The lessons to be learned from Peyton Farquhar - "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and its (anti)hero

Seminar Paper, 2004

22 Pages, Grade: 1.0 (A)



1. Introduction – A gentleman with kind eyes

2.1. The things Peyton Farquhar did (or intended to do…)
2.2 The man Peyton Farquhar was (or pretended to be…)
2.3. Peyton Farquhar’s world view (and the one of Ambrose Bierce…)

3. Conclusion – Neither a gentleman, nor a hoax 18

Works Cited

The lessons to be learned

from Peyton Farquhar - An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and its (anti)hero

“Nothing better exists, that story contains everything.”[1]

“Corrupt civilians aroused Bierce’s contempt,

bloody-minded civilians his rage”[2]

1. Introduction – A gentleman with kind eyes

His features were good—a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well-fitting frock coat. He wore a mustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provisions for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.[3]

This is how Ambrose Bierce characterizes Peyton Farquhar, the Protagonist of his most well-known and celebrated short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Here the reader is given various information about what kind of man is about to be hanged: he is handsome and has a kind air about him, he appears to be rather affluent, considering his “well-fitting frock coat,” and he is no “vulgar assassin.” Quite contrary, the sarcastic last sentence even hints that he is a gentleman. Among other things, this characterization is what lets Stuart C. Woodruff come to the conclusion that “it is the tragic waste of such a man which engages our sympathies.”[4] According to Woodruff, the assessment of Farquhar as a hero, deserving of the reader’s sympathy, is vital to how and why the story works. Because its main character seems admirable, Woodruff calls Owl Creek Bridge a “seemingly real tale of daring escape. Moreover, it is the kind of tale we would like to believe because Farquhar himself is such an attractive figure: brave, sensitive, highly intelligent.”[5] Woodruff goes on calling him “the typical Bierce hero”[6] and in the end draws a familiar conclusion: Farquhar is Bierce and Bierce is Farquhar. According to Woodruff, Bierce, like the protagonist, longed “for the release of his energies, the larger life of a soldier, the opportunity for distinction.” He became, like Farquhar, “a civilian who was at heart a soldier.”[7] This interpretation of Owl Creek is a common one, but nevertheless absolutely and completely wrong. Woodruff is mistaken when he assumes proximity between the story’s author and main character. This misinterpretation can first and foremost be proven by Bierce’s biography. For instance, Peyton Farquhar is a slave owner, as we learn in the story, but Bierce himself opposed slavery. Already at the age of fifteen he worked as a printer’s devil at the abolitionist paper The Northern Indianan.[8] Most of all, in contrast to Farquhar, Bierce not only longed to be, but actually happened to be a soldier in the Civil War for four years.

But also the story itself provides the alert reader with many hints pointing in a different direction: Farquhar does not bear any resemblance to Bierce and is not a hero at all. Only on the surface, judging from his good looks, is he a noble man. The negative character traits of the protagonist are not as easily recognized and to become aware of them requires a deeper reading. Bierce’s style of prose is exceptionally exact and functional, there are hardly any futile words and the terminology he uses is precisely chosen. His personal attitude towards writing entailed a stern view on the discipline and abilities of his readership as well. He despised “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 or a parlor pig.”[9] It is therefore extremely important to read Owl Creek Bridge closely and with an alert mind, in order to fully understand and appreciate Bierce's probably finest short story. That provided, it becomes obvious that the author has no sympathy whatsoever for Peyton Farquhar. The protagonist is not a hero, but a villain and a coward.

This paper deals with this aforementioned misconception, since it is a common one. David M. Owens shares a similar view to Woodruff. In his insightful study of the geographic background of the story's setting he calls Farquhar a "romantic, idealistic man."[10] Romantic maybe, idealistic surely not. F. J. Logan states that “Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge has a history of both popularity and critical inattention. The result is misreading.”[11] The story unquestionably deserves better than this. Furthermore, Woodruff is known to be one of the foremost and most sensible Bierce scholars, "one of the story's closest analysts"[12], and thus his words are not to be easily put aside. But in the case of Owl Creek Bridge, particularly in judging Peyton Farquhar as a hero, he nevertheless is on the wrong track .

