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Unreliability in Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek”
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“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is, undoubtably, a story with an unexpected ending. I remembered it from high school, so I wasn’t shocked by the end. Upon a closer reading, you can tell that all is not as it seems, making the ending less of a surprise.

The seemingly objective and omniscient third person narrator at the beginning leads us to actually be shocked the first time we read this story. In most cases, this sort of narrator knows things that the character could not know. When we go into Peyton Farquhar’s elaborate fantasy, then, we imagine that it’s true. Why would a God like narrator (as this story’s narrator seems to be) tell us lies. It turns out that the narrator is a little more limited than it seems.

Inconsistencies in the text are one way to highlight the difference between the real world aspects of the story and the fantasy world aspects of the story. The very first sentence says that the water under Owl Creek Bridge is “swift,”  while later it is described as a “sluggish stream.” It is clear that the narrator is speaking from Farquhar’s perspective here, and when the narrator does that, the inconsistencies become numerous. There is a long description of the sound of Farquhar’s watch ticking, making it out to sound like a blacksmith’s hammer coming and going:

Striking through the thought of his dear ones was sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by– it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each new stroke with impatience an d– he knew not why– apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became madding. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. they hurt his ear like the trust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.

In some ways. This paragraph sets up the structure of the whole story. We find ourselves very curious as readers. What could he hear? Everything is very dramatic. It’s clear that the thought process going on is not very clear. In the end we find out that it is all a very elaborate description of a clock ticking. Time seems to be distorted and unreal. The whole escape fantasy is similar. Time seems to be moving slowly according to the descriptions. Descriptions are lengthy, detailed, and almost crazy. The whole situation seems a little strange, and then –POW– you realize it’s not real.

After we enter the confusing perspective of Farquhar, we go back to more objective descriptions of the past. We learn why Farquhar is being hanged and everything seems to be quite normal. If anything, this chapter seems to be devoid of Farquhar’s personal opinions/feelings/biases. We are lulled back into normalcy and complacency right before the biggest of inconsistency arrives: the fantasy of escape.

At first the craziness of the escape is distracting enough for us to not notice that it can’t be real. After all, if you narrowly escaped a hanging, you would be confused and your perspective would be off. Further reading points out really impossible things, however. It’s clear that the narrator is back in Farquhar’s head and that means we can’t trust him.

The movements of the soldiers on the bridge are described as “grotesque and horrible,” the men themselves were described as “gigantic.” This could be chalked up to an adrenaline rush, but then the narrator says that Farquhar can see the eye color of one of the men on the bridge (at least 20 feet above him according to the beginning of the story). That seems a little bit exaggerated even for the crazy powers of adrenaline (As a side note, I measured 20 feet in my dorm, which is about 4 of me, and  made my roommate stand at one end of the measurement… and I could only tell that her eyes weren’t blue. So it seems that it would be rather unreal). From this point on, our information is clearly unreliable and fantasy based.

via Bierce, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek”.

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1 Comment to “Unreliability in Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek””

  1. […] and its narrative style. I remember that there were contradictions in the text, and that I’ve blogged about them before, but I don’t know if they were binaries. Either way, I’m thinking some connections […]

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