Get Out of My Head!

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Ambrose Bierce's short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," allowed me to deepen my understanding of points of view and realize how influential those points of view can be to the reader's opinion of the point-of-view character, which in this case was Peyton Farquhar.  Part I begins in the third person omniscient point of view, allowing the reader to get an objective account of the hanging of Farquhar, whom at this point is known only to be a civilian with "a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp" (318).  Bierce then switches to third person limited, revealing Farquhar's thoughts before the Federal soldiers kill him.  The reader sympathizes with him as he thinks of his "wife and little ones [who] are still beyond the invader's farthest advance" (318) because they see the man as an innocent father and husband, sentenced to death for an unknown reason even though he is a "gentleman" (318).

While it may have been unintentional, since Bierce wrote this tale over a century ago in a time when many more people supported slavery then they do today, Part II makes the reader question the legitimacy of her earlier felt sympathy.  Farquhar is a slave owner and is "ardently devoted to the Southern cause" (319) in the Civil War.  Should the reader really be rooting for someone who wants to keep human beings enslaved?

Despite Farquhar's allegiance, the manner in which Bierce reveals the character's thoughts lures the reader into an acceptance of who he is.  We see a glimpse of his humanity in Part III, as the Federals hang him and he longs for a way to escape.  He frees himself from his noose and flees in the water, eventually walking all day in an attempt to get home.  He falls asleep and dreams of his family, his wife "waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy" at the foot of his steps.  The reader can relate to his thoughts, because that is what anyone would be thinking were they in his situation.  

If Bierce had written this part of the story in any other point of view than third person limited, the reader would feel detached and unsympathetic, remembering Farquhar's lifestyle.  However, since the reader is allowed to feel what Farquhar was feeling, the story was much more effective.  The fact that Farquhar dies in the end is saddening, even though the reader knows he was a supporter of slavery.  By switching back to the third person omniscient point of view for the last sentence, his death hits the reader harder because the detached voice of the speaker is so different from hearing Farquhar's actual thoughts.  It's almost as if someone close to the reader dies, and no one cares enough to tell of his death in any way other than the unfeeling "Peyton Farquhar was dead" (322).

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