Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The "Real" Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge

(The prompt was to discuss "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" as an example of Literary Realism.)

Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a good example of Literary Realism. Not only was it written during that American literary period, but also has the earmarks of a Realist work.

"The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads," is how Bierce, with his biting wit, described Literary Realism in The Devil's Dictionary. Objectivity of the author is one of the characteristics of Realism. A Realist piece should consist of a detailed recounting of the people, places, things, and events, with no or limited commentary from the author. The entire Part I--the first seven paragraphs--of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is just that. Events are not explained beyond the unemotional description of their details. In fact, the opening sentences describe a terribly emotional sight:

"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."

This man is facing death by hanging! Death is among the most emotional and gripping situations that a reader can possibly be presented with, yet, in this Realist technique, it's described with an absolute emotional detachment--as if "seen by toads". The principal is that there is enough drama in these events by themselves that moralizing and judging commentary is not needed. These are stripped away to let the reader see drama in "real life" struggles. Additional artificial suspense, and other literary devices are also absent, again, to lay bare the human ordeal in it's "real" state.

Another signature, unique to Realism is that it "Renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail.... even at the expense of a well-made plot." (Campbell) The real story--the actual events that took place, not the fantasy in Peyton Farquhar's mind--is indeed rendered at the expense of a well-made plot. The author could have easily written the plot of Farquhar's dying hallucination as if it were the true story--the entire work is, after all, fiction. But, true to Realist form, the Romantic plot that would have made Peyton into a Hero of the South was sacrificed, and the pessimistic, more plausible--more "real"-- plot given in it's place.

But even in Farquhar's mental, heroic, Romantic journey, the Realist technique is at work. All the tiny details of life are noted:
"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."

This is a supreme example of close and comprehensive detail, and of faithfully representing "reality".

Bierce also seems to use this work as a demonstration of the distinction between Romanticism and Realism. The vivid visions that ran through the mind of Peyton Farquhar as he hanged in his noose are much like a fantastical plot of a traditional Romantic story. And even from inside his own visions, Peyton seems to be mimicking the traditional Romantic. He comments to himself, "What splendid effort!--what magnificent, what superhuman strength!," as he imagines his hands freeing their bonds, and then watching as "the cord fell away." These heroic, superhuman, feats are marks of a Romantic protagonist--the antithesis of a Realist character. But, outside of his mind, the depressing reality was that he "was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge." This seems to indicate the entire attitude of Realism against Romanticism: that Romantic notions are useless delusions, whereas Realism is the raw drama of life.


Campbell, Donna M. "Realism in American Literature, 1860-1890." Literary Movements. Last Modified 02/06/2007. Accessed 6/17/2008. .

Bierce, Ambrose The Devil's Dictionary.

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