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The Concept of Illusion Versus Reality in Ambrose Bierce’s an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce gives an interesting, yet disturbing theme of illusion versus reality. This theme intrigues me more than the other short stories that I have read. The story has a simple plot of a man during the American Civil War about to be executed, but the shock end is what makes the work truly shine, not to mention deeper meanings behind the text. The work also contains detailed descriptions of the setting and various scenes that occur throughout the story.

Ambrose Bierce starts the story off by having the protagonist stand on a bridge with a noose around his neck. This hook at the beginning is sure to grab a reader’s attention. Surrounding the protagonist are the Union soldiers that are preparing his execution. Bierce describes just about everything that is going on at the bridge. He writes about each Union soldier and what they are doing during this intense moment. Bierce also tells of what is around the men, such as the railroad, an outpost, and a bunch of vertical trees. Details make a story much more vivid.

The protagonist is minutes away from death. He starts to hear sharp noises that get progressively longer and louder. The protagonist finds out that the noises are the ticks of his watch. I believe this is an important event in the story because the protagonist is at his final moments. The ticks get slower, which shows that time is slowing. It is a frightening moment for him, and it is almost as if he is desperate to avoid death by trying to make time slowdown in his thoughts. This is the first instance of illusion versus reality.

The story then cuts to a time before the execution. A man by the name of Peyton Farquhar is introduced in the work. He is a planter, a politician, and a patriot to the Southern cause. Peyton and his wife encounter a soldier in a confederate uniform. The soldier tells Peyton about an opportunity to burn the Owl Creek Bridge to hinder the Union advance. Peyton is eager to carry the plan into motion, but what he did not know is that the confederate soldier is actually a Union scout. Now it is known that Peyton is the protagonist.

The plot goes back to the bridge. The sergeant steps off the plank, and Peyton falls. Miraculously, the rope breaks, and Peyton crashes into the river. He is now swimming away from the Union soldiers that are firing at him. This is when Bierce goes into more detail. Peyton can see the veins of leaves and the insects that are on them. He can hear the flaps of wings and the spiders in the water. Peyton could even see the gray eye of the sniper on the bridge. His senses are strong to the point that they are unreal.

After evading more gunfire, Peyton lands on the gravel at the foot of the stream. He is happy to see the sand, as if he saw jewels. The trees were like garden plants with a blooming fragrance. Peyton escapes death, and starts to value life far more than he did before. However, the Union is still on his trail. Peyton’s journey is not over yet.

After traveling a good distance, Peyton is fatigued. He finally arrives home, where his wife is waiting for him. Filled with joy, Peyton runs to his wife with his arms out. Right before he can clasp her, he feels an agonizing pain in his neck. Peyton is executed at the Owl Creek Bridge. Everything that happened after the Peyton fell of the bridge was in his imagination. A second, more powerful instance of illusion versus reality.

Illusion plays a major role in this story. Peyton was desperate to survive, and the best thing he could do was imagine his escape. As much as he could dream, reality still ended his life. Illusion and reality are the same way in real life. People try to escape reality for as long as they can until they must act. Therefore, I believe this story is the best out of the others that I have read. A twisted theme that can be relatable has a major impact on just about everyone. Ambrose Bierce did a fantastic job implementing this concept of illusion and reality into his work.

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The Concept of Illusion Versus Reality in Ambrose Bierce’s an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. (2020, September 01). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from
“The Concept of Illusion Versus Reality in Ambrose Bierce’s an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” GradesFixer, 01 Sept. 2020,
The Concept of Illusion Versus Reality in Ambrose Bierce’s an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 Mar. 2023].
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