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A short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce gives an account of the most important moment of man’s life – death. It is a third person narration about a man sentenced to death. The occurrence takes place during the Civil War. The protagonist, Peyton Farquhar, decided to help the South by damaging the Owl Creek bridge and was caught and executed. At the time the reader meets him, Peyton Farquhar faces the most crucial conflict – he tries to understand the essence of the things before he dies, tries to realize how it can be that he is alive right now and in a minute he will be dead and nothing will exist for him. Setting in this story plays an important role and almost becomes one of the characters of the story, conveying the main idea of the story and affecting protagonist’s mind and imagination.
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Setting changes here twice. In fact, there are two types of setting – the real and the imagined ones. The first exists in reality, and the second one was imagined by the protagonist during the short moment while he was falling between the timbers of the bridge.
The real setting is quite a little corner of the Universe – it is a bridge in North Alabama, where Peyton Farquhar is going to be hanged. Both banks of the river are seen from Peyton’s position. On the one side he sees the railroad running “straight away into a forest for a hundred yards”, and the other bank is an “open ground” where there is a palisade with loopholes for rifles (Bierce 235). Under the bridge the river discharges its waters “twenty feet below” (Bierce 235). Peyton seems to be caught between these two banks; there is no way out for him, both in literal and figurative meaning. He cannot escape as he is guarded, and even if he escaped from the immediate guard, he would be caught on either bank of the river, because there are posts everywhere. He cannot escape physically from the guards, and he cannot escape mentally from the idea of death. He is faced with the fact of the execution, and he is stunned by the need to die. The bridge does not offer any solution for him. It is simply a mass of wood and metal. The river is just as neutral as the nature itself. It seems first running fast, “racing madly beneath his feet”, then it turns to be “a sluggish stream” (Bierce 236). A man is going to die, but the nature, his mother, doesn’t care about it. It is just as beautiful and calm as always: “the water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks” will stay here unchanged even after this man passes away. Yet, the man doesn’t think about it; he thinks about his family and about his chances to escape.
It is the first time now the setting changes. The story goes back to the past to explain how this man appeared where he is now. The reader finds Payton on his plantation “sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds” (Bierce 236). The author doesn’t describe the surroundings, because it is of no importance here. This section is very short and only provides a necessary account of events.
Then the narration goes back to the bridge, and the setting changes to the imagined one. Payton’s fevered imagination produces an impossible dream. He thinks that he managed to free his hands and escape from the guards. At first, the setting doesn’t differ from the real one – the events take place in the same river between the same banks. But everything is now even more real for Payton than reality itself. He clearly sees the leaves of the trees, the butterflies, hears the “strokes of the water-spiders' legs” and the rush of a fish (Bierce 238). This imagined setting helps him by hiding from the bullets and turning his body when the cannon fires. However, the forest that he travels during his imagined escape is not so friendly. Payton cannot find a road, and when finally finds it, it leads to nowhere. He hears “whispers in an unknown tongue” and sees some “malign significance” in the strange constellations that are arranged in an unknown order (Bierce 239). His imagined escape has the same end as the real life; it also ends with death. In his imagination, Payton dies “at the gate of his own home” that is so welcoming and joyful; and in reality he dies hanging “beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge” (Bierce 240).
Thus, setting in this story of a man’s death plays a significant role, since it is in fact the only character that matters except the protagonist himself. The guards, Payton’s wife, a Federal scout are only episodic characters; they are here as decorations serving to explain what is happening. The real character is only one here – Payton himself; and setting interacts with the character being not only the place and time but also the friend and the foe of him.