The Annotated Classic Texts series is designed to offer highly detailed readings of important literary works. Each volume simultaneously draws on and consolidates a wide range of analyses from multiple critical perspectives. The series focuses not only on standard canonical writings but also on recent or recently recovered texts that have begun to attract broad attention.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Bierce, Ambrose, 1842-1914?
Printed on acid-free, 250-year-life paper
on the occasion of his official retirement from teaching
Works Cited............................................................................................. xv
Chapter I: The Work Itself: "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by
Chapter II: The Text and the Critical Tradition......................................... 11
Chapter III: The Riches of the Text: "An Occurrence at Owl Creek
Chapter IV: General Student Comments from Diverse Critical
Chapter V: Specific Student Comments from Diverse Critical
I am especially aware of my debts to the community of Bierce scholars,
to whom this book will, I hope, stand as a kind of tribute. One very
important purpose of the book is to suggest how much can be learned about
any great work of literature by reading widely among the writings of
its best students, and Bierce, over the years, has found some fine students
indeed. If this book serves no other function than to gather, in detail,
their thoughts about one of the best short stories in American fiction,
it will have fulfilled a useful function.
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," by Ambrose Bierce, is one of the most widely read, widely anthologized, widely taught, and widely admired short stories in all of American literature. It is deservedly considered a "classic," and it has even been the inspiration for several films. It appeals not only to advanced critics but also to first-time students, some of whom often have no deep interest in "literature" per se. Bierce's story would therefore seem to merit close, detailed examination.
• The comments by the professional critics are summarized in chronological order, so that readers of the present book can see how various critical debates have evolved; who first stated which positions; how any given critic may have been influenced by which predecessors; and which issues have been either most thoroughly debated or least frequently considered. This chronological method of organization should provide readers with a clear, direct sense of how the critical debate about this story has developed; which aspects of that debate deserve further exploration; and which have, perhaps, already been sufficiently discussed. It can also show which particular parts of the story have elicited the most commentary and which have provoked the least reaction, and it can additionally reveal which general topics have generated the most comment and which topics have been less thoroughly considered.
• The summaries of professional commentary on Bierce's story, particularly the summaries keyed to particular paragraphs of the story itself, allow readers to trace, quite easily and specifically, how a particular critic has reacted to any specific aspect of the tale. Such summaries also allow readers to see how variously the different parts of the story have been interpreted. The paragraph-by-paragraph summaries, as well as the concluding summaries of general issues, make both the major critical debates and the general critical consensus all the easier to spot and assess.
Perhaps the most innovative section of this book, however, is the section featuring detailed commentary on Bierce's story by student readers. This section of the volume has a number of related traits and purposes, including the following:
• This section tries to demonstrate how much can be contributed to our understanding of any work even by readers who possess no specialized professional knowledge but who have simply tried to read by paying close and thoughtful attention to the specific phrasing of the work. It also offers students at all levels precise models of how they may read any text with critical attention to its significant details. First-time students of literature, who are often unsure what, exactly, they are expected (or are
 For a much fuller discussion of the various theories surveyed in this book, see the "Introduction" to Robert C. Evans, Anne C. Little, and Barbara Wiedemann, Short Fiction: A Critical Companion (West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 1997), xv-lxxvi. For a fuller discussion of pluralism in particular, and for further detailed examples of pluralism in practice, see pages 339-420 of Robert
• The book thus offers an introduction to critical theory and critical analysis even for readers who lack any particularly strong interest in Bierce's story itself. The book functions, in essence, as a practical experiment in pluralist criticism, since pluralists believe that any work can profitably be examined from a wide variety of points of view, especially if those perspectives are used with a self-conscious awareness of both their particular strengths and their particular limitations. One needn't argue, for instance, that a Marxist approach to a literary text is necessarily superior to a formalist approach, or vice versa; instead, a pluralist would contend that the two approaches begin from fundamentally different assumptions and therefore arrive (not surprisingly) at significantly diverse conclusions. Each approach can tell us something valuable about the work being examined, and this will be especially true if we remember that each approach is simply that: an approach. In other words, for a pluralist, any particular theoretical perspective is just one way among many of coming to grips with a specific text.
This book is offered, then, not only as a contribution to the close reading of Bierce's story but also as a contribution to a more general discussion about ways of reading in the broadest sense. It amounts to a practical application of pluralist theoretical assumptions and may therefore be of interest to readers for whom Ambrose Bierce is mainly a name and to readers for whom "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is mostly a remembered title from a freshman's introduction to literature.
C. Evans, Kate Chopin's Short Fiction: A Critical Companion (West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 2001).
Aaron 1973. Aaron, Daniel. “Ambrose Bierce and the American Civil War.” In Uses of Literature, ed. Monroe Engel. Harvard English Studies, no. 4. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973. 115-31.
Bahr 1963. Bahr, Howard W. “Ambrose Bierce and Realism.” Southern Quarterly 1 (July 1963): 309-30. Reprinted in Davidson 1982a. 150-68.
Bellone 1973. Bellone, Julius. “Outer Space and Inner Time: Robert Enrico's ‘Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.’” In Barrett and Erskine 1973, 177-88.
xviii Works Cited
Folsom 1981. Folsom, James K. “Ambrose Bierce.” Critical Survey of Short Fiction, ed. Frank N. Magill. 7 vols. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1981. 3:965-70. Reprinted in Magill's Choice: Short Story Writers, ed. Frank N. Magill. 3 vols. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1997. 1:58-65.
Works Cited xix
xx Works Cited
Partridge 1927. Partridge, Eric. “Ambrose Bierce.” The London Mercury 16.96 (October 1927): 635-38. Reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, vol. 44. Ed. Laurie DiMauro. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. 916.
Pattee 1923. Pattee, Fred Lewis. The Development of the American Short Story: An Historical Survey. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1923.
