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Experiences of Illusions in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a Short Story by Ambrose Bierce

A Real Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge?

Sometimes reality is not as true as originally thought. Dreams, imaginings and illusions can look quite real. They are not always real though, and can be deceiving. The short story named “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce is a familiar example of an illusion. The first time reader may not quite recognize this until the end. When the assembly of soldiers is being changed, as well as when the sergeant stepped aside off of the plank, and Peyton falls, the occurrences Peyton seems to experience have some small clues that hint at the fact that the experiences are an illusion. Or perhaps it was some imaginings that Peyton had moments before his death?

As the guard moves around Peyton, he starts to pay attention to his surroundings. He notices that the stream is sluggish since a piece of driftwood seemed to dance or “move slowly” in his opinion (Bierce Par.4). Yet in the first paragraph Bierce mentions that Peyton is looking down into “swift water.” Maybe Peyton is just imagining something different.

The closer they get to the end result, the more Peyton starts noticing strange things that one wouldn’t normally be able to notice. In the fifth paragraph of Bierce’s short story, Peyton closes his eyes to focus on thoughts of his family. But suddenly something starts to bother him, forcing him to pay attention to it rather than the thoughts of his loved ones. “Striking through the thought of his dear ones was sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality.” Peyton claimed that the noise kept getting more and more distressing as it slowly tolled, similar to a death knell; and then it was mentioned that all he was hearing was the ticking of his wristwatch (Bierce par. 5). Such a strange event could suggest that he is hallucinating, dreaming, imagining, or just plain freaking out.

Another clue seems to suggest that Peyton may not have been thinking any of that at all. “As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man’s brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant (Bierce par. 7).” Perhaps he didn’t even have the time to think those thoughts before the soldiers sent him plunging, or maybe something “flashed” the information into his brain.

When a different scene shows Peyton with his wife and a guest, he asked questions of the guest. The soldier told him what was going on in the war, and when asked how far away the bridge with the repairs was, said it was “about thirty miles (Bierce par. 10-12).” Possibly, this bit of information could clue in towards his thoughts of fleeing home, as well as his later escape after the soldiers drop him, suggesting that it is not quite possible.

As the story shifts back to the bridge, the story says, “As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened–ages later, it seemed to him (Bierce par.18)….” The words “as one already dead” should whisper the idea that he really is already dead, not to be awoken again.

Another clue that could suggest that this situation is not really happening is: “the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud splash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark (par.18).” Light does not make noise, and water takes a bit longer to cool off then the amount of time it supposedly took for the light to “shoot upward.”

A good example also found in the eighteenth paragraph seems to prod at the idea that this event is not real. “To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!–the idea seemed to him ludicrous (par. 18).” When someone is hung by a rope, often their neck is snapped by the force of their fall, thereby killing them before the body could even begin to touch the water.

When Bierce says that Peyton opened his eyes and noticed that the light seemed quite distant, and that it was getting still farther as he was sinking deeper, that could be reminiscent of death, or the fading of life (par 18).

Bierce then has Peyton start to float upwards back towards the surface, where he seems to suddenly have all of his senses, but they are heighten to an unnatural amount (Bierce par. 20). Since no human is able to accomplish such a feat, it could suggest unrealism.

In the twenty-first paragraph Bierce describes the soldiers as having “grotesque and horrible” movements, and their forms “gigantic.” These qualities are usually associated with nightmares or dreams. And when bullets hit the water near Peyton, they are slowed and harmless, yet in real life they are still fast and dangerous underwater. And when anyone looks from a distance away from a scope on a gun, they cannot see clearly the eye behind it, let alone the color of the eye (Bierce par. 22). Peyton should not have known by that kind of observation whether or not the man was a good shot.

The enhanced thoughts, senses, endurance and strength throughout the rest of the story are all unrealistic, so they all point to the idea of an illusion as well. Especially when Peyton notices that his neck is very swollen, yet still presses on, as well as when he feels pain at the back of his neck and everything turns white, then dark (Bierce par. 20-36).

As Peyton’s journey unfolds, it starts seem almost ridiculous, an unconscious tugging toward the thoughts that suggest the story’s fake qualities. But at the same time it seems fascinating, like an amazing fantasy story that anyone would like to experience in their real life. Enhanced senses are commonly wished for. But unfortunately, Peyton only dreamed this, while at the same time the story was depressing, with the impression that Peyton might actually get to see his loved ones again ripped apart by the harsh truth that he was truly dead the whole time.

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