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| Ambrose Bierce: Reality vs Imagination Essay

We often appreciate works of literature that divert us from grim reality and end on a wistful note. However, there are also works that plunge us deeper into this reality and make us face our innermost fears. In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,”Ambrose Bierce lifts the veil of what a person might think or feel when they are on the verge of dying. The air of death hangs over each page of the narration, compelling the reader to follow the story to the end. The line between reality and illusion is blurred to a disconcerting effect.

The Spirit of Death in Story

The main character of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”is Peyton Farquhar, who is about to face his death on the gallows. Through a little flashback, the reader learns the reason for Farquhar’s imminent death. He is a deserter lured into destroying the bridge. After the flashback, the execution begins. All attention is drawn to the man’s sensation of death, when suddenly the rope snaps and he falls into the river. He swims for freedom, avoids a stream of bullets, wanders through the forest, and eventually makes it to his home. As he is about to embrace his wife, Farquhar is pulled back to reality: “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge”.

The imaginative escape, which is the central part of the story, demonstrates the gap between who the protagonist wants to be and who he really is. In his illusionary world, he displays almost superhuman abilities that match his overwhelming desire to survive. “By the nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famishing. The thought of his wife and children urged him on” (Bierce 5). The reality of the situation, however, strikes with the unmasked dread, and the reader does not expect such an abrupt ending. Farquhar cannot fulfill his desires in the real world and succumbs to his own delusions. As Loren Baybrook underscores,

Farquhar’s enthrallment with the driftwood, fantastically distorting his perception of time and space, pre-empts any final reconnection to his life in a real world. This is Bierce’s most concentrated realism, unmasking the vainglory and personal arrogance of a Romantic culture.

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Peyton Farquhar is depicted as a man with romanticized ideas about war and an overwhelming desire to live. As he struggles to survive the ordeal, the reader is thankful that life has given the man a second chance, sensing a happy ending. One might think that this story is an ode to human’s strength, willpower, and determination to overcome difficulties. In fact, the whole course of the narration lulls the reader into the belief that the story celebrates heroism reinforced by good luck. When Farquhar reaches home and hurries to embrace his beloved wife, it is the right time to breathe out and admire the protagonist. However, the last two sentences of the story emphasize a man’s inability to escape the inevitable. A sharp contrast between expectation and reality leaves an indelible impression on the reader. Even though our mind refuses to accept the reality, we still have to face it.

The plot of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is hard to follow not because it consists of three parts, but because some events take place in reality, while others happen in Farquhar’s mind. Ambrose Bierce manipulates his audience, for he knows how to hold the reader’s attention till the end. Farquhar gets distracted by his own thoughts, and this allows the plot to move in haphazard directions, so that it becomes impossible to predict where it is going. Bierce is good at hiding clues of reality in plain sites, reflecting the reality of life. He uses Farquhar as a means of coping with restricted realities. What he specifically indicates is that we have the ability to create our own realities when we cannot find answers in the existing ones. The distant and impartial narrator describes the scenes in meticulous and sometimes excessive detail. This helps to create a sense of distance for the reader. By the end of the story when Farquhar’s death is not in question, the shock is even greater, because the narrator presents himself as a highly credible storyteller, indulging in accurate descriptions. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” blends realism with surrealism, forcing the reader to call into question the reliability of the narrator and, in a broader sense, test our expectations of fiction. If we expect the truth, we can enjoy meticulous descriptions of the place, but if we do not expect the truth from fiction, then the short story makes us believe that literary conventions of realism are easily breakable.

The Perception of Reality and Illusion in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

Ambrose Bierce writes “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” at the turn of the nineteenth century, when realism was becoming a popular writing style. Bierce relies on his experience as a Civil War soldier in order to create a realistic military atmosphere and debunk romanticized portrayals of violence of war. His attention to detail serves the purpose of launching the readers into the story. The writer captures the horrors of violence and death, bringing up the controversial issues for public discussion instead of shying away from them. Bierce seems to emphasize that the deceptiveness of the fantasy world is similar to the deceptiveness of reality. Moreover, he indicates that time is subjective and relevant to the observer, especially in moments of anguish and physical pain. After reading “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,”one cannot but realize how truly sacred life is. It takes seconds to understand this, but these seconds cannot give justice to life itself. Although Bierce’s message may seem a little trivialized, it will never lose its refreshing power.

The success of Bierce’s short story is accounted for its believability. The writer carefully lays out details, making his story powerful and thrilling. The overriding emphasis in the story is placed on the perception of reality and illusion. Bierce explores vexing issues of violence and death, relating them to human cognition and perception. He is among the first American writers to introduce psychology into his narrative, stretching the boundaries of the short story genre. Finally, Ambrose Bierce wants to emphasize that there is a thin line separating imagination from reality, and you can never be sure in which world you live now.

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