Works Cited xxi
Starrett 1920. Starrett, Vincent. Ambrose Bierce. Chicago: Walter M. Hill, 1920.
An Annotated Critical Edition
THE WORK ITSELF
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. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners—two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as “support,” that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest—a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.
4 Chapter I
of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right. Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved. The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge. The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him. In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.
The Work Itself 5
Peyton Farquhar was a well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in war time. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.
6 Chapter I
As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened—ages later, it seemed to him—by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well-defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fullness—of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like
The Work Itself 7
8 Chapter I
The Work Itself 9
10 Chapter 1
I. 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. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees. Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners—two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as “support,” that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest—a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of thefoot planking that traversed it.
(Cunliffe 1962): The opening sentence jumps immediately into the midst of the events being described and thus instantly grabs our attention (27). (Wiggins 1964): The opening paragraph is uncomplicated and objective (200). (Woodruff 1964): 154. (Erksine 1973): 70. (Davidson 1974): Farquhar's perception of the soldiers is now less exalted than it once had been (270). (Logan 1977): The soldiers are as immobile and rigid as the wood of the fort (201). See also 202.
12 Chapter II
Woodruff 1964): 154. (Marcus 1971): The narrator's comment about “Death” is factual but may violate the tone of the narrative (16). (Erskine 1973): The phrasing used to describe the sentinels robs them of any hint of life (70-71). (Davidson 1974): 267. (Logan 1977): The soldiers are as immobile and rigid as the wood of the fort (201). See also 202. (Palmer 1977): 369. (Davidson 1984): The “deference” mentioned here is shown not to Farquhar but to mortality (47). (Butterfield 1985): This passage illustrates Bierce’s talent for creating strong visual impressions (142-43). (Linkin 1988): The narrator here depicts nature itself
The Text and the Critical Tradition 13
in military language (138). The tentative nature of the narrator's phrasing suggests his concern for precision and accuracy; as if he is a soldier himself (138). The narrator often shows a desire to explain—and justify—military terms and procedures to civilian readers (138). The narrator's depiction of the sentinels suggests that he finds their stance attractive (138). The second half of this paragraph implies that the narrator thoroughly sympathizes with the military outlook on life.However, the narrator's sympathies may not be those of Bierce (138). See also 141.
III. The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good—a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well-fitting frock coat. He wore a mustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.
(Woodruff 1964): 156. (Marcus 1971): The story might be more effective if the narrator did not insert such interpretive comments as in the final sentence here (16-17). (Erskine 1973): Much of Bierce's phrasing is designed to diminish our sense of how much the narrator absolutely knows for sure (71). (Davidson 1974): 267; 269. (Logan 1977): The phrasing concerning the military code suggests that the narrator sees some humor in the events he describes (202). See also 196; 202. (Palmer 1977): Bierce's tone here is sardonic in its treatment of Farquhar (368). (Wagenknecht 1977): xxii. (Hayden 1980): Bierce here suggests that he is not telling a standard spy yarn (11). See also 13. (Fabó 1982): Some of the phrasing here resembles highly similar phrasing elsewhere in the story. Such echoing is typical of this tale (230). Gray, a colorless color, seems fitting for a story so much concerned with mortality (230-31). (Davidson 1984): The diction here strips Farquhar of any hint of heroism (47). See also 49. (Holladay 1986): 1643. (Linkin 1988): The narrator often calls attention, as here, to the process by which he reasons or to the logic he uses to reach conclusions (139). The narrator now begins to seem to identify with the man he describes (139). The narrator's assessment here shows how he wavers between objective and subjective judgments (139-40). (Conlogue 1989): The word “assassin” derives from “hashish” and alludes to drug-crazed warriors who, when killed, supposedly went directly to paradise. The allusion is ironic in view of Farquhar's fate (37). (Berkove 2002): Because the words “engaged in” are unnecessary, and because they are a bit stuffy, they add a sardonic note to the sentence, yet in another sense the words are entirely fitting since Farquhar is totally absorbed in the process of dying (118). By using the word “habit” rather than “dress” (which appeared in the original version), Bierce makes a sly but appropriately dark and funny pun. However, the phrasing here also suggests the shallowness of judging by appearances—an im-
14 Chapter II
IV. The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing. The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace. These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross-ties of the bridge. The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth. This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant. At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties. The arrangement commended itself to his judgment as simple and effective. His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged. He looked a moment at his “unsteadfast footing,” then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet. A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current. How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!
The Text and the Critical Tradition 15
V. He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift—all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking
through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by—it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience and—he knew not why—apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer, the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.
16 Chapter II
VI. He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. "If I could free my hands," he thought, "I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is 'as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader's farthest advance."
(Woodruff 1964): 155. (Cheatham and Cheatham 1984): 45-46. (Cheatham and Cheatham 1985): The language here—especially “little ones” and “invaders”—implies nicely understated mockery (220). (Linkin 1988): This sentence signals another of the story's major shifts of perspective (142). Farquhar's thinking here seems more logical than many of his other thought processes reported in this tale. Nevertheless, the fact that his thoughts are recorded as speech complicates our sense of their credibility. The thoughts here are important in preparing for the seeming plausibility of Section III (142). (Bailey 2001): This section of the tale epitomizes and foreshadows most of the events of Section III (168). (Berkove 2002): Significantly, the events Farquhar thinks he experiences later in the tale follow this fantasy-escape to the letter, thus implying, for a careful reader, that the escape is unreal (121).
