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« Novalis, "Elegie auf einen Kirchhof" | Main | The Mirror of the Magistrate »
Saturday
Aug162014

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

The premise made famous in this story has been used and reused in film and literature, most recently in this rather dreary production. The simplest of searches on the intergalactic weapon known as Google would tell you exactly what that premise is, so I will refrain. Suffice it to say that we are introduced into an unforgiving realm in which death taps its scythe impatiently on our windowpane, and then instantaneously released from that selfsame realm. Where we are released, if that is really the right word, forms the exquisite details of the fate of Peyton Farquhar. 

We meet Farquhar "upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama," as he is about to hanged. From his demeanor he seems, however, to be a civilian. Why would a civilian be executed? That reason is given further into our story, when a serviceman calls upon the Farquhars as they sit in their spacious garden distant enough from the turfs of battle. Apparently, the Union troops are advancing, now even into Northern Alabama, and have reached a well-known point in local geography, Owl Creek bridge. The bridge, we and Farquhar learn, is but thirty miles off, far enough to keep his family safe but close enough to allow for a little adventure. A rather risky adventure at that, since the serviceman adds that "any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels or trains will be summarily hanged." That would be sufficient for any family man to quell his urges for combat and praise whatever he finds holy that he has yet to be summoned for the inevitable madness that is war. Farquhar, of course, is of an entirely different opinion. Despite his not having accomplished much so far during the War of the States, it was not for a lack of enthusiasm:

Peyton Farquhar was a well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in wartime. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.

These two passages alert the reader to cause and effect, as well as to another dictum about one's character being one's destiny. We might feel pity for Farquhar in the first third of the story because he will die far from his wife and "little ones," but this pity is tempered by his political views and zealotry. He asks the soldier sipping his water how far Owl Creek bridge might be and, more importantly, what a fly in the ointment of the Union's plans might accomplish. When he learns that a great amount of driftwood has accumulated in the bridge's vicinity – very dry driftwood  his mind and strategy unite in decision.   

Apart from its outstanding structure and clarity, the value to Bierce's story lies in the beauty to which Farquhar is exposed upon his escape. Having leapt into the river, he is beset not by fear but by physical restraints, the least of which turns out to be his shackles. His physical senses now assume a "preternaturally keen and alert" state, and he could see things once unimaginable to his tired eyes  the veining of individual leaves, "brilliant-bodied flies," the "prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass." He also notices, importantly, his former captors, the half-dozen Union men who were planning to watch his neck snap. They sway in the distance in "grotesque and horrible" movements, and soon he pays them little more heed. Avoiding grapeshot and other missiles, Farquhar inhales deeply, perhaps spending an unusual amount of time underwater, before coming to land:

Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round – spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men – all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color – that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick. In a few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream – the southern bank – and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of Aeolian harps. He had no wish to perfect his escape  he was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.

There is no reason to paper over Farquhar's satisfaction at having reached a small clearing amidst the forests of Eden. Nor can we begrudge his thinking that "gray eyes were the keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them" because he is a gray in spirit and approach. And what about his name? Farquhar may refer to a famous Union naval commander, or another man who participated in a Confederate defeat. But the ultimate reference might in fact be to an Irish playwright who died young and whose most famous work (which I happened to see at this theater seven years ago) has a title to match our Confederate's boldness. So although the soldier who accosts the Farquhars that fine autumnal afternoon is garbed in gray we shouldn't be fooled. And perhaps necessity does indeed invent everything one could possibly imagine.

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