Short Story: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890)
Author: Ambrose Bierce
Connection with ABC-TV’s LOST: The official LOST website links the book to episode 213. John Locke holds the book up-side-down, shaking it apparently trying to find any loose papers between the pages. . The theme is about escaping fate. Perhaps Locke is looking for a loophole in the book so he doesn’t find out his escape from fate is only a dream? The book is about a Confederate sympathizer who is about to be hanged for treason. A TV version of the story was presented on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1959.
Review of the Short Story
Some of the more lasting memories of collegiate life came from freshmen preparing to turn in their first paper for English class. The night before, a few would stop by my room and ask me (often with an air of cockiness) to proofread their paper to make sure it was okay. Thirty minutes later, they would stop by the room again, wondering what was taking me so long. When I finally gave it back to them riddled with comments and corrections, their first reaction was often a confused “What?”
And to think I was the same way coming out of high school—thinking I could write circles around anyone on campus. As it turned out, my first paper was a harsh lesson in humility. The assignment was to read a ten-page story, then summarize it—in under 200 words. (To this point in the review, I’m at 139.) I thought I did a good job, but my professor didn’t think so, granting me a D- for my work. It was then that I began to develop an appreciation of how difficult it is to write with both clarity and brevity.
Ambrose Bierce is best known for his biting satire and The Cynic’s Word Book, a collection of words and their sardonic definitions (example: Acquaintance–A person whom we know well enough to borrow from, but not well enough to lend to). He also wrote numerous short stories, the most lasting entitled “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” It’s not a terribly long read, but is a fascinating look at how taking matters into one’s own hands is not always the best solution.
The story begins with Peyton Fahrquhar standing in the middle of a bridge, about to be hung by members of the Union Army. He’s a Confederate sympathizer during the Civil War and knows that this is probably it for him. He thinks about his wife and kids while trying to conjure some form of escape attempt, whereupon he falls into the water.
At this point, Bierce makes a flashback to Fahrquhar’s life as 30 year-old planter. A Union soldier (unknown to Farhquhar) stops by the house one evening and informs him that the Union soldiers are at the bridge. After learning that Fahrquhar is interested in sabotaging the bridge, the soldier leaves, having set a rather effective trap.
The last past of the story returns to the present as Fahrquhar falls through the bridge and the noose snaps, sending him into the water. Despite being bound, he manages to free himself of the bonds and escape by swimming and dodging Union gunfire. He then hurries through the woods on a thirty-mile jaunt back to his house. Fahrquhar arrives, is greeted by his wife from the porch, and just as he reaches her, he feels a searing pain, a white light flashes, then everything goes black. In essence, Peyton Fahrquhar imagined the whole scenario of escaping and returning home in that brief instant before the noose actually broke his neck and killed him.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is worth reading if you’ve never read it before. It also contains a lesson that we would be wise to learn. Simply put, there are times in life where we want to be the hero and attempt to take matters into your own hands when others (ourselves included) could be hurt as a result. Paul wrote in the Bible that this option was something better left to God himself, adding, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17, 21).” In the end, it always works out better that way.