The Text and the Critical Tradition 17
(Cunliffe 1962): The final sentence of each section contains a twist; therefore the twist at the end of Section III should not greatly surprise us (25). (Woodruff 1964): Even the action that precipitates the hanging seems minor and silent (154). See also 156. (Marcus 1971): 15-16. (Erskine 1973): In the last sentence here, as elsewhere in Section I, Bierce foreshadows the abrupt ending of Section III (71). (Palmer 1977): 364. (Wagenknecht 1977): The final sentence here really provides the conclusion of the event the story describes, although the narrative goes on for two more sections (xxii). (Fabó 1982): 225-26. (Cheatham and Cheatham 1984): 46. (Davidson 1984): 47. (Cheatham and Cheatham 1985): The narrator's explicit comment here about the narration suggests that Bierce did not feel at ease in shifting between distinct points of view (222). (Holladay 1986): In these final words of Section I, the phrasing again becomes unemotional and matter-of-fact (1646). (Reynolds 1987): 61. (Linkin 1988): The word “doomed” makes Farquhar's ultimate fate unmistakable, although readers can interpret even this word ambiguously. The sentence in which this word occurs reminds us of the peculiarities of Farquhar's experience of time (143). Instead of experiencing Farquhar's drop from the bridge, we ourselves now drop into his former life (143). See also 150. (Bailey 2001): 168. (Berkove 2002): In the opening sentence here, Bierce gives us a chance to pause and reflect about whether Farquhar's thoughts are reliable, although he correctly assumes that few readers will take advantage of that chance (121-22). By using the word “doomed,” Bierce is being perfectly honest, but he correctly assumes that most readers will ignore his honesty and hope for Farquhar's escape (122). See also 123.
VIII. Peyton Farquhar was a well-to-do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in war time. Meanwhile he did what he could. No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and with-
18 Chapter II
(Solomon 1963-64): Bierce's delineation of character here is typically brief (1984). (Woodruff 1964): The references to the life of the soldier, and to the “civilian who was at heart a soldier,” might just as easily describe Bierce as Farquhar (160). See also 156. (Marcus 1971): The narrator's judgment of Farquhar's views (in the final sentence here) may be intrusive, although it does call attention to the poetic justice of Farquhar's fate (17). (Erskine 1973): Appropriately enough (given the nature of Farquhar's character), both his thinking and the words in which his thinking is phrased (in the final sentence here) are hackneyed and unoriginal (71-72). (Davidson 1974): The words “without too much qualification” imply the laziness of Farquhar's thought, and also the laziness of most people's thinking (266-67). Ironically, Farquhar does experience a full “release” of his “energies” in Section III (269). See also 271. (Logan 1977): Farquhar's philosophy reveals his lack of compassion (198). Bierce mocks the jingoistic, militaristic language of the opening of Section II (198-99). The heavy emphasis on consonant sounds in the phrase “longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier” implies that Bierce is having fun at Farquhar's expense (199). The phrasing beginning “No service...” is full of mockery (199). See also 200. (Palmer 1977): This paragraph provides essential data that help us judge Farquhar. These data are missing from Robert Enrico's film adaptation (367; 368). (Fabó 1982): Farquhar's political commitments are not so much freely chosen as they are highly conventional (226). Some of the phrasing here resembles highly similar phrasing elsewhere in the story. Such echoing is typical of this tale (230). (Powers 1982): Farquhar's life, before his escape, is rigidly organized (279). A Freudian might interpret Farquhar's escape as a fantasy of freedom for his id (279). (Cheatham and Cheatham 1984): The language associated with Farquhar is often overblown and therefore makes Farquhar himself difficult to take seriously (45). (Davidson 1984): Farquhar's own beliefs justify his death (47). Bierce's diction here echoes empty jingoistic jargon (48). Farquhar may own slaves, but he is himself enslaved to shallow thinking (49). Ironically, the true "release" of Farquhar's "energies" occurs in the moment of death (50). Later in the tale, Farquhar will specifically change his views of what is fair in love and war (52). See also 46; 51; 126. (Butterfield 1985): Bierce himself probably respected men like Farquhar, who were willing to face hazards on behalf of their ideals (146). (Cheatham and Cheatham 1985): By depicting Farquhar as he does here, Bierce mocks the pretensions of genteel Southern culture (220). (Holladay 1986): 1644; 1645. (Davidson 1988): 25-26. (Linkin 1988): The opening of Section II creates slight delays, frustrations, and confusions that are appropriate to this kind of story and especially to this section of the tale, which emphasizes matters of who is who (143). See also 144; 146. (Conlogue 1989): 37. (Stoicheff 1993): 354. (Owens 1994): 85. (Morris 1995): 216-17. (Schaefer 1997): 98. (Reed 2001): Bierce's reference to Farquhar as an owner of slaves makes Farquhar's patriotism seem anything but lofty (39). (Berkove 2002): Bierce implicitly condemns Farquhar by identifying his cause as slavery, not. as some more benign kind of devotion to his region (124). It is difficult to imagine what “circumstances” could possibly have prevented Farquhar from serving in the Confederate army if he had really wanted to do so (124-25). The words “chafed” and “inglorious restraint” are especially ironic given Farquhar's eventual fate, but
The Text and the Critical Tradition 19
IX. One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray-clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water. Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands. While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.
X. "The Yanks are repairing the railroads," said the man, "and are getting ready for another advance. They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank. The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the rail
20 Chapter II
(Davidson 1984): 47. (Linkin 1988): The supposed proclamation is tailor-made to appeal to Farquhar's lofty self-image (144). (Owens 1994): 84.
XI. "How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?" Farquhar asked.
XII. "About thirty miles."
(Berkove 2002): 34.
XIII. "Is there no force on this side the creek?"
(Owens 1994): 84.
XIV. "Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge."
(Cunliffe 1962): 27. (Davidson 1974): Farquhar's view of hanging will be more serious later than it is now (270). (Powers 1982): 279. (Linkin 1988): 144. (Conlogue 1989): 37. (Berkove 2002): The phrase “student of hanging” is especially ironic, since Farquhar will later master the subject all too well. Farquhar's pretentious phrasing is actually absurd (128). Farquhar's apparent plan to murder the guard makes his own death seem all the more deserved; he seems both too deceptive and too fearful to be a real soldier (128-29).
