of a reality, using the constantly changing external stimuli to weave into the details of the story (Stoicheff). The constant shifting between the pseudo-reality and the actual reality cause the reader to continually be involved and intrigued with the piece. After understanding that Bierce tries to convey two different realities, the reader is able to interpret the underlying realism within the entire piece.
Many scholars also consider “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” to be one of Bierce’s finest works due to the fact that Bierce includes descriptions of human nature within the piece. Bierce not only includes human nature into the overall theme of realism in this story, but in the previously mentioned stories as well. Bierce introduces the human nature of Farquhar in two main places in the story: in the second section (where Farquhar is persuaded by the Union spy to destroy the Owl Creek Bridge), and in the third section, where Farquhar attempts to escape his captors.
Bierce’s war stories have a second constant underlying theme: war and martial relations can have an effect on a person so strong that they put their life in danger. Peter J. Morrone elaborates more or this: The effect martial power relations have upon Bierce’s central figures reveals how the military enforced a particular ethos or mode of conditioning that Bierce characterizes as self surveillance discipline. ” (Morrone).
Bierce introduces the concept that a military power or faction has the innate ability to persuade its members or allies to perform tasks that would otherwise be considered outrageous, but are considered dutiful in regards for the betterment of the nation. Bierce captures an audience’s attention by appealing to a trans-political idea that had been growing during the 1800s: patriotism for one’s nation. The idea of patriotism is another element of human nature that nearly everyone can adhere to, and is a main hook is capturing the readers’ attention.
Bierce continues the idea of “human nature” in the third section of the story. He describes that of how Farquhar, a man who knows he is inevitably doomed, for some reason still tries to make an attempt to escape (even though we now know by now that the attempted “escape” was just a dream in the first place) Farquhar’s desire to stay alive coincides with our instinctual desires to survive our circumstances. He shows that our elements of human nature are not just outlined in Farquhar, but that they are typical of the human species as a whole (Carroll).
Bierce’s use of shifting between a false realism and an actual realism, along with his appeal to human nature, causes many scholars and readers to believe that this is one of his finest pieces of literature. He not only appeals to those only interested in a casual read of the story, but also to those who want to take into account the art and (false) beauty that Bierce showed in the story. Bierce’s short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” is one that is a prime example of Biercian writing.
It shows its common elements of realism in the piece, although it shifts between two realities, as well as its appeal to the elements of human nature. Bierce brings to the table a piece in which he can convey the point of realism to his audience, while at the same time captivating them with intriguing detail, as well as providing an artistic piece that many scholars would consider to be one of his best works. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is the epitome of Ambrose Bierce’s writing, and is also one of his best works.