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In the middle of the Civil War in Alabama, Peyton Farquhar, a wealthy farmer, awaits death upon Owl Creek Bridge. With a noose around his neck, Union soldiers watch as the gentleman collects his thoughts in his last moments before he is hanged for accidentally revealing his allegiance to the Confederacy to a Union spy. While reading this short story for the first time, the reader is led to believe that Peyton miraculously escapes and takes pleasure in reading about his long, exhausting journey home to his lovely wife and children. Only in the very last sentences is it revealed that his whole escape was a dream, taking place in the milliseconds between when he is forced off the bridge to when the noose fatally tightens around his neck. This vivid passage quoted below from Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” can be found towards the very beginning of the short story. In this paragraph, Peyton becomes aggravated and anxious due to an unknown, irritating sound. This passage contributes to the whole of the piece more than any other paragraph for it establishes mood and tone, character development, and adds to the overall theme of the work.
This paragraph successfully aides in developing the tone and mood of the whole short story through descriptive imagery and setting. Yet they have severe differences. For instance, “The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mist under the banks at some distance down the stream,” (1-2) paints a vivid picture in the readers mind. This is an excellent example of the tone of the story. The “gold” (2) water alludes to a bright morning sky while the “early sun” (2) and “brooding mist” (2) produce a sleepy, peaceful tone. Yet this beautiful scene of a calm creek is quickly and harshly contrasted with Peyton’s feeling of anxiety and “apprehension” (9). He hears a “maddening” (10) sound that “hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife” (11-12). This illustrative description of the “sharp, distant, metallic” (5) sound creates an uneasy mood for the reader. One begins to feel as uncomfortable reading this section of the text as though they were on the bridge over Owl Creek itself. These sentences not only demonstrate a distinct contrast in, but set up the mood and tone for the rest of the short story.
The tone of this short piece of literature notably contrasts the protagonist’s inner thoughts. While the mood gives readers greater insight to how Peyton is feeling by making them feel the same way, it is the contrast from calm, collected tone that really brings attention to what he is thinking. By writing in such a relaxed tone but then so powerfully depicting the agonizing sound of the Peyton’s watch, the author develops a deep, complex character in just a matter of sentences. In his physical appearance, the protagonist appears to be collected and even calm in the face of death. He is even described as a gentleman earlier in the story. This parallels the tone of the story. Yet as Bierce describes the sound of his ticking watch, that which sounds, “like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil” (6), the reader comes to realize that Peyton is not only terrified of death, but driven to insanity by the anxiety of waiting for it. The reader realizes that Peyton is just as human and frightened of mortality as the rest of us. This description of the protagonist’s character goes much deeper than just his physical appearance, per say, and into his psyche. This is a great moment of character development of Peyton Farquhar.
This passage perfectly embodies the theme of the story. That theme being a human’s natural tendency to reject the idea of her or his own mortality. In this passage, the protagonist desperately tries to ignore his situation by closing, “his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children,” (1). Though he is moments away from being hanged to death, Peyton still refuses to face the reality of his inevitable situation. He prefers to ignore what is happening to him and naively think about his wife and children, oh whom he will never see again. He even claims that, “the fort, the soldiers, the piece of driftwood–all had distracted him,” (3). This meaning that all these very real and present objects had distracted him from his day dreaming and refusal to recognize the morbid certainty of his situation. In this paragraph, Bierce expertly parallels Peyton’s actions to the theme of the book and to humanity as a whole.
In this critical paragraph of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” the tone and mood are set, the protagonist becomes a multi-dimensional character, and the theme is expertly portrayed. As one reads about Peyton Farquhar’s story, one can not help but feel sympathy for this poor man, regardless of political views. After all, he is only a human being, just as fearful of his own death as we are of ours. This is a pivotal passage and if it were removed, the meaning of the whole story would be lost.
Parenthetical numbering refers to the following paragraph:
1 He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water,
2 touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance
3 down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of driftwood–all had distracted him. And
4 now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear
5 ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic
6 percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same
7 ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by–
8 it seemed both. Its reoccurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell.
9 He awaited each stroke with impatience and–he knew not why–apprehension. The
10 intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With
11 greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like
12 the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his
13 watch. (Bierce 289)
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