XVI. The soldier reflected. "I was there a month ago," he replied. "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."
The Text and the Critical Tradition 21
(Cunliffe 1962): The final sentence of each section contains a twist; therefore the twist at the end of Section III should not greatly surprise us (25). (Marcus 1971): Section II, like Section I, ends with an extremely brief sentence (16). (Erskine 1973): Here, as at the end of Section I, Bierce subverts an illusion (72). (Logan. 1977): 195. (Cheatham and Cheatham 1984): 46. (Cheatham and Cheatham 1985): 221. (Holladay 1986): 1644. (Linkin 1988): The narrator of Section II seems to share some of the patriarchal values of Farquhar's culture (144).
XVIII. As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened—ages later, it seemed to him—by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well-defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature. As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fullness—of congestion. These sensations were unaccompanied by thought. The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment. He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud plash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark. The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream. There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs. To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!—the idea seemed to him ludicrous. He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible! He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was
22 Chapter II
a mere glimmer. Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface—knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable. "To be hanged and drowned," he thought, "that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot. No; I will not be shot; that is not fair."
(Grenander 1957): 213-14. (Wiggins 1964): 200. (Woodruff 1964): 157. (Crane 1968): 364. (Grenander 1971): 94-95. (Erskine 1973): Here as elsewhere in Section III, the language is highly imagistic and leads us to overlook hints concerning Farquhar's real fate (72). The language here compels us to share Farquhar's perspective. However, the language also emphasizes the crucial topic of time (72). (Davidson 1974): Farquhar's perception of fairness has changed from the one expressed in Section II (270). (Logan 1977): 201; 204. (Palmer 1977): 363. (Berkove 1981): 142. (Fabó 1982): Some of the phrasing here resembles highly similar phrasing elsewhere in the story. Such echoing is typical of this tale (230). (Powers 1982): 280. (Davidson 1984): Farquhar's thoughts here contradict his earlier views about fairness in love and war (52). (Cheatham and Cheatham 1985): Here as elsewhere, Bierce's use of certain verbs implies that he did not feel at ease in shifting between distinct points of view (222). (Holladay 1986): 1644. (Linkin 1988): Section III opens with still another narrative shift; we are not sure at first which narrative voice will control this section (145). The tone of the diction becomes more insistent in Section III than it had been in either of the two previous sections (146). See also 150. (Reynolds 1987): 62 (Stoicheff 1993): The “rising” that Farquhar senses is the literal jerk of his body at the end of its rope (351-52). (Morris 1995): By this section of the tale, Farquhar has died (216). The passage referring to “sharp pressure” and to swinging should make it clear to an attentive reader that Farquhar is being hanged (216-17). (Bailey 2001): Phrasing such as is found in the first sentence here, or in the reference to the pendulum, implies Farquhar's true circumstances. The pendulum imagery foreshadows the very end of the tale (170). (Berkove 2002): The phrasing of the opening sentence here is wonderfully double-edged (130). In the second sentence, the word “seemed” is crucial to interpreting the sentence properly (130). In the original version of the tale, Bierce had briefly implied that Farquhar did possess “consciousness,” but he was careful to remove this inconsistency from the revision (131). See also 57.
XIX. He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands. He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome. What splendid effort!—what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor! Bravo! The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light. He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water
The Text and the Critical Tradition 23
snake. "Put it back, put it back!" He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced. His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire; his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth. His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish! But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command. They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface. He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!
(Woodruff 1964): 158. (Erskine 1973): Here as elsewhere in Section III, the language is highly imagistic and leads us to overlook hints concerning Farquhar's real fate (72). The fact that Farquhar imagines a performer here (the “juggler”) should suggest that his own perceptions at this point are illusory (73). (Davidson 1974): 270. (Fabó 1982): The tone of indifference implied in such phrases as “without interest” is central to the effect of the story as a whole (228). (Powers 1982): 280. (Holladay 1986): 1644; 1645. (Linkin 1988): The tone of the diction becomes more insistent in Section III than it had been in either of the two previous sections (146). Previously Farquhar had been reluctant to shout out; now he seems less reticent (146). (Joshi 1990): The vivid description of Farquhar's pain typifies the ways Bierce paradoxically makes this section—which deals with a fantasy—seem so realistically convincing (50). The admiring exclamations here seem almost intrusively and meanly satirical and thus typify Bierce's tendency in his writing to come close to pushing his sarcasm too far (50). (Stoicheff 1993): Here as elsewhere, the physical details Farquhar imagines reflect what is truly happening to his body during the hanging (353). Farquhar wants to believe that his behavior is courageous because he cannot face the possibility of seeing it as a mere wish to flee (354), Farquhar is so desperate to avoid imagining literal death that he imagines it as a kind of rebirth (355). He seems especially conscious of his hands because hanging would emphasize any sensation in one's hands and feet. Farquhar's figurative desire to return to the womb is a common desire of people in extreme danger, according to Sigmund Freud (355-56). (Owens 1994): The phrasing of much of this passage suggests childbirth (85). (Morris 1995): Perhaps this passage (especially the exclamation “put it back!”) suggests that Farquhar has loosened one hand and that the Federal commander is ordering that it be restrained once more. Alternatively, the exclamation may suggest that Farquhar is begging that the piece of wood on which he had been standing should be replaced (217). One commentator argues that the exclamation reflects what a newborn might think about the umbilical cord (217-18). Just as Farquhar's mind seems to be unusually sensitive, so his body seems to be unusually strong (218). (Berkove 2002): 131.
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XX. He was now in full possession of his physical senses. They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert. Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived. 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.
