An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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For the film, see An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (film). For the American Dad! episode, see An Incident at Owl Creek.
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge 1891.jpg
Author Ambrose Bierce
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) short story
Published in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians
Publication date 1890

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" or "A Dead Man's Dream" is a short story by American author Ambrose Bierce. Originally published by The San Francisco Examiner in 1890, it was first collected in Bierce's 1891 book Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. The story, which is set during the Civil War, is famous for its irregular time sequence and twist ending. Bierce's abandonment of strict linear narration in favor of the internal mind of the protagonist is considered an early example of experimentation with stream of consciousness.[1] It is Bierce's most anthologized story.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

Set during the American Civil War, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is the story of Peyton Farquhar, a Confederate sympathizer condemned to death by hanging from Owl Creek Bridge.

In the first part of the story, a gentleman planter in his mid-thirties is standing on an Alabama railroad bridge. Six military men and a company of infantrymen are present. The man is to be hanged from the bridge. As the man is waiting, he thinks of his wife and children. He is then distracted by a tremendously loud noise. He cannot identify the noise, other than that it sounds like the clanging of a blacksmith's hammer on the anvil. The man does not know if it is coming from far away or nearby. He finds himself apprehensively awaiting each strike, which seem to grow further and further apart. It is revealed that this noise is the ticking of his watch. Then, an escape plan flashes through his mind: "throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, take to the woods and get away home." His thoughts stray back to his wife and children. The soldiers drop him down.

The story flashes back in time: Peyton Farquhar lives in the South and is a Confederate supporter. He goes out of his way to perform services in support of the Confederate cause. One day, a gray-clad soldier appears at his house and tells Farquhar that Union soldiers in the area have been repairing the railroads, including the one over Owl Creek Bridge. Interested, Farquhar asks if it is possible to sabotage the bridge, to which the soldier replies that he could burn it down. When the soldier leaves, it is revealed that he is a Union scout who has lured Farquhar into a trap, as anyone caught interfering with the railroads would face execution.

When he is hanged, the rope breaks. Farquhar falls into the water. While underwater, he seems to take little interest in the fact that his hands, which now have a life of their own, are freeing themselves and untying the rope from around his neck. Once he finally reaches the surface, he realizes his senses are superhuman. He can see the individual blades of grass and the colors of bugs on the leaves of trees, despite the fact that he is whirling around in a river. Realizing that the men are shooting at him, he escapes and makes it to dry land. He travels through an uninhabited and seemingly unending forest, attempting to reach his home 30 miles away. During his journey through the day and night, he is fatigued, footsore, and famished, urged on by the thought of his wife and children. He begins experiencing strange physiological events, hearing unusual noises from the wood, and believes he has fallen asleep while walking. He wakes to see his perfectly preserved home, with his beautiful and youthful wife outside. As he runs forward to reach her, he suddenly feels a searing pain in his neck; a white light flashes, and everything goes black.

It is revealed that Farquhar never escaped at all; he imagined the entire third part of the story during the time between falling through the bridge and the noose finally breaking his neck.

Stories with similar structure[edit]

The plot device of a long period of subjective time passing in an instant, such as the imagined experiences of Farquhar while falling, has been explored by several authors.[3] An early literary antecedent appears in Don Juan Manuel's Tales of Count Lucanor, Chapter XII (c 1335), "Of that which happened to a Dean of Santiago, with Don Illan, the Magician, who lived at Toledo", in which a life happens in an instant.[4] This story was rewritten by Jorge Luis Borges in "The Wizard Postponed", in his book A Universal History of Infamy (1935).[5] Charles Dickens' essay "A Visit to Newgate" wherein a man dreams he has escaped his death sentence is another possible source for the story.[6] A similar hallucination of a year of subjective time passing at the moment of death occurs in Borges' short story "The Secret Miracle" (1944). Tobias Wolff's short story "Bullet in the Brain" (1995) reveals the protagonist's past through relating what he remembers—and does not—in the millisecond after he is fatally shot. David Lynch's film Lost Highway has also been compared to "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", although it has also been interpreted as a Möbius strip storyline.[7][8] A particularly strong inspiration for the 1990 film Jacob's Ladder, for both Bruce Joel Rubin and Adrian Lyne, was Robert Enrico's 1962 short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,[9] one of Lyne's favourite movies.[10] "The Shot", an episode of the 1997 anthology series Gun, has a similar concept.

Critic James F. Maxfield suggested that the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo (1958) could be interpreted as a variant on "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", and that the main narrative of the film is actually imagined by the protagonist, who is left dangling from a building at the end of the film's first scene. This theory is supported by the fact that the first draft of the Vertigo script written by co-screenwriter Samuel A. Taylor is entitled "From among the Dead, or There'll Never Be Another You, by Samuel Taylor and Ambrose Bierce".[11]

The end of the film Brazil (1985) would appear to follow this structure as well.


Several adaptations of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" have been produced.