Woodruff is correct in a different aspect though—part of why the story works and is such a compelling one, is because probably almost every reader at first sympathizes with Farquhar, the gentleman with the kind eyes. Still, to judge Peyton Farquhar as a brave and daring character, who has been betrayed and cheated on, is to make the same naïve mistake as believing that the rope actually broke and Farquhar was able to escape to his home and wife, against all odds and reason. Viewing the story and its protagonist from a different angle adds new aspects to it and gives the reader insight into its deeper meaning and answers the question of why Farquhar had to suffer the cruel fate of being hanged. Therefore, a close reading and analysis of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is necessary to correctly interpret and fully appreciate it

2.1. The things Peyton Farquhar did (or intended to do…)

Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.”[13] [my italics]

In order to judge the main character of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge in a fair manner, it is worthwhile considering in detail what he presumably is being hanged for, as the reader cannot know for sure. Farquhar’s enterprise obviously failed, but what he planned to do is stated quite specifically in his conversation with the disguised Union soldier. First of all, he intended to burn the bridge to cut off the Yankee supply line, but what is more—and easily overlooked or not even realized at all, as Bierce uses a euphemism here—he almost certainly had in mind to assassinate the sentinel. After Farquhar is informed by the Federal scout about how many Union soldiers are positioned on his side of the river and told that there is only a single man at this end of the bridge, he asks, smiling: "Suppose a man—a civilian and student of hanging—should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel … what could he accomplish?" (38) Clearly, to “get the better of the sentinel” implies that Farquhar wants to kill the man, if given the possibility. It is important to keep in mind here that he is a civilian, which means that he is not going to encounter the soldier in combat in a fair or honorable way, but treacherously, being dressed as a civilian and taking action as a soldier. Therefore, Bierce tells the reader, even if the protagonist is tricked, this does not mean that he is treated unfairly, since he under no circumstances acted like an upright and honest man is supposed to. He planned to deceive his opponents just as they did the other way around, only that apparently they were smarter than he was.

It could even be claimed that the disguised Union soldier actually is more honest than Farquhar, since he tells him right in the beginning of their conversation that “…any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels or trains will be summarily hanged” (37). Farquhar knows what awaits him in case of capture. With the knowledge of a second reading of the story, it is also quite obvious that the Union scout attempts to lure the planter into burning the bridge, since he tells him that "it [driftwood against the bridge] is now dry and would burn like tow" (38). Woodruff's argumentation that "Farquhar is made still more sympathetic by the fact that he was deliberately deceived into trying to destroy the Owl Creek Bridge, for which he is executed by the Union soldiers"[14] therefore only holds true if the reader ignores the circumstances of the affair. Farquhar indeed was deceived but had his part in what happened. Although he himself is an agent, he does not take into consideration that other spies might exist, although he believes that “all is fair in love and war” (38). Without his arrogant belief of being smarter than the Union soldiers he could have done without the gallows.

One thing Farquhar did not do was to enlist in the army, as Bierce voluntarily did at the age of nineteen. It is quite illuminating to look for the explanation, or rather non-explanation, why Farquhar did not take active part in the fighting as a soldier. The information given is few and also rather convoluted. Bierce writes that “circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service...” (37). He does not provide the reader with details here, which somehow lets the affair appear suspicious and dubious. If Bierce had wanted to give Farquhar a credible reason for abstaining from the war, he would have done so, but he left room for speculation on purpose. Furthermore, it is stated that


[1] Crane, Stephen. Letters. Ed. Stallman, R. V. and Gilkes, Lillian, New York: New York University, 1960. 139-140.

[2] Aaron, Daniel. The Unwritten War. (The Impact of the Civil War) London: Oxford University Press, 1975. 189.

[3] Bierce, Ambrose. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” in Thomsen, Brian M., ed. Shadows of Blue & Gray. The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce. New York 2002, 35. All subsequent references to this edition.

[4] Woodruff, Stuart C. The Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce. A Study in Polarity. (Critical Essays in Modern Literature), Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964, 156.

[5] Woodruff, 156.

[6] Woodruff, 157.

[7] Woodruff, 160.

[8] For biographical details see: Grenander, M. E. Ambrose Bierce. New York 1971, Wiggins, Robert A. Ambrose Bierce. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964, or Morris, Roy. Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. New York 1995.

[9] Bierce, Ambrose. “Prattle.” The San Francisco Argonaut, 22. Jun. 1878, cited from:

Logan, F. J. “The Wry Seriousness of ‘Owl Creek Bridge.’ " American Literary Realism 10 (1977), 102.

[10] Owens, David M. Bierce and Biography: The Location of Owl Creek Bridge, in: American Literary Realism 26 (1994), 85.

[11] Logan, 101.

[12] Stoicheff, Peter. "’Something uncanny’: The Dream Structure in Ambrose Bierce's ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.’ " Studies in Short Fiction 30 (1993), 349.

[13] Bierce, Ambrose, The Devil’s Dictionary. In: St. Pierre, Brian, ed. The Devil’s Advocate: An Ambrose Bierce Reader. San Francisco 1987, 298.

[14] Woodruff, 156.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


The lessons to be learned from Peyton Farquhar - "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and its (anti)hero
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institute for Anglistics/American Studies)
Fiction as Re-Construction of History: The Civil War in American Literature
1.0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
572 KB
Peyton, Farquhar, Occurrence, Creek, Bridge, Fiction, Re-Construction, History, Civil, American, Literature
Quote paper
John Schulze (Author), 2004, The lessons to be learned from Peyton Farquhar - "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and its (anti)hero, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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