Partially because the short story as a form has for a long time been underrated by American critics, Ambrose Bierce's work has not, at least until recently, been subject to serious critical analysis, in spite of the fact that his best-known story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," is one of the most-frequently anthologized stories in American literature. Early critics primarily dismissed him as a second-rate follower of Poe and a mechanical writer who manipulated fictional puppets for terrifying effect. However, in the past twenty-five years, several book-length studies of Bierce's fiction have appeared, which may suggest that both the short story and Bierce's particular brand of romantic fiction are at last being understood and appreciated.
Purely a story of technique; the "content" of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a pretext for a game Bierce plays with the conventions of narrative endings. The story explicitly and sardonically exploits the idea of the reader (and the protagonist) being pulled up short as Peyton Farquhar comes to the end of his rope and faces the ultimate and only genuine "natural end"--death. However, in this story death is forestalled in the only way it can be forestalled--through an elaborate bit of fiction-making that the reader initially takes to be actuality.
The story is made up of three sections which correspond to three fictional elements--static scene, exposition, and action. But all of these elements are self-consciously ironic in presentation and thus undermine themselves. The first part of the story, the only part in which the realistic convention suggests that something is "actually happening," seems quite dead and static, like a still picture, highly formalized and stiff. At the end of Part I, the teller provides the reader with a clue to the manipulation of time that the story, because it is discourse rather than mere event, must inevitably make: "As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside."
The self-reflexive reference here is to the most notorious characteristic of fiction--the impossibility of escaping time. In spite of the fact that the author wishes to communicate that which is instantaneous or timeless, he is trapped by the time-bound nature of words that can only be told or read one after another. It is this purely rhetorical nature of discourse that motivates or makes possible the final fantastic section of the story.
The second play with the convention of time in the story is the insertion at the end of Part I, purely and perversely by the demand of discourse rather than by the demand of existential event, of a bit of exposition that tells the reader who the protagonist is and what he is doing in such a predicament. The reader sits patiently through this formality while the protagonist plummets into Part III--which does not happen except in the flash (which can only be told in words) that takes place in the protagonist's mind.
It is thus only because of the time-bound nature of discourse that Farquhar's invention of his escape from hanging, drowning, and death by guns and cannons makes the reader believe that the escape is taking place in reality. At the conclusion of the story, when the protagonist reaches the end of the fall, the verb tense abruptly shifts from present to the ultimate past tense: "Peyton Farquhar was dead." At this point, the reader is forced to double back to look at the tone and details of the story which created this forestalling of the end--a forestalling which is indeed the story itself, for without it there would be no story.
Tomorrow: John Cheever's "The Swimmer"