Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Short Story Club: "An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge"

Come on in and have a seat. We’re just getting started.

What did everyone think of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge?”

It’s a little different than the other stories we’ve covered, but I think it’s got a great opening- one that has you asking yourself questions immediately. After that it seems Bierce quickly overplays his hand, getting bogged down in a lot of overly detailed stage direction: who was standing where, how they were holding their guns, what their ranks were, etc., etc, etc. Most modern readers will find themselves skipping ahead. (You're pathetic. Go hang your heads in shame.)

But I’m actually going to defend Bierce here. At first I chalked the heavy description up to the time period and the nineteenth century tendency to belabor every detail. Then I started to think that maybe he was just capturing the hyper-awareness of a man who was staring at his imminent death- sponging up every last impression that this world could give him. Both of those theories might be true, I suppose. But I think he’s doing something else here.

He feeds us all those details so that we’re drawn into the story once all of those pointless bystanders start to play a significant role, as they react to his noose snapping and rush to shoot him in the water instead. The reader revisits those early details and tries to figure out whether our hanged man has a real chance at escape. I thought it was a great way to build up the tension.

I also liked the flashback explaining how we got to the hanging. Bierce lets us chew on what’s happening, while he cuts away for some interesting backdrop. Again, he’s letting the tension simmer and percolate.

And then we really get some nice things happening. The noose breaks, our man is in the water, and what was a kind of sleepy, plodding story is now a life and death struggle. I love the description we get along the way:
“He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck. He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf--saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the grey spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon flies' wings, the strokes of the water-spiders' legs, like oars which had lifted their boat--all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.”
And then, of course, the ending! Bierce has yanked our chain! And yet we’re not angry, because hey, maybe that really is  what occurs in that instant before your neck snaps. Sounds pretty plausible to me.

Here's the Oscar-winning short, for those of you who were too damn lazy to read it.

Anyone else like it? Hate it? Tell us why in the comments.


  1. I liked it. And it is a great ending. He was a little verbose, and maybe a little too dramatic (like the ticking of the watch) but I think that’s how people wrote back then. I really liked this:

    “Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced, is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.”

  2. I have always liked this one... great pick!

  3. O’Neal, that is a great passage. He does seem to sprinkle some great lines here and there. I liked this early description of the hero: “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.”

    And yes, the ending is like literary whiplash, but I love it. It can probably only be done once, however. So Bierce has clearly taken hold of the “first mover advantage.”

    Jillian, glad you like it. I predict less eager praise from my co-blogger, but then I’ve never seen him praise anything earlier than 1900…

  4. He had me at "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Great title. Can't believe I was cheering so hard for a Confederate. The South will rise again.

  5. My apologies for arriving late to the game . . .

    I am not a big reader of pre-20th century literature, so I didn't think I'd like this short story. And truth be told, I didn't love it, but it was more stomachable that I had expected. My conclusion: A good story, good idea, but overly wordy. Way too overly wordy.

  6. LOL, Jennifer. Indeed.

    Tucker, if such a thing existed, the Association of Nineteenth Century Literary Luminaries (the ANCLL) would hire you to create their advertising slogans:

    "19th Century Literature, More Stomachable Than You'd Expect."