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In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", we see the author, Ambrose Bierce, cleverly develop his short story through a masterful use of style, plot and theme. We must appreciate the use of these aspects, especially when we consider the amazing twist the story takes, and how perfectly this piece has been set up.
First, we should look at the amazingly clear and crisp style Bierce uses to communicate his story so powerfully to the reader. Through his use of all five senses in the story, there is no doubting its reality. His use of the senses helps to not only make it seem realistic, but it also makes it seem as if the reader is inside the mind of the hanged man, Peyton Farquhar. Bierce accomplishes this through the use of details that one would only experience if one was actually being hanged! Notice the details in the following excerpt from when Peyton has just, seemingly, splashed into the water:
An appalling plash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing
sound…which stirred the very river in its deeps! A rising sheet of water curved over him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken a hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond.
At the end of the story, when the plot turns 180 degrees and we find out that Peyton has, in fact, been hanged, we are amazed that this could have happened. However, when we analyze this sudden turn, we realize that all through the story we have been subtly forewarned of Farquhar's demise. For example, when he looks through the bridgework toward the water, he notices how slowly the water seems to be moving. This is only one example of time seeming to almost stand still for Peyton, and thus alerts us to the difference between real time and the internal clock Farquhar thinks is real. Another example of Bierce's use of foreboding is when Peyton Farquhar is in the process of being hanged and the author states, "…it seemed to him [Farquhar]…" It seemed like he had broken free from the bondage of the rope—it only seemed that way to him.
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Another amazing aspect of this story is how closely the author makes us examine this horrible situation. This clearly relates to the story's theme, which makes us think of Bierce's short biographical notes in our text. Bierce fought and was wounded in the Civil War, a war which jaded him forevermore. By giving us a cold, objective report on the story's events, he lets us experience the cold, lonely feelings one would have in a war without having the narrator or the character simply experience the horror for us. Instead, the reader must go through the emotional work of the story; and this puts us squarely at the center of the action and the travesty of war. This really is a sweet irony, because while Bierce says less, he actually makes us think more.
Therefore, through Bierce's artistry in developing style, plot and theme, a careful reader will bear witness to the absurdity of war. In a cold, clear style Bierce makes us deal with this man on the bridge -- and aren't we all on that bridge, tottering between life and death?