An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
by Ambrose Bierce
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge 1891.jpg
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)Short story
First publisherThe San Francisco Examiner, July 13, 1890
Also published inTales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891)
OnlineAvailable at the Internet Archive

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) is a short story by the American writer and Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce.[1] Described as "one of the most famous and frequently anthologized stories in American literature",[2] it was originally published by The San Francisco Examiner on July 13, 1890, and was first collected in Bierce's book Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891). The story, which is set during the American Civil War, is known 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 an early example of the stream of consciousness narrative mode.[3]


Peyton Farquhar, a civilian who is also a wealthy planter and slave owner, is being prepared for execution by hanging from an Alabama railroad bridge during the American Civil War. Six military men and a company of infantrymen are present, guarding the bridge and carrying out the sentence. Farquhar thinks of his wife and children and is then distracted by a noise that, to him, sounds like an unbearably loud clanging; it is actually the ticking of his watch. He considers the possibility of jumping off the bridge and swimming to safety if he can free his tied hands, but the soldiers drop him from the bridge before he can act on the idea.

In a flashback, Farquhar and his wife are relaxing at home one evening when a soldier dressed in Confederate gray rides up to the gate. Farquhar, a supporter of the Confederacy, learns from him that Union troops have seized the Owl Creek railroad bridge and repaired it. The soldier suggests that Farquhar might be able to burn the bridge down if he can slip past its guards. He then leaves, but doubles back after nightfall to return north the way he came. The soldier is actually a disguised Union scout who has lured Farquhar into a trap as any civilian caught interfering with the railroads will be hanged.

The story returns to the present, and the rope around Farquhar's neck breaks when he falls from the bridge into the creek. He frees his hands, pulls the noose away, and rises to the surface to begin his escape. His senses now greatly sharpened, he dives and swims downstream to avoid rifle and cannon fire. Once he is out of range, he leaves the creek to begin the journey to his home, 30 miles (48 km) away. Farquhar walks all day long through a seemingly endless forest, and that night he begins to hallucinate, seeing strange constellations and hearing whispered voices in an unknown language. He travels on, urged by the thought of his wife and children despite the pains caused by his ordeal. The next morning, after having apparently fallen asleep while walking, he finds himself at the gate to his plantation. He rushes to embrace his wife, but before he can do so, he feels a heavy blow upon the back of his neck; there is a loud noise and a flash of white, and "then all is darkness and silence". 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 breaking his neck.


This short story suggests that there is no romance or glory in war. The word "occurrence" in the title of the story demonstrates how common the loss of life is within war, lessening the perceived value of those human lives. Farquhar's fantasy demonstrates the danger of having illusions about war, because war is not a love story that ends with running to one's wife's arms; it has ruthless and pitiless punishment.

Another theme present is that of "dying with dignity". The story shows the reader that the perception of "dignity" provides no mitigation for the deaths that occur in warfare. The final idea is the idea of psychological escape right before death. Farquhar experiences an intense delusion to distract him from his inevitable death. The moment of horror that the readers experience at the end of the piece, when they realize that he dies, reflects the distortion of reality that Farquhar encounters.[4]

Since it is not only the narrator who tells a story but also the reader themselves, another aspect is of considerable importance here. As he himself once put it, Bierce detested "... bad readers—readers who, lacking the habit of analysis, lack also the faculty of discrimination, and take whatever is put before them, with the broad, blind catholicity of a slop-fed conscience of a parlor pig".[5] Farquhar was duped by a Federal scout—and cursory readers on their part are successfully duped by the author who makes them think they are witnessing Farquhar's lucky escape from the gallows. Instead, they only witness the hallucination of such an escape taking place in the character's unconscious mind which is governed by the instinct of self-preservation. In retrospect we see that the title—if taken literally—from the outset provides the readers with the information that there will not be any change of scenery at all because simply an occurrence at that bridge is announced.

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.[6] An early literary antecedent appears in the Tang dynasty tale, The Governor of Nanke, by Li Gongzuo. Another medieval antecedent is 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.[7][8] Charles Dickens's essay "A Visit to Newgate" wherein a man dreams he has escaped his death sentence has been speculated as a possible source for the story.[9]

Bierce's story highlighted the idea of subjective time passing at the moment of death and popularized the fictional device of false narrative continuation, which has been in wide circulation ever since then. Notable examples of this technique from the early-to-mid 20th century include H. G. Wells's "The Door in the Wall" (1906) and "The Beautiful Suit" (1909), Vladimir Nabokov's "Details of a Sunset" (1924) and "The Aurelian" (1930), Jorge Luis Borges's "The Secret Miracle" (1944) and "The South" (1949), William Golding's Pincher Martin (1956), Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) as well as Julio Cortázar's "The Island at Midday", and Leo Perutz's "From Nine to Nine". Alexander Lernet-Holenia's novella Der Baron Bagge (1936) shares many similarities with Bierce's story, including the setting in the midst of a war and the bridge as a symbol for the moment of passage from life to death.

