Literature is black text on white paper, however it is not simply black and white, but rather complexly colorful. It serves as a medium for escape and adventure. Readers have the privilege of omniscience into the lives of characters who are the antithesis of themselves, as well as character’s whom the reader feels a deep connection with.
Because it is not black and white, there is no single correct interpretation of a given work. A piece of literature lives a different life in the mind of each reader. This open individual interpretation is the critical method known as reader response. Reaction to the short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, by Ambrose Bierce, is varied. Bierce takes on the role of God in the creation of the character, and his control of the ultimate outcome. Authors create an alternative universe. They have control over what happens in that universe, and how it will affect its inhabitants. They can manipulate it as they please. They can also destroy, as Bierce did to Peyton Farquhar. No matter how much the reader wanted Peyton to escape, it is Beirce’s final ruling of death that we must deal with. The surprise ending thrills some, while upsetting others. In this sense, the author has some control over the readers reaction, and their consciousness. The reading resembles the experience of life itself, in that there are many twists and turn within our lives much like those in the story, that we have no control over, and often the outcomes are ultimately upsetting.
It is a deeply psychological work, revealing the mental struggles of the main character, Peyton Farquhar, as well as having an affect on the psychology of the reader. The reader becomes engulfed in Peyton’s escape, experiencing each obstacle and hardship with him, wishing him to safety.
Bierce uses a very dreamlike structure to reveal Farquhar’s psychologically suppressed ambitions:
“Obviously, he was from a structure background, born into an ordered world where formalities counted much among the gentry… Truly, Farquhar found himself inhibited by social and historical strictures, and so ‘longed for the release of his energies’” (Powers p.279) .
This inner struggle is a very Freudian concept. Freud held that there is a constant tension between man and his surroundings. In particular, a conflict between his needs and desires, and the demands of society. He also stated that the conscious is only a very small part of the human mind, there is are deeper waters than the thoughts we have access to, he called the thoughts below the surface our subconscious, and according to Freud the map to our subconscious lies in our dreams. Freud determined that all dreams are wish fulfillments(Gaarder p.431-435). Peyton’s dreamed escape reveals his wish to escape, not only from death, but from the demands, and censorship of his society.
The structure also serves to give a feeling of a distorted, yet believable reality and time much like that of a dream. The theme of comparing life, or death in this example, is one used throughout the history of literature. The Spanish dramatist Calderon de la Barca, wrote a play called, Life is a Dream, in which he says: “What is life? A madness. What is life? An illusion, a shadow, (this is strikingly similar to Shakespeare’s words in Macbeth,: ‘Life is but a walking shadow…’) a story, and the greatest good is little enough, for all life is a dream.” This theme is also present in a play called Jeppe on the Mount by Ludwig Holdberg. The story goes that Jeppe falls asleep in a ditch, and wakes up in the Baron’s bed. He therefore thinks that he only dreamed that he was a poor farmhand. Then he falls asleep again and is carried back to the ditch. He then thinks he only dreamed he was lying in the Baron’s bed. This theme is found even further back in history, when the old Chinese sage Chang-tzu said: “Once I dreamed I was a butterfly, and now I no longer know whether I am Chang-tzu, who dreamed I was a butterfly, or whether I am a butterfly dreaming that I am Chang-tzu.”(Gaarder p.229) I have often had dreams that I was unsure were that and only that. It is often a very difficult task to sort out reality from dreams.
Of course one of the obvious themes of the story is that of death. Peyton’s dream of escpe is just a denial and prolonging of certain death. Peyton experiences several distortions in his fabricated world of reality. Peytons’s mind races so fast that even the ticking of his watch becomes “a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil.” It clangs slower and slower until the delays become “maddening.” His watch certainly did not slow; his mind became so agitated and nervous that the ticking seemed elongated. With the time in his world being so distorted, it is no wonder that in the time it took for his body to fall several feet, his mind escaped and fled home. Also towards the end of the story, everyday things start to seem, as if they have significance, hidden meanings to Peyton. Above him, strange constellations of stars, he is sure, “are arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance.” To each side of him, in the forest, “he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.” Aside from the hidden meanings, his surroundings are very simple in structure. He comes to a road that he ” knew to be in the right direction.” However, it is unlike any other road, because “it is as wide and straight as a city street,… terminating on the horizon at a point… , yet it seemed untraveled.” The surroundings also seem to have elements of comfort. The grass has carpeted the road so that it is very soft, so soft that “he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!” All these things are noted within the last four paragraphs of the story, just before the end of his life. It seems that death was somehow trying to make itself understood to Peyton.
The work is also philosophical in its manipulation of reality. It forces the reader to question what reality is, something that has driven and alluded the minds of great thinkers for eternity. Peyton is far from a realist. He is very much an empiricist. An empiricist derives his knowledge of the world around him by what his senses tell him. Peyton feels as if he is escaping. He creates a fantastical world for himself which is all a result of denial. The entire story is a collection of sensory imagery:
“…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…….;his neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire; his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out of his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish!”(Bierce/The Norton Introduction to Literature pg.83-84).
This type of imagery forces the reader to become, at least for duration of the reading, an empiricist. The reader also believes that Peyton is escaping because of what he perceives with his senses. However the reader learns that one cannot trust ones senses all the time.
The story also becomes political with its use of satire, caricatures, and archetypes. This is evident in his depiction of the rigidity of the south. “The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless…[they] might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with arms folded, silent, observing the work of his subordinates but making no sign”(p. 81). Farquhar himself becomes an archetype for revolutionary freedom seekers. He embraces the all familiar theme in history to escape oppression. He had an agenda of has own, but it would be unfulfilled, destroyed by the power of those of an opposing political view. Peyton is a planter who is left behind by the Confederate Army due to circumstances “…of an imperious nature,” but he longs for the “release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction.”(Bierce/The Norton Introduction to Literature pg.82).
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a brilliantly written story. It has so many different and interesting elements to it. He employs, psychology, philosophy, and politics all in one short story. One must reread it several times to catch all of its points. The first time I read it was as a junior, it left me asking “What just Happened?” At first I was upset, thinking, “Mr. Beirce, that’s not fair, you shouldn’t jerk me around like that!” But then I realized how amazing it was that he had that much control over my emotions. When he wrote the story, he knew how it would affect people. And it still works, over a hundred years later, as he lies in his grave. Now that is a powerful legacy.
Bierce, Ambrose. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”(1891). The Norton Introduction to Literature. (1998). 80-87.