(Grenander 1957): 213-14. (Woodruff 1964): 157-58. (Grenander 1971): 95. (Marcus 1971): The phrasing here, especially the reference to Farquhar's alertness, is baldly instructive (17). (Erskine 1973): The phrasing here is effective because of its beauty (73). (Davidson 1974): 269-70. (Logan 1977): The phrasing here hints that Farquhar is hallucinating (205). See also 204-05. (Palmer 1977): 365-66. (Hayden 1980): This whole passage implies that Farquhar is now intensely aware and that his outlook is elevated (12). (Fabó 1982): Eventually, practically all of Farquhar's senses are stimulated (231). (Davidson 1984): The passage beginning here typifies the way Bierce uses sensuous language to symbolize changes in psychological perceptions (50-51). (Holladay 1986): 1644; 1645. (Linkin 1988): Farquhar seems as startled as we are by his new perceptiveness (146). (Conlogue 1989): 37. (Joshi 1990): The vivid descriptive details, here and elsewhere in Section III, typify the ways Bierce paradoxically makes this section—which deals with a fantasy—seem so realistically convincing (50). (Stoicheff 1993): The imagined sound of the fish may reflect the real sound of Farquhar's heartbeat (353). (Bailey 2001): 170. (Berkove 2002): In retrospect we realize that the kind of perceptiveness Farquhar seems to display here is literally impossible (130).
XXI. He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners. They were in silhouette against the blue sky. They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him. The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed. Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.
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(Erskine 1973): Section III makes Farquhar the center from which we view his surroundings (73). (Davidson 1974): Farquhar's perception of the soldiers is now less exalted than it once had been (270). (Logan 1977): 205. (Fabó 1982): The motion described here is typical of many other motions in this tale (229). (Davidson 1984): Farquhar's perception of the soldiers has altered since the beginning of the story; he has a less lofty view of them now (52). See also 51. (Linkin 1988): 147.
XXII. Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray. He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle. The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle. He observed that it was a grey eye and remembered having read that grey eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them. Nevertheless, this one had missed.
(Davidson 1974): Since Farquhar himself has grey eyes, this passage implies that Farquhar, subconsciously, is perceiving himself, and that he is himself responsible for his own death (270). (Cheatham and Cheatham 1984): 46. (Davidson 1984): Because Farquhar's own eyes are grey, he is in a sense now perceiving himself. The passage also therefore implies that Farquhar himself is responsible for his own death (52). (Cheatham and Cheatham 1985): Farquhar's perceptions here are not very credible (220). (Linkin 1988): Ironically, although Farquhar's own eyes are grey, his own perceptions are distorted (147). (Stoicheff 1993): Here as elsewhere, various details in Section III suggest the breaking of Farquhar's neck (352).
XXIII. A counter-swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking into the forest on the bank opposite the fort. The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears. Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieutenant on shore was taking a part in the morning's work. How coldly and pitilessly—with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquility in the men—with what accurately measured intervals fell those cruel words:
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(Erskine 1973): The phrasing here illustrates Bierce's frequently effective use of repeated consonants in Section III (73). (Stolcheff 1993): Here as elsewhere, the physical details Farquhar imagines reflect what is truly happening to his body during the hanging (353). (Bailey 2001): The phrasing in the last sentence here contrasts with the earlier phrasing concerning Farquhar's watch (171).
XXIV. "Attention, company! ... Shoulder arms! ... Ready! ... Aim! ... Fire!"
(Davidson 1974): 268. (Fabó 1982): The structure of the story, like the ticking of the watch, is highly rhythmic (227). The story is full of pulsating patterns; the ticking watch is just one example (227-28).
XXV. Farquhar dived—dived as deeply as he could. The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dulled thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward. Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent. One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.
XXVI. As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther down stream nearer to safety. The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets. The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.
(Davidson 1974): 271.
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XXVII. The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current. His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning.
(Logan 1977): 206-07. (Cheatham and Cheatham 1984): 46. (Davidson 1984): 51. (Cheatham and Cheatham 1985): 220.
XXVIII. "The officer," he reasoned, "will not make that martinet's error a second time. It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot. He has probably already given the command to fire at will. God help me, I cannot dodge them all!"
(Cunliffe 1962): 26. (Cheatham and Cheatham 1984): 46. (Cheatham and
XXIX. An appalling plash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps!
XXX. A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him! The cannon had taken a hand in the game. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond.
(Stoicheff 1993): Here as elsewhere, various details in Section III suggest the breaking of Farquhar's neck (352).
XXXI. "They will not do that again," he thought; "the next time they will use a charge of grape. I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me—the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun."
(Linkin 1988): Farquhar's logic makes his escape seem all the more credible (147).
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XXXII. Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round—spinning like a top. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men—all were commingled and blurred. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color—that was all he saw. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick. In a few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream—the southern bank—and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms. A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of Æolian harps. He had no wish to perfect his escape—was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.
(Woodruff 1964): 158. (Erskine 1973): The phrasing here evokes paradise and is clearly metaphorical (73). (Davidson 1974): 270. (Fabó 1982): The motion of the top symbolizes much of the motion of the story itself (229). The motion de
cribed here is typical of many other motions in this tale (229). (Fabó 1982): Some of the phrasing here resembles highly similar phrasing elsewhere in the story. Such echoing is typical of this tale (230). (Powers 1982): 280. (Davidson 1984): Once Farquhar attains dry land, his thoughts and emotions become more steady and judgmental than when he was in the water (51). His perception of his surroundings now begins to reflect his perception that coherence and harmony are possible once again. The harmony he perceives mirrors the greater harmony he now feels (51). (Holladay 1986): 1645. (Linkin 1988): The discourse here, as elsewhere in Section III, is both Romantic and religious (147). The reference to “roseate light” may look back to Farquhar's perception of the sun in Section I (148). (Conlogue 1989): 37. (Stoicheff 1993): Here as elsewhere, the physical details Farquhar imagines reflect what is truly happening to his body during the hanging (353). (Walz 1995): 265. (Bailey 2001): The sentences referring to the vortex and to a “few moments” are part of a pattern in Section III emphasizing that time now seems to be speeding up (171).
