The Bare Reality Of Imagination Versus The Truth In An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge

The cost of oblivious daydreaming was always this moment of return, the realignment with what had been before and now seemed a little worse – Ian McEwan

Daydreaming can be a devil in disguise; it is enthralling for the minutes spent, but it destroys the psyche. In the story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” written by Ambrose Bierce, the main character Peyton Farquhar is the true embodiment of the distortion of the human mind. Farquhar is a southern planter who is perceived by the Union for the attempt of destroying Owl Creek’s railroad bridge, leading Farquhar to soon be hanged. He is soon led into a mental trap to believe that the physical realities he is experiencing are only of his imagination. Eventually, his spirit awakens into the fact that he is now dead into this grim sense of hallucinated reality. Throughout the story, Bierce portrays the effects of imagination versus reality and the fluid nature of time through a keyhole of Farquhar’s mind.

As Farquhar’s story is told, Bierce shows the differences between the psychological and physical spectrum of death. Farquhar is desperate to remain alive which creates a fantasy world in his thoughts even though he is about to die. Therefore, he imagines his escape to numb out the bare reality of his death. Farquhar envisions what he believes to be a Confederate soldier when he describes “...a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water”. However, little did Farquhar know was that the soldier was a Northern scout. Therefore, an illusion is shown, a Confederate soldier disguising when he was a Northern scout, just like his perception of “reality” was revealed to be false in the end. At one point in the story, Bierce alludes to the Second Battle of Corinth. Corinth consisted of two major railroads that were the most important in the Confederacy. They were a military asset because they extended for the majority of the South. Therefore, it is reasonable to understand why Farquhar believed the soldier to be a part of the Confederacy, only adding to the fact that this creates a stronger illusion to Farquhar. Bierce constantly switches between the present and the imagined present to create slight mystery and confusion to the reader about Farquhar.

As the story develops, the structure of the story develops the nature of time. By switching Farquhar’s perspectives, the sense of time is developed into a fluid manner. At one point in the story, Farquhar falls off the bridge killing him, but he believes that he was still alive when he imagines “in a few moments Farquhar was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank… the sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight”. Farquhar can physically feel his hands burning from the impact. However, this is another technique Bierce uses to confuse the reader that Farquhar is ‘still alive’. Bierce distorts the sense of time by revealing at the end of the story that Farquhar is dead, not that he has escaped from the Union Army. Therefore, this is a prime example of how Bierce uses Farquhar’s imagined reality to slow time down. At another point in the story, as Farquhar falls into the water, Bierce compares him to a “vast pendulum”. A pendulum swings in motion constantly until it is stopped by an outer force; it is a representation of time slowly ticking away. Farquhar’s moments of life are slowly being taken away just like a pendulum moves in a relaxed but ominous manner. Bierce develops the story by carefully building realistic circumstances that establish a grim sense of reality to foreshadow the truth in the end. He describes the physical reality and imagined reality in such a calm manner that the reader may not even realize what is truly going on.

The meaning of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is to portray time like a stream of water; the flow varies from going fast to slow or even stopping at points. It is important to understand how the perception of time is seen throughout the story to understand Farquhar’s experiences. He encounters a self-conflict that establishes the imagined reality which makes time slow down and change his perception of reality. As the story comes to a close, Farquhar finally accepts his fate and is left swinging both physically and mentally like a pendulum.


  • Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs (The Library of America, 2011): 10-19. 
10 Jun 2021
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