Ambrose Bierce and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

“A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck.”

Thus begins Ambrose Bierce’s short story about a Southern civilian about to be hung by two soldiers of the Federal army. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge first appeared in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891).

“He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children.”

“…now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by–it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience and–he knew not why–apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer, the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.”

The man stares at the water and considers that if he were able to free his hands he might be able to jump into the creek and swim to shore.

What follows can be read in full here:

Ambrose Bierce, himself, served in the Civil War, enlisting in the Union Army’s 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment. His experience during the Battle of Shiloh would haunt him for the rest of his life, and inspire several of his stories.

Noted for his economy of style, dark imagery, and fabulism, he despised the Realistic School. Upon the publication of Stephen Crane’s, Red Badge of Courage, he stated, “”I had thought there could be only two worse writers than Stephen Crane, namely, two Stephen Cranes.”

In 1913, the sardonic, disillusioned idealist took off for Mexico. On September 10th, he penned a letter to Samuel Loveman. This letter, posted from Chihuahua was the last time anyone saw or heard from Ambrose Bierce ever again.

In 1963, the French short film version of Owl Creek won the oscar. One year later it aired as an episode of The Twilight Zone.

quotes by Bierce:

“A person who doubts himself is like a man who would enlist in the ranks of his enemies and bear arms agains himself. He makes his failure certain by himself being the first person to be convinced of it.”

“Abstainer: a weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.”

“Doubt, indulged and cherished, is in danger of becoming hdenial; but if honest, and bent on thorough investigation, it may soon lead to full establishment of the truth.”

“Dog – a kind of additional or subsidiary Deity designed to catch the overflow and surplus of the world’s worship.”

“Telephone, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.”


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16 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Tasha I must add one. I heard this a few weeks ago watching Stephen King “The Golden Year”. In the movie if I can get a quote right “A scare person is a person who is conscious of his surrounding”. Something like that. I am sure I am a bit off. I think I really need to go back and take my folic acid. It is good for the brain everyone tells me plus I o notice the difference.

    The story sounds really good. Felt like I was watching a clip while I was reading your post.I like a few of the quote you listed:

    “Abstainer: a weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.” I so agree

    “Doubt, indulged and cherished, is in danger of becoming denial; but if honest, and bent on thorough investigation, it may soon lead to full establishment of the truth.”

    “Telephone, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.”
    This I love, I can say email is the same, lol.

  2. Oh, thanks for sharing the definition for “scared person”. That’s a good one, too. 🙂

    I agree about the telephone. Invented for convenience, (hey! a lot quicker than sending calling cards back and forth) and has somehow (devilishly?) convinced some people that they must always be on it…or answer it. Always. No matter where they are or what they are doing.

  3. “Telephone, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.”

    I can’t imagine how scathing he would be about the internet.

  4. I’ve heard of his ‘Devil’s Dictionary,’ very clever stuff in there, but I haven’t actually read any of his other work. I’ll have to add him to the list.

  5. Heh! Diane, I thought the same thing!

  6. DD,

    The entries I read are pretty funny. I like his acquaintance: “someone you know well enough to borrow money from, but not to lend money to.” 😉

  7. When I was in Jr. High they had us write a story in the style of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. It’s surprising that he doesn’t get more attention–he’s as witty as Twain and spins a Gothic yarn as well as Poe.

  8. Hi Haystack,

    what a great writing exercise! And I agree with your assessment of his writing.

  9. I had to read this story in college English 102. It was horrible. It didn’t help that every other short story was just as if not more depressing. Didn’t read “Red Badge of Courage” until college. I think I prefer the realistic Crane to Bierce based on comparing those two works. But I have yet to read anything else by Bierce so maybe I’m not giving him a fair shake. Has he written anything else?

    Interesting that he took off for Mexico and I love his definition for telephone.

  10. Hey Lyra,

    I first saw the famous Twilight Zone ep of it in school. Back then, I found the ending very depressing.

    This was my first time actually reading the original story. Since I knew and was prepared for the ending, I concentrated on his technique. And I think he did a really good job at conveying a dying man’s last thoughts.

    He was very prolific, having written both fiction and non-fiction. But I’m just starting to read him, so unfortunately I’m not able to recommend anything.

    Well, except for the Devil’s Dictionary. From the bits I’ve’s a real hoot. 🙂

  11. Hello, I remember seeing the short film and it haunted me for ages. Really edgy and powerful. I’ve read the short story and now feel like reading it again. Thanks for the reminder. xx

  12. @gypsy In class that is what we focused on in that story. Apparently the surprise ending of it was just “a dream” or “all in his head” was very new when he wrote that story and not the horrible, disappointing, throw the book against the wall cliche ending it is considered to be

  13. Hi Josephine,

    It is very haunting! Glad I was able to bring it back to your attention. 🙂

  14. Hi Lyra,

    Yes, it was innovative for its time. The “it’s all a dream” usually does strike me as a cop-out. I can think of a few exceptions offhand: Oak Creek Bridge, a very famous German film from the silent era (I won’t give away the title in case someone here one day happens to watch it), and the last ep of Newhart. That seemed so fitting for such a wacky show.

    So I am cool with such endings as long as they fit the story, rather than being just an easy way to resolve plot issues.

  15. I have a copy of The Devil’s Dictionary and it’s a collection of dry, sardonic and often blasphemous wit.

    Grave: A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student.

    Deluge: A notable first experiment in baptism which washed away the sins (and sinners) of the world.

  16. haHa! I like the grave definition.

    Thanks, Marian! 🙂

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