XXXIII. A whiz and rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream. The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell. He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.
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XXXIV. All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun. The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman's road. He had not known that he lived in so wild a region. There was something uncanny in the revelation.
(Woodruff 1964): Since the forest represents Farquhar's own mind, it seems to have no limits (159). (Erskine 1973): The word “interminable” is relevant to the story's larger theme of distorted time (74). (Powers 1982): 280. (Davidson 1984): Earlier in this section, Farquhar had seen the forest as a garden; now he sees it as much less benign. His new view reflects a darker view of his own subconscious—a part of his mind he has previously ignored. The “wild... region” implies Farquhar's realization that he is indeed dying (53). (Holladay 1986): 1645. (Linkin 1988): The perception expressed in the final sentence here might as easily come from Bierce as from Farquhar (148). (Stoicheff 1993): 349. (Bailey 2001): The opening sentence of this passage is part of a pattern in Section III emphasizing that time now seems to be speeding up (171).
XXXV. By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famishing. The thought of his wife and children urged him on. At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction. It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled. No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere. Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation. The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective. Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great golden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations. He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance. The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which—once, twice, and again—he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.
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XXXVI. His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it he found it horribly swollen. He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it. His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them. His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air. How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue—he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!
(Woodruff 1964): 159-60. (Erskine 1973): Various details about sensations here conflict with the later assertion that Farquhar cannot feel the road (74). (Logan 1977): Bierce’s tone here is almost comically sardonic (200). (Davidson 1984): This passage reflects the physical fact that Farquhar is in fact caught in the noose (53). (Linkin 1988): Because the phrasing here echoes phrasing from early in Section III, we begin to realize that Farquhar will not survive (149). (Stoicheff 1993): Here as elsewhere, the physical details Farquhar imagines reflect what is truly happening to his body during the hanging (353). (Berkove 2002): The reference to the “untraveled avenue” ironically conflicts with Farquhar’s sense that he knows where he is going (131). In retrospect we realize that in this paragraph and in the previous one, Farquhar’s mind is trying to make the details of his death accord with a pleasing illusion (131).
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XXXVIII. Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
(Starrett 1920): 32-33. (Wilson 1951): 619. (Cunlifffe 1962): The final sentence of each section contains a twist; therefore the twist at the end of Section III should not greatly surprise us (25). (Solomon 1963-64): 188. (Woodruff 1964): 153; 155. (Crane 1968): 365. (Marcus 1971): 16. (Davidson 1974): 271. (Logan 1977): Farquhar dies with extreme rapidity and without delay (206). (Palmer 1977): 370. (Powers 1982): 280. (Folsom 1981): 61. (Cheatham and Cheatham 1984): 46. (Davidson 1984): 53. (Cheatham and Cheatham 1985): This sentence resembles the no-nonsense, matter-of-fact statements that also ended the first two segments (221). (Holladay 1986): The word “gently” typifies the irony of Bierce’s writing. See also 1644). (Reynolds 1987): 62. (Linkin 1988): The narrative shift is as much of a surprise to us as death is to Farquhar (149). (Stoicheff 1993): 352. (Morris 1995): This is one of the best-known statements from any piece of fiction by a U.S. writer (216). (Bailey 2001): The story’s final sentence represents the tale’s final—and quite abrupt—shift in our perception of time (171). (Berkove 2002): In the original version of this final sentence, Bierce’s contempt for Farquhar was almost too obvious (134).
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CHARACTERS (see also FARQUHAR, PEYTON): (Cunliffe 1961): The scanty characterization does not damage this nearly flawless tale since the characters are wholly representative of humans as a race (254). (Woodruff 1964): The Union spy may be part of a larger plot to seize Farquhar's plantation once Farquhar has been hanged for treason (156). Farquhar's wife, in Section III, represents whatever we desire that is always just beyond our reach (160). (Crane1968): Farquhar's main concern, as he dies, is not for himself but for his loved ones (361). (Marcus 1971): We see almost nothing from the perspective of the minor characters (14-15). (Logan 1977): Although Bierce treats Farquhar as a fool, he keeps the story balanced (and helps encourage some concern for Farquhar) by depicting the Federal soldiers as mechanical and unfeeling. Because they are anonymous, we focus some of our sympathies on Farquhar (201). Bierce mocks the Federal troops in much the same way as he ridicules Farquhar (201). The narrator seems to be someone who is very familiar with armies and warfare (202-03). (Fabó 1982): Mortality is the true main character of this tale. Mortality is more significant to the story than Farquhar as an individual. Indeed, none of the figures in the work is sharply individualized (225). The characters do not seem strongly committed to their actions. Even Farquhar's apparent escape results more from a random accident than from a deliberate plan. The characters provoke no strong emotional response in each other or from readers (225). (Powers 1982): Mrs. Farquhar seems prim and proper in Section II, but Farquhar imagines her far more sensuous ways in Section III (280). Farquhar's fantasy gives him a chance to experience the kinds of pleasures he would not normally know in his routine civilian existence (281). (Holladay 1986): None of the characters in this tale seems larger than life or inspiringly brave (1645). (Linkin 1988): If Farquhar's final vision of his wife were credible, her response to seeing Farquhar again would be far less restrained than he imagines (149).
