October 04, 2004

The experience of dying in “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”


Ambrose Bierce’s Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a story about dying. There is a blurry distinction between Peyton Farquar’s last moments and his actual death experience which can lead to different interpretations of the text.

As Farquar prepares to be executed, time and experience are distorted. He hears “…a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. …like the trust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.”

He is about to die and as he processes this reality during the little time he has left, he seems to pass through some of the five stages of dying as identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross while moving through his pre-death vision.

DENIAL: "If I could free my hands," he thought, "I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader's farthest advance." At this point, Farquar entertains of the possibility of escape even though it is highly unlikely.

ANGER: “To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!--the idea seemed to him ludicrous.” As the almost dream-like sequence begins, with Farquar falling into the water, he experiences anger that his life is still in jeopardy from being shot after surviving the attempted execution and fall. "To be hanged and drowned," he thought, "that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair."

DEPRESSION: “By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famished. His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it found it horribly swollen.” He is exhausted and disoriented. Even the stars look different and “He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance.”

ACCEPTANCE: This darker experience quickly gives way to a brighter, more serene vision. He feels as if he had “…recovered from a delirium…” and he sees his home,”…all bright and beautiful” His wife is standing to greet him and he thinks:” Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forwards with extended arms.”

Taking a different view of Farquar’s experiences, it could be argued that Farquar had an “out of body” or “near death” experience beginning the moment the “…sergeant stepped aside.”

In an article posted on ABCnews.com, ABCNEWS' Medical Editor Dr. Tim Johnson discusses findings in the British medical journal Lancet based on a study of patients that had experienced clinical death and survived to talk about it. Lead researcher Pim van Lommel told the Washington Post: “… people can be conscious of events around them even when they are physically unconscious.” He goes on to describe some common experiences: “Many people describe seeing their own bodies from a distance, as though watching a movie. Others say they felt their bodies rushing toward a brilliant light.” Consider the experience of Farquar: “He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck.”

Another common theme in near death experiences is a tunnel and light. Two patients mentioned in the article recount their experiences: “Another woman described how she felt she was being pulled toward a giant tunnel, a common theme in the near-death experiences. "I couldn't stop it. I didn't know why I was moving. I was just pulled right through this enormous, infinite tunnel," said Diane Morrissey. After Farquar falls, “He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten…”

Susan Blackmore, a psychology professor at the University of the West of England offers a more clinical explanation of the near death experience: Johnson writes, “She believes the experiences are like a movie that our brains run at times of extreme traumatic stress. The brain creates endorphins which can reduce pain, and under extreme stress, these large amounts of endorphins produce a dreamlike state of euphoria.” This could explain why Farquar’s senses were “…preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck.”

Was Ambrose Bierce writing from imagination, first hand or anecdotal experience? In any case it makes for a compelling read!

Posted by LindaFondrk at October 4, 2004 12:11 PM

Your commentary on dying in "Owl Creek" is something that I noted in my blog. Bravo for noticing these things. Do you see Peyton as a Christ like figure? Just a question. See you in class!

Posted by: Katie Aikins at October 4, 2004 06:51 PM

I read your comments on the Christ comparison of Farquar. Though I do see some similarities, I think the idea of the "sacrificial lamb" is missing. His death really held no great significance or sacrifice to me.

Posted by: Linda Fondrk at October 5, 2004 11:33 AM

The Confederates lost the war, of course, but within the world of the story, how does Bierce use Farquar's values and ideals? Does that help you examine the validity of Farquar as a martyr figure?

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at October 5, 2004 02:26 PM

Yeaaah, I get it...southern values, the lifestyle and all that encompasses?

Posted by: Linda Fondrk at October 5, 2004 03:01 PM

I can see where the death might not have significance, but look at how he lived. He was "good," atleast characterized as good by the narrator, up until his time of death. This is the value of blogging, sharing opinions.

Posted by: Katie Aikins at October 5, 2004 03:59 PM

I referred to you on my blog, Linda. Great entry.

Would you mind if I used your research in my paper coming up?

Posted by: Amanda at October 9, 2004 11:02 PM

The link is my name below if you want to see. :-D

Posted by: Amanda at October 9, 2004 11:05 PM
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