Among more recent works, David Lynch's later films have been compared to "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", although they also have been interpreted as Möbius strip storylines.[10][11] 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,[12] one of Lyne's favourite movies.[13] 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. John Shirley's 1999 short story "Occurrence at Owl Street Ridge" about a depressed housewife is modeled after Bierce's story and Bierce plays a minor role in it.

In the 2005 film Stay (with Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and Ryan Gosling; directed by Marc Forster; written by David Benioff) the entire story takes place in a character’s mind after a tragic accident. The film Identity (2003) is also largely within a character’s mind, as is the 2014 video game The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

Most recently, an episode of the British TV series Black Mirror followed a similar plot. In the episode "Playtest", Cooper tests a revolutionary video game that causes him to confuse the game with reality. Similar to Bierce's protagonist, it is revealed at the end that the entire sequence of events has taken place in the short span of his death.


Author Kurt Vonnegut wrote in 2005: "I consider anybody a twerp who hasn't read the greatest American short story, which is '[An] Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,' by Ambrose Bierce. It isn't remotely political. It is a flawless example of American genius, like 'Sophisticated Lady' by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove."[14]


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

Movies, television, and videos[edit]

  • The Spy (also released as The Bridge) is 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 broadcast in 1959 during the fifth season of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television anthology series.
  • La rivière du hibou ("The Owl River", known in English as An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge), a French version directed by Robert Enrico and produced by Marcel Ichac and Paul de Roubaix, was released in 1963. Enrico's film won Best Short Subject at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, and the 1963 Academy Award for Live Action Short Film.[15][16][17] In 1964 La rivière du hibou aired on American television as an episode of the anthology series The Twilight Zone.
  • In 2006, the DVD 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.
  • Owl Creek Bridge, a 2008 short film by director John Giwa-Amu, won the BAFTA Cymru Award for best short. The story was adapted to follow the last days of Khalid, a young boy who is caught by a gang of racist youths.
  • "An Incident at Owl Creek" was a 2010 episode of the TV series American Dad!
  • The 2010 Babybird music video "Unloveable", directed by Johnny Depp, retells the Owl Creek Bridge story.
  • The 2011 Grouplove music video "Colours" also retells the Owl Creek Bridge story.
  • A 2013 short film, The Exit Room, starring Christopher Abbott as a journalist in a war-torn 2021 United States, is based on the story.[18]
  • In the Jon Bon Jovi music video for the 1990 song "Dyin' Ain't Much Of A Livin'," the Owl Creek Bridge story is used as the theme.



  • Issue #23 of the comics magazine Eerie, published in September 1969 by Warren Publishing, contained an adaptation of the story.
  • Scottish composer Thea Musgrave composed a one-act opera, An Occurrence at Owl Street Bridge, which was broadcast by the BBC in 1981. It was performed by baritone Jake Gardner and the London Sinfonietta conducted by the composer, with spoken roles taken by Ed Bishop, Gayle Hunnicutt and David Healy. This broadcast was released by NMC Records on CD (NMCD 167) in 2011.
  • An Occurrence Remembered, a theatrical retelling of Bierce's An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge and Chickamauga, premiered in the fall of 2001 in New York City under the direction of Lorin Morgan-Richards and lead choreographer Nicole Cavaliere.[24]


The story's irregular time sequence and "blink-of-an-eye" twist ending has inspired numerous works, including:

  • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, season 4 episode 19, "Hard Time" (1996), Chief O'Brien spends twenty years in an alien prison after which he is brought back to reality only to realize there was no prison and no time had passed.
  • In Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 5 episode 25, "The Inner Light" (1992), Jean Luc Picard is hit with an energy beam from an unknown object floating in space and knocked unconscious. He awakens in a different world and lives for decades as part of another society as their planet goes through drought and heat. Before he awakens, he is told that their sun eventually went supernova killing everyone and he has been living this dream so that he can spread the word of their civilization to others. Picard then awakens on board the Enterprise and only 25 minutes have passed.
  • In The Outer Limits, season 2 episode 22, "The Sentence" (1996), Dr. Jack Henson, played by David Hyde-Pierce, invents a virtual machine with which prisoners with life sentences can experience the whole sentence in the mind after which they are brought back to reality with only hours having passed. When Dr. Henson accidentally causes the death of one such prisoner in the process, he himself is sentenced to prison for manslaughter. After serving his time, he comes back to reality only to learn he never went to prison and no time had passed. The accident in question was really getting hooked up to his own machine.
  • The plot of the radio play "Present Tense", written by James Poe, starring Vincent Price and broadcast on Escape on January 31, 1950, has similarities to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The same script was used (with Price again starring) on Suspense on March 3, 1957.[25]
  • The 1985 film Brazil has a similar final act.[26]
  • 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.
  • Adam Young has said that this story was the inspiration for the name of his 2007 electronica musical project, Owl City.[27]
  • 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.
  • In The Simpsons, season 25, episode 6, "The Kid Is All Right" (2013), 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 The Sopranos, Season 5, episode, "Long Term Parking" (200_), Adriana La Cerva has vivid reverie of a drive to freedom and safety before her demise is shown. It is a twist from a desirable outcome of escape to a sad and sudden realization of her fate, much like in the story.
  • In the Boardwalk Empire episode "Farewell Daddy Blues" (2013), Richard Harrow hallucinates a long journey home to his family before his death is revealed.[28]
  • In an interview with Afterbuzz, Teen Wolf writer and creator Jeff Davis said that the final sequence of the Season 3 finale (2014) was inspired by "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".
  • 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."
  • In Scrubs, the episode "My Occurrence" has a similar plot structure, where the main character J.D. believes that a clerical mistake was made with his patient Ben. J.D. spends the entire episode trying to get it rectified, only to realize at the end that this was all a fantasy to avoid the reality that Ben had been diagnosed with leukemia. The episode's title is also a reference to the story.
  • The film Ghosts of War (2020 film) is about a group of soldiers who find themselves in a time loop. In one scene, one of the main characters briefly tells his fellow soldiers about "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", implying that they may be going through a similar situation. It is later revealed that they are in fact part of an experiment and the entire situation is taking place in their minds.
  • The broken hangman's knot and lost traveler trope figure into the plot for the movie From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter in which Ambrose Bierce is a character.
  • The Doobie Brothers song "I Cheat The Hangman" was inspired by the story according its composer, Patrick Simmons.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bierce, Ambrose (2012). "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories. Courier Corporation. p. 7ff.
  2. ^ "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge: Ambrose Bierce". in Joseph Palmisano, ed. Short Story Criticism, volume 72. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2004, p. 2.
  3. ^ Khanom, Afruza (Spring 2013). "Silence as Literary Device in Ambrose Bierce's 'The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.' Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice. 6.1: 45–52.
  4. ^ "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Themes". eNotes. Retrieved 2016-11-01.
  5. ^ Prattle, The San Francisco Argonaut, 22 June 1878, as quoted in F.J. Logan The Wry Seriousness of Owl Creek Bridge in: American Literary Realism, 10, No. 2 (Spring 1977), pp. 101–13.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena, Tales of Count Lucanor,
  8. ^ This story was rewritten by Jorge Luis Borges in "The Wizard Postponed", in his book A Universal History of Infamy (1935).
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ "Thain". Retrieved 13 February 2017.
  11. ^ "Metaphilm ::: Reading Inland Empire". Retrieved 13 February 2017.
  12. ^ Bruce Joel Rubin, Jacob's Ladder, Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 1990
  13. ^ Hartl, John (1990-11-01). "Adrian Lyne Met A Metaphysical Challenge". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2010-02-06.
  14. ^ Vonnegut, Kurt (2005). "Do You Know What a Twerp Is?", A Man Without a Country, New York: Seven Stories Press, pp. 7–8.
  15. ^ "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962)". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2008. Archived from the original on 2008-10-23. Retrieved 2010-01-09.
  16. ^ "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2008. Archived from the original on 23 October 2008.
  17. ^ Pulleine, Tim (28 February 2001). "Robert Enrico". The Guardian.
  18. ^ "The Exit Room". Retrieved 2014-05-04.
  19. ^ Buxton, Frank and Owen, Bill. The Big Broadcast: 1920-1950, New York, Avon Books, 1973, p. 56.
  20. ^ ""An Occurrance [sic] at Owl Creek Bridge"". Escape and Suspense. 2008-04-06. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  21. ^ ""An Occurrance [sic] at Owl Creek Bridge"". Escape and Suspense. 2008-04-06. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  22. ^ "Richard J. Hand, "Reanimating Peyton Farquhar"". Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2016-03-10.
  23. ^ "Twilight Zone Radio Dramas - an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". Archived from the original on 2016-03-12. Retrieved 2016-03-10.
  24. ^ Civil War Times Illustrated, December 2001
  25. ^ "Escape and Suspense!: Escape - Present Tense". Retrieved 13 February 2017.
  26. ^ "When the Dead Dream: Films Inspired by 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' - Cineleet". Archived from the original on 2017-02-07. Retrieved 13 February 2017.
  27. ^ "Why I Call Myself Owl City". Adam Young Blog. Archived from the original on 2015-12-22. Retrieved 2015-12-16.
  28. ^ Sietz, Matt Zoller (2013-11-26). "Seitz on Boardwalk Empire: Season Four's Greatness Blues". Vulture. Retrieved 2020-07-20. He gets what is, if I'm not mistaken, the season's only extended fantasy sequence, an "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"–style deathbed hallucination under the boardwalk where he first made love with the woman who was (so briefly) his wife.

Further reading[edit]

  • Barrett, Gerald R. (1973). From Fiction to Film: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Encino, CA: Dickenson Publishing. ISBN 978-0-822100-83-6.
  • 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.
  • Evans, Robert C. (2003). Ambrose Bierce's Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge: An Annotated Critical Edition. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press. ISBN 978-0-972228-96-1.
  • Owens, David M. (1994). "Bierce and Biography: The Location of Owl Creek Bridge". American Literary Realism, 1870–1910 26(3), pp. 82–89. (Online edition hosted by the Ambrose Bierce Project)
  • 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.

External links[edit]