Posted by Michael Fong
Ambrose Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
"As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walls, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of match less grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with the extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon-then all is darkness and silence!" (Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" Part III)
There was never a war that was fought with beauty and glory, no matter how one portrays it. As Hemingway so aptly stated, "In modern war, there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason." Farquhar, as it seems, was the victim caught within the tendrils of war. Here, the seemingly miraculous escape of Farquhar crashed to a screeching halt as it was revealed by Bierce that the noose around the neck of the unfortunate man had not broke after all, and it was only his imagination alone that conjured up the events that followed during the brief moment before his eventual death. As in the case of a great many tragedies written since the beginning of time, Peyton Farquhar's last thought before his death on Owl Creek bridge was about a loved one.
It would be logical to infer that the characterization of Farquhar by Bierce was to inflict sympathy, passion, and pity upon the readers' part. After all, Farquhar seemed like anything but a criminal who deserved to die in a hanging. His attire and features were that of a gentleman. He has a wife, a son, a home, and an occupation. What Bierce successfully portrayed in the story was the ugliness and futility of war which, when considering Bierce's biography, may very well be his own views and perspectives upon war. In one of Bierce's last letters to his niece, Lora, he wrote (source: wikipedia), "Good-bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that's a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs." Would it be too far-fetched then to venture a guess that when creating the character Farquhar, Bierce included a bit of himself in him? Farquhar died in a hanging during the Civil War; Bierce had stated that he would prefer dying amid the crossfire of the revolution rather than an ordinary, plain death. Was this how Bierce imagined his death, with his hair combed straight back and in a frock-coat, dying like a gentleman in the midst of war and conflict? Was Bierce preferred death, so to speak, on his mind when he wrote the story? Personally, I think that there are solid grounds for such an argument to be made.
That alone could be inferred when one considers the role of Farquhar in the story along with the life of Bierce himself. More could be said as to how the story ended, as I have quoted at the beginning of this journal: Bierce chose to have Farquhar "see" his home and his wife before revealing that he was, in fact, dead. One might say that this is to be expected, and that most tragedies, both past and present, usually end with the protagonist mourning or missing those who they love. In fact, the ending reminded me of the movie "Gladiator", in which the final scene was very similar to the story. Both protagonists visualized ending up on the doorsteps of their home seeing their wives before they met their ends. But if I am to venture yet another bold guess, I would say that the ending of this story contains another bit of Bierce in it. From his biography (source: Norton Anthology), "Bierce's personal life was a series of disasters. His definition of marriage (in the Devil's Dictionary)-'the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two'-reflected his views on his own marriage (which ended in divorce in 1891)." At the time when this story was published, Bierce was separated from his wife after discovering compromising letters to her from an admirer (source: wikipedia). By having Farquhar not being able to clasp at his wife even in his imagination during his final moments, could it be said that Bierce was indirectly expressing his view upon love itself? Was this a caricature of his love which was wrought down from the pedestal not long ago? Or maybe by having Farquhar getting the chance to at least see his wife for one last time in his mind before his death, Bierce was too expressing his own hope indirectly upon his love.
The above speculations are only some of my personal thoughts after reading both "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and the biography of Ambrose Bierce, and might appear to some as completely groundless and unnecessary. Precisely as to whether Bierce's failed marriage on his mind at all at the time when he wrote the ending, or whether Bierce was indeed envisioning his own death when writing about the hanging of Farquhar is impossible to determine. One could but only guess.