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CONCLUSION: (Pattee 1923): This somewhat contrived, if terrifying, ending is typical of the way Bierce often imposes artificial conclusions on his stories (305). (Brooks and Warren 1943): Is the ending of this story meaningful, or is it a cheap device? Even if we grant that Section III credibly depicts what a dying man might imagine, this concession does not justify the conclusion of the tale. The ending still seems flawed for four basic reasons. The most basic of these reasons is that the story and its ending both depend too much on an idiosyncratic state of mind to be of general interest to most readers (136-37). (Cunliffe 1961): The unanticipated conclusion is not a trick (254). (Cunliffe 1962): The ending of this tale catches only novice readers off-guard, especially since Section III ends with a shift resembling the shifts at the ends of Sections I and II (25). Because the ending is foreshadowed, it does not seem random or cheap; instead it reflects Bierce's artistic skill (25). A naive reader would be caught totally off-guard by the ending; a more experienced reader would appreciate how Section III is psychologically credible, and such a reader would also appreciate how Bierce uses, but complicates, the expected twist at the end (26). (Wiggins 1964): The ending is extremely surprising and perhaps is even frustrating to some readers. However, the ending is not a mere trick but makes a serious point about the' deceptiveness of death. The story's ending is highly appropriate (201). (Woodruff 1964): Here as so often in Bierce's work, the tale ends with a stunning revelation (160). Ironically, the dream of escape seems more vivid than the concluding subversion of that dream (162). (Fadiman 1968): The ending is less a mere device than a way of driving home a crucial theme (xvi). (Grenander 1971): Unless readers are unusually perceptive, they do not foresee the ending until it comes, although Bierce does offer some hints that become clear on second reading (96). (Erskine 1973): Analysts have disagreed about the effectiveness of Bierce's ending, but the more persuasive argument is offered by those who commend the ways Bierce artfully prepares for the final twist (69). Bierce is not guilty of the mere trickery here that has sometimes been alleged by prominent critics (75). ( Logan 1977): The conclusion works perfectly and is not a cheap device (207). (Davidson 1984): Only an inattentive reader is truly surprised by the final sentence (50). In his final moments, Farquhar learns to value the simple joys of existence—joys he had earlier considered trivial (52). The conclusion of the story is not a cheap device but a means of provoking a more thoughtful second encounter with the text (54-55). (Butterfield 1985): Bierce's tales about warfare frequently end in death (144). (Cheatham and Cheatham 1985): Extreme opinions have been offered both for and against the ending of Bierce's tale. F.J. Logan’s defense of the ending is perhaps more elaborate than necessary (219). Although the end of the tale does involve some sleight of hand, the ending the ending nonetheless does contribute to the story’s larger meaning and total effect (224). (Gerlach 1985): The conclusion of the tale is likely to disappoint a reader who expects something more from a story (55). (Reynolds 1987): The sudden shift at the end of Bierce’s tale foreshadows a similar shift at the end of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage (62; 67). (Davidson 1988): The conclusion is not merely deceptive or manipulative. It catches only the inattentive reader off-guard (26).
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FARQUHAR, PEYTON: (Cunliffe 1962): Section II encourages us to sympathize with Farquhar. He seems to be a high-minded, prominent citizen who is willing to suffer for his principles. The fact that he is deceived by the scout makes Farquhar even more sympathetic. In a sense, Farquhar represents the unrealistic aspirations of the South, which conflict with the hard-headed pragmatism of the North (26). Although Farquhar is devoted to his country, he also owns slaves and abuses his own principles (27). (Solomon 1963-64): Bierce is less interested here in the intricacies of his protagonist's character than in the intensity of his responses (185). (Woodruff 1964): The story is so powerful partly because Bierce gets so deeply inside Farquhar's mind and feelings (153). Farquhar's real descent is into the subcurrents of his own mind (155). Farquhar is an appealing character; he is courageous, thoughtful, and very wise (156). We empathize with Farquhar and regret his demise, especially since that demise results from his being tricked by the Union spy (156). (Davidson 1970): Farquhar is trapped as much by his false habits of thought as by the rope around his neck (2). (Marcus 1971): In Bierce's story, the noose already encircles Farquhar's neck as the tale begins. This is not so in Robert Enrico's film adaptation (18). (Barrrett 1973): The story readily lends itself to cinematic treatment, especially because of its plot, style, and topics. Three (and possibly four) adaptations exist (189). The film adaptations by Vidor and Enrico differ because the first encourages an intellectual response while the second mainly provokes feeling (191). (Erskine 1973): Bierce wins our regard and concern for Farquhar by showing how little regard and concern he is given by those around him, especially in Section I (70). Farquhar's lofty view of life as a soldier differs greatly from the lives of the real soldiers we glimpse in Section I (71), Section II encourages us to identify with the imaginative Farquhar, who is tricked by the unscrupulous scout (72). By the story's final paragraphs, we have completely identified with Farquhar (74). (Welsh 1973): The man who portrayed Farquhar in the first film version of Bierce's story was not a professional actor (162). (Davidson 1974): Farquhar is deceived as much by his own jingoistic habits of thought as by the Union soldier (266). Farquhar owns slaves but is himself a thrall to ignorance and to cheap patriotic rhetoric (267). ( Logan 1977): In this story, Bierce implicitly mocks any reader who empathizes with Farquhar (196). He also frequently mocks Farquhar himself (197). Farquhar is not courageous; instead, he is foolish. He is not compassionate; instead, he is heartless. He is not smart; instead, he is a bit of a dolt (198). It never occurs to Farquhar to question the visitor or the visitor’s story (200). Bierce shows no respect for Farquhar and even mocks the struggle of his last seconds of life (200). (Palmer 1977): Robert Enrico's film takes a less jaded or sardonic view of Farquhar than does Bierce's original story (363; 365; 368). Bierce treats Farquhar with considerable skepticism, especially in Section II
The Text and the Critical Tradition 35
sion that ends in defeat (62). (Fabó 1982): Circular and linear images dominate and alternate, with the latter eventually becoming especially prominent (229). Images of fire and water are used in Section II and are then repeated and altered (with ironic effect) in Section III, where Farquhar is threatened by mortality from both sources (230). Imagery of the soil is also used ironically in Sections II and III (231). The gray imagery enhances, and is enhanced by, the colors emphasized so strongly in Section III (230-31). Imagery of the senses becomes especially important in Section III (231). (Powers 1982): The owl of the title may symbolize a kind of secret wisdom and may thus be relevant to the story's subtle revelations about Farquhar (279). (Bailey 2001): All of Farquhar's sensations—of touch, sight, and sound—intensify as the story proceeds (169). (Berkove 2002): Bierce probably chose to set the story at Owl Creek because owls are associated with sagacity, although sagacity is a standard by which both Farquhar and deceived readers are assessed and are judged as misguided (114).
