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

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 725 |

Pages: 2|

4 min read

Published: Sep 1, 2020

Words: 725|Pages: 2|4 min read

Published: Sep 1, 2020


Table of contents

  1. Illusion and Reality at the Bridge
  2. Illusion and Reality in Peyton's Past
  3. Escape and Sensory Overload
  4. The Ultimate Illusion
  5. Conclusion

Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" masterfully explores the theme of illusion versus reality in a gripping narrative set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. This theme is both intriguing and disturbing, making the story stand out among the many short stories I have read. Beyond its simple plot of a man facing execution, the story's shocking conclusion and deeper meanings hidden within the text captivate the reader. Bierce's skillful use of detailed descriptions immerses the reader in the setting and various scenes throughout the story. In this essay, we will delve into the nuances of illusion and reality in the narrative while exploring how these elements shape the protagonist's journey.

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Illusion and Reality at the Bridge

Ambrose Bierce immediately captivates the reader by beginning the story with the protagonist, later revealed to be Peyton Farquhar, standing on a bridge with a noose around his neck. This gripping opening effectively hooks the reader's attention. Surrounding Peyton are Union soldiers, diligently preparing for his execution. Bierce's meticulous descriptions provide a vivid portrayal of the tense moment, detailing each soldier's actions and the environment surrounding them, including the railroad, an outpost, and towering trees. These rich details enhance the reader's engagement with the story.

As Peyton awaits his impending death, he begins to hear sharp noises that gradually intensify. These sounds turn out to be the ticks of his watch, a crucial event in the story. As time slows, Peyton experiences a growing sense of desperation, attempting to delay death by making time appear to slow down in his mind. This moment exemplifies the theme of illusion versus reality, as Peyton grapples with the perception of time, seeking an escape from his grim fate.

Illusion and Reality in Peyton's Past

The narrative then shifts to a time before Peyton's execution, introducing us to Peyton Farquhar, a planter, politician, and staunch Southern patriot. Peyton and his wife encounter a soldier in a Confederate uniform who presents Peyton with an opportunity to sabotage the Owl Creek Bridge to hinder the Union advance. Eager to contribute to the Confederate cause, Peyton is unaware that the Confederate soldier is, in fact, a Union scout. This revelation connects Peyton's earlier life to his impending execution, reinforcing the theme of illusion versus reality.

Escape and Sensory Overload

Returning to the bridge, the story continues with the sergeant stepping off the plank and Peyton plummeting into the river. Miraculously, the rope breaks, and Peyton escapes, leading to a vivid portrayal of his sensory experiences. Bierce's vivid descriptions enable readers to see the veins on leaves, observe insects on them, hear the flapping of wings, and even discern the gray eye of a sniper on the bridge. Peyton's heightened senses create an unreal, dreamlike quality to his escape, blurring the lines between illusion and reality.

Peyton's newfound appreciation for life becomes evident as he reaches the riverbank, where he rejoices at the sight of sand, as if it were a treasure. The surrounding trees are described as fragrant garden plants, further emphasizing his changed perspective. Peyton's escape from death and the subsequent transformation of his perception of life highlight the powerful impact of the illusion versus reality theme.

The Ultimate Illusion

Despite eluding gunfire and embarking on a seemingly successful journey, Peyton eventually succumbs to exhaustion and arrives home. His wife eagerly awaits his return, and Peyton runs towards her with open arms. However, just before they can embrace, an agonizing pain pierces his neck, revealing that Peyton's execution at Owl Creek Bridge was not averted. Everything that occurred after his fall from the bridge existed solely within his imagination, constituting a second, even more potent instance of illusion versus reality.

Peyton's desperate desire to survive drove him to construct a vivid illusion of his escape. However, in the end, reality intervened and claimed his life. This interplay between illusion and reality mirrors the way individuals often attempt to evade harsh truths until they can no longer do so. Bierce's narrative underscores the relatable nature of this theme, making it resonate with readers.

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"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce skillfully explores the theme of illusion versus reality through the harrowing journey of its protagonist, Peyton Farquhar. By examining the story's gripping opening, Peyton's past, his sensory experiences during escape, and the ultimate illusion, we gain a deeper understanding of how Bierce crafts this theme. The narrative's portrayal of illusion and reality parallels the ways in which individuals often confront and escape harsh truths. Ambrose Bierce's adept implementation of this concept enriches the story, making it a powerful exploration of the human condition. In conclusion, this story's twisted theme and its relevance to human experiences make it a standout piece of literature, leaving a lasting impact on its readers.


  1. Bierce, A. (1891). An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The San Francisco Examiner.
  2. Freedman, W. (2008). The Historical and Cultural Context of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. In The Age of Civil War and Reconstruction (pp. 245-260). W.W. Norton & Company.
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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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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 February 27, 2024, 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 27 Feb. 2024].
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