  • The Spy (also released as The Bridge) was a silent movie adaptation of the story, directed in 1929 by Charles Vidor.
  • A TV version of the story starring British actor Ronald Howard was telecast in 1959 during the fifth season of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television anthology series.
  • La rivière du hibou, a French version directed by Robert Enrico and produced by Marcel Ichac and Paul de Roubaix, was released in 1963. Filmed in black and white, it later went on to win the award for best short subject at the 1962 Cannes film festival and 1963 Academy Awards.[12] In 1964 La rivière du hibou aired on American television as an episode of the anthology series The Twilight Zone.
  • Several radio series have adapted the story for broadcast using a script written by William N. Robson, including Escape on December 10, 1947 starring Harry Bartell as Peyton Farquhar; Suspense on December 9, 1956 starring Victor Jory as Farquhar and July 9, 1959 starring Vincent Price as Farquhar; and CBS Radio Mystery Theater on June 4, 1974 starring William Prince.
  • Winifred Phillips narrated and composed original music for an abridged version of the story for the Tales by American Masters radio series, produced by Winnie Waldron on May 29, 2001.
  • Issue #23 of the comics magazine Eerie, published in September 1969 by Warren Publishing, contained an adaptation of the story.
  • Owl Creek Bridge, a BAFTA Cymru-winning short film by director John Giwa-Amu, has been showcased internationally. The story was adapted to follow the last days of Khalid, a young boy who is caught by a gang of racist youths.
  • In 2006, Ambrose Bierce: Civil War Stories was released, which contains adaptations of three of Ambrose Bierce's short stories, among them "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" directed by Brian James Egan. The DVD also contains an extended version of the story with more background and detail than the one included in the trilogy.
  • The Escapist is a 2008 film directed by Rupert Wyatt. In an interview with Trevor Groth, Wyatt said "The structure of the film's plot was inspired by a well known short story written in the 19th century by Ambrose Bierce called 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'." In the final scene, Frank Perry visits Rizza's cell, brings the book, and says he must have read it about a dozen times.
  • A 2013 short film, The Exit Room, starring Christopher Abbott as a journalist in a war torn 2021 America, is based on the story.[13]


  • Adam Young has said that this story was the inspiration for the name of his electronica musical project, Owl City.[14]
  • The second song of Serifs' self-titled album is entitled "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".[citation needed]
  • The fourteenth track on Bressa Creeting Cake's self-titled 1997 album is entitled "Peyton Farquhar".
  • The heavy metal band Deceased retold the tale in the song "The Hanging Soldier" on its 2000 album Supernatural Addiction.
  • The album Stampede from The Doobie Brothers includes a track called "I Cheat the Hangman", authored by Patrick Simmons and released November 12, 1975. It is a somber outlaw ballad that was inspired by the story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". "It's about a ghost returning to his home after the Civil War and not realizing he's dead," said Simmons about the song.
  • In The Simpsons, season 25, episode 6, "The Kid Is All Right", Lisa Simpson's campaign speech is cut short when she notices the shadow of a noose around her neck, explained by Mr. Largo as a prop for the school's production of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".
  • In an interview with Afterbuzz, Teen Wolf writer and creator Jeff Davis said that the final sequence of the Season 3 finale was inspired by "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".[15]
  • The music video for Grouplove's song "Colours" features a plot centered on a man escaping his own hanging. However, it's all in his imagination, as the last scene reveals that he is dead, swinging from a rope.[16]
  • The song Mendokusai on Tellison's 2015 album Hope Fading Nightly features the refrain "We are all broken necked, swinging from the timbers of Owl Creek Bridge."


  1. ^ Khanom, Afruza. "Silence as Literary Device in Ambrose Bierce's 'The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.' Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice. Spring 6.1 (2013): 45–52. Print.
  2. ^ Blume (2004), p. 211
  3. ^ Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge": an annotated critical edition. Robert C. Evans ed. 2003, Locust Hill Press, West Cornwall, CT. ISBN 0-9722289-6-9.
  4. ^ Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena, Tales of Count Lucanor,
  5. ^
  6. ^ Tabachnick, Stephen. "A Possible Source for Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owlcreek Bridge." ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews.26.1 (2013): 45–48. Print.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Bruce Joel Rubin, Jacob's Ladder, Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 1990
  10. ^ Hartl, John (1990-11-01). "Adrian Lyne Met A Metaphysical Challenge". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  11. ^ Barr, Charles (2012). Vertigo. BFI Film Classics (2nd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan. p. 46. ISBN 978-1-84457-498-8. 
  12. ^ "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962)". NY Times. Retrieved 2010-01-09. 
  13. ^ "The Exit Room". Retrieved 2014-05-04. 
  14. ^ "Why I Call Myself Owl City". Owl City Blog. Retrieved 2012-01-22. 
  15. ^
  16. ^


  • Blume, Donald T. (2004). Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press. ISBN 0-87338-790-2.
  • Owens, David M. (1994). "Bierce and Biography: The Location of Owl Creek Bridge". American Literary Realism, 1870–1910 26(3), pp. 82–89.
  • Stoicheff, Peter. (1993). "'Something Uncanny': The Dream Structure in Ambrose Bierce's 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'". Studies In Short Fiction, 30(3), 349–358.
  • Talley, Sharon. (2010). Ambrose Bierce and the Dance of Death. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 978-1-57233-690-2.
  • Yost, David. (2007). "Skins Before Reputations: Subversions of Masculinity in Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane". War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, 19(1/2), 247–260.

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