Reality vs. Illusion
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“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce is a story set in the Civil War era describing the events leading to the execution of Peyton Farquhar. In the moments prior to his execution at Owl Creek Bridge, we are given insight into the mind of Farquhar, which ultimately proves to be an illusion. On the surface, or for a first-time observer, this insight leads us to believe these events as reality, when in actuality it is in fact an illusion on the part of Farquhar created as an attempt to escape death. Reality and illusion interconnect and until the end of the story, the audience is unaware of any deception in relation to the narrative. Farquhar’s illusion, as we see it, is reality. Farquhar is standing on a railroad bridge above shallow water awaiting his execution by the Northern army. The early morning sun is beginning to rise in the murky sky and the wintery surrounding of lifeless scenery fills the atmosphere with forthcoming mortality. His legs and wrists are bound and a noose is placed around his neck. The season portrays a sense of suppression.
Defeat is symbolized as the opening scene unfolds: moments before Farquhar is about to meet his fate, a soldier removes his watch from his pocket, a symbol that time has come to an end for him. As Farquhar falls from the bridge, Ambrose leads the observer to believe the rope breaks and Farquhar falls into the deep water below. At that very moment, we find ourselves fully engrossed in Farquhar’s illusion; or what seems to observers, as reality. One of the first examples embodying Farquhar’s illusion appears as he falls into deep waters and is submerged for more than ninety seconds while removing the ties from around his wrist and legs. At the beginning, the water appeared to be shallow with rocks portraying a sense of definitive death but in fact, it is deep and merciful as we see it in Farquhar’s hopeful eyes. As Farquhar rises to the surface and gasps for breath, the audience finds themselves gasping for breath as well, symbolizing new life. The scenery has also changed from winter to spring suggesting rebirth. Even in the moments after rising to the surface of the water, the audience is still completely absorbed in Farquhar’s illusion, contemplating the fact that this is beginning to seem far-fetched.
Farquhar’s perception of hearing the guards’ speech in slow motion and his ability to swim away at a leisurely pace suggest wishful thinking; an almost too-good-to-be-true experience. Even as the guards begin shooting at Farquhar, they seem to keep missing. The realization of trained soldiers missing a target multiple times begins to prove that Farquhar’s illusion is just that, an illusion. The deception continues for Farquhar as he finds himself swept downstream to what appears to be a beach. For a moment, he is not being chased and rolls around on the sand and laughs suggesting escape has been certain; a fresh start established.
At that moment though, gun fire begins and his deception continues. Farquhar’s connection to his illusion is beginning to crumple around him as the dream world begins dying and reality takes hold. He approaches a long pathway of intricately woven trees, suggesting light at the end of the tunnel; only he is running toward the darkness. This symbolizes that death is imminent and dark. At the end of the story, Farquhar reaches his home where his wife comes into view. It seems as though he runs forever before finally reaching her. When he is about to embrace her, a sudden blow to the neck and back engulfs him, at which the shocking reality is revealed; that Farquhar is hanging from Owl Creek Bridge, dead.
The unusual irony regarding “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is truly the balance between reality and illusion. Several references throughout the story validate this balance. Reality and illusion interconnect and until the end of the story, the audience is unaware of any deception in relation to the narrative. As Farquhar retreats into his fantasy world out of desperation to escape death, we find ourselves fully absorbed in what is thought to be reality; only to find out it is Farquhar’s illusion that encapsulated us.