Ambrose Bierces’ story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” tells the story of a confederate secessionist, who is being hanged by Union troops. At the time of the hanging, the soldiers drop him from the bridge. Luckily, just as he falls the rope snaps and the man dives into the “sluggish stream”. He miraculously takes off his ropes and swims away. When he reaches the bank of the creek, he runs for what seems like forever. He finally reaches home, where his family is waiting so anxiously for him. However, Bierce chooses to surround this intriguing tell with elements that carry visual, concrete, and intangible symbolism. The symbolic elements of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” imply that the protagonist, Peyton Fahrquhar, is out of touch with reality, which evidently leads to the added twist at the end of the story.
Many of the symbols in the story have to do with visual representation. For example, Bierce focuses on one specific color, which is gray. Gray is the color of the Confederate soldiers’ uniforms. It is the also the color the Union soldier wears to deceive Fahrquhar. Gray is the color of the figures he sees in the distance in his delusion. It is also the color of the sharpshooter that misses him. Since gray is mentioned so often, the reader can assume that it has a meaning outside its visual representation.
First, the color gray is used to describe the mood of the story. Generally, when one think of the color gray, a poignant feeling arouses. Linking the two, the mood of the story is therefore also distressing. Secondly, the color gray is used to symbolize Fahrquhars’ role: a middle man without much sense or direction. In the story, the first mention of the color is used to describe him. “He wore a moustache and pointer beard, but no whiskers: his eyes were large and dark grey… ” The reader should also notice that Fahrquar is the only one who sees gray, which means the color, represents him. Gray is the intermediate in character and position. Like Fahrquar, who is considered to be in the middle of the situation, only trying to do what he believes is right.
Bierce use of symbolism is far great than the actually concept of the story. He also uses solid or concrete objects to convey his hidden messages. For example his constant mention of the Bridge. Obviously it...
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...ot so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair.” In Fahrquars’ hallucination, he gets mad at the thought of being shot after he managed to escape his hanging. Depression kicks in when Bierce says “By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, and famished. He knew it (his neck) had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it.” Fahrquar is tired and confused. This is a clear sign that death is near, leading him into depression, which sheds light on his impossible endurance. Acceptance occurs when Bierce says, “…he has merely recovered from a delirium… and sees home… all bright and beautiful… ” This clearly shows that Fahrquar has accepted what is happening, almost as if he has given up. He finally enters the last stage of his symbolic dying process. Bierce says, “…then all is dark and silent…Peyton Fahrquar was dead…”
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is riddled with symbolic meaning. Bierce creates a realistic disguise of events until the very end of the story, where he allows the reader to realize that Fahrquars’ escape did not actually occur. He uses symbols to convey the true meaning of this breathtaking story: Perception is Reality.
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