19 January 2015
Realism & Romanticism in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is an engaging short story that takes place during the American Civil War. It contains the contrast of two of the literary genres—realism and romanticism—that reflect the major shift in popular literature at the time. The romantic genre of fiction had flourished for two centuries leading up to the Civil War. After the war, the outlook of society was permanently changed. "Problems of urbanization and industrialization appeared: poor and overcrowded housing, unsanitary conditions, low pay (called 'wage slavery'), difficult working conditions, and inadequate restraints on business (VanSpanckeren). America had changed, and literature changed with it. This paper will examine some of the aspects of realism that Bierce used in his story, as well as the section that incorporates romanticism.
A major ingredient in realistic fiction is the use of language that describes believable elements and immediate action (Grand Canyon University). Bierce paid close attention to detail when he wrote this story, and his descriptive language plays a major role in making it a work of realism. The story begins with a man standing on a railroad bridge with his wrists bound and a rope around his neck. Great care is taken to describe every minute detail of the setting, from the posture of the soldiers who were present to the boards that supported the man who was about to be hanged. Bierce brings readers immediately into the present and avoids taking a circuitous route to get to the main action. The author actually fought in the Civil War (Poetry Foundation) which is why he was able to convey the scene with such incredible accuracy and authenticity, such as “…a single company of infantry in line, at ‘parade rest,’ the butts of the rifles on the ground, the barrels inclining slightly backward against the right shoulder, the hands crossed upon the stock (Bierce, 399).” He could have just said that a group of soldiers stood in the distance watching the event unfold, but instead he chooses to leave nothing to the imagination. Bierce intends to transport his readers directly into the scene, and he does this expertly.
The protagonist of the story, Peyton Farquhar, is a successful plantation owner and farmer. Unlike the characters found in romanticism, Farquhar is neither royal nor extremely wealthy. Instead he represents an average land owner who could be found anywhere in the South during this time. Like most men of his era, he loves his family and feels strongly patriotic, but he is also portrayed as an individual who is placed in a unique situation. This type of character is an important aspect of realism (Grand Canyon University). Characterization is more important in realism than plot. For reasons untold, Farquhar was unable to fight in the war, but saw an opportunity to help the cause when he was told about the importance of the Owl Creek Bridge and its state of vulnerability. “’I observed that the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tow.’ (Bierce, 401).” Although Farquhar's actual attempt to burn the bridge down is never described, the reader can assume this is why he is found standing on the bridge with a noose around his neck at the beginning of the story. But the way that he comes to be in this position is of no importance, which is why Bierce doesn’t bother to write about it.
An interesting juxtaposition of literary genres takes place when Farquhar makes his "escape." Suddenly, he slips into a sublime experience of the river, where time slows down, light changes, and he experiences the transcendence from prisoner to free man—all of which are elements of romanticism. “A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their