INFLUENCES AND/OR PARALLELS: (Anonymous 1909): [Quoting J. Tonson:] Edgar Allan Poe could easily have written this fine story (26). ( Wilson 1951): The tale reflects Bierce's own involvement in a particular Civil War battle, and the structure of the tale ironically foreshadows Bierce's own personal fate. This is one of Bierce's finest narratives (618). (Cunliffe 1962): This tale fuses the strongest aspects of both the traditional short story (which often ended with a twist) and the modern short narrative (which often focuses on a memorable incident) (25). (Woodruff 1964): The structure of the story is relevant to the shattering of Bierce's own illusions, especially his youthful illusions about war (160). One of Bierce's poems reads almost like an explication of this story (161). (Berkove 1969): Although the story may have been influenced by a Civil War battle in which Bierce had participated, the tale adopts a much more objective, distanced tone than Bierce used in an autobiographical account of that battle (25). (Grenander 1971): The story offers many interesting comparisons and contrasts with another of Bierce's best tales, "Chickamauga" (95). (Marcus 1971): The story shows the impact of Poe's insistence on concentrated unity. Poe would have appreciated this tale, which becomes increasingly frightening as it proceeds (19). (Voss 1973): Bierce's tale anticipates a later story by Conrad Aiken (214). (Geduld 1978): Robert Enrico's film version of this story raises many very precise questions about the process of adapting fiction to film (57). (Hayden 1980): Bierce's views of art, as embedded in this tale, resemble those of such other Romantics as Emerson and Shelley, although important distinctions also exist (13). (Fusco 1994): This story, especially its ending, shows the influence of the French writer Guy de Maupassant (112-13). The story shows that Bierce, like Maupassant, sought to leave a lasting impression on readers—an aesthetic ambition, although not one that is especially profound (115). (Owens 1994): Bierce himself saw two men executed by hanging during the Civil War (83). (Morris 1995): The drama from which Bierce's own first name was derived has a plot that strongly resembles the plot of this story (10; 218). Bierce himself had almost died during the Civil War, but he left no direct account of that event. However, various aspects of this story do reflect (sometimes extremely closely) places and activities with which he was personally familiar (218). (Bailey 2001): Robert Enrico’s filmed version of Bierce's tale is relatively true to the story, both in tone and in effect (166). Enrico's film, like Bierce's tale, tends to de-emphasize the particular historical circumstances of the narrative. Both story and film stress universal as-
The Text and the Critical Tradition 37
pects of experience (167). The conclusion of Robert Enrico's film emphasizes slowed movement rather than the abruptness emphasized in Bierce's tale (172). Various details of the story imply, when the work is re-read, that Farquhar's escape is a fiction. Such details are not as clearly present in Enrico's film (172). Bierce's story may have been affected by contemporary controversies about whether new technology made short, humane executions possible (173). (Berkove 2002): Bierce's tale almost seems to illustrate a maxim of the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (57). The revisions this story underwent between its first publication and later versions were relatively minor (113). [The one that is always reprinted is the final version, which is used here.] The story represents Bierce's mature response to events of a quarter-century earlier, even though the tale does not draw on any directly personal experiences. Nevertheless, it takes place near a battlefield with which Bierce himself was familiar (114). In composing this tale, Bierce likely seems to have been affected less by particular memories of the Civil War than by his subsequent reading, perhaps including a specific story by a friend of his. One passage, in particular, from this story suggests such an influence (114-15). Grisly newspaper accounts of executions probably also influenced Bierce's thinking. One specific account may have been of special interest, since it describes (and interviews) a man who did not die when hanged (116).
PLOT: (Crane 1968): Bierce's story is relatively uncomplex when compared with later works that use the same device of expanded consciousness at the moment of death (363). (Davidson 1982): This tale is simultaneously about war and about supernatural matters (8). (Fabó 1982): The events of the story are either chaotic or mechanical (225). The plot progresses through a series of alternating patterns (228). We are unsure whether Farquhar really escapes or just thinks he does (229). (Davidson 1984): The most important events in the tale are psychological and result in revelation (45). (Morris 1995): The events of the story reflect common conduct during the Civil War, especially in its depictions of tensions between the military and civilians (11). (Bailey 2001): Bierce shows little interest in the particular, precise circumstances that led Farquhar to his fate (166).
RECEPTION: (Anonymous 1898): This tale, like other examples of Bierce's war fiction, makes an indelible impression. Even Tolstoy would admire the perceptiveness about morality displayed by this story (16). (Cooper 1911): This story is a masterful demonstration of literary skill. It is long but is forceful and graphic. Although other writers had previously treated the same ideal Bierce uses here, that idea had never been presented more powerfully than Bierce presents it (36-37). (Anonymous 1918): This story is even better than another of Bierce's tales set during the Civil War (50). (Starrett 1920): This story is more famous than numerous others by Bierce (32). (Sterling 1927): This is the finest of Bierce's stories. His tales surpass Poe's in their skillful tone (xxxiv-xxxv). (Fatout 1951b): This is one of Bierce's most famous tales and illustrates the relations between his technical skill and his depictions of fictional people. Alienation tends to be an important theme in this work as in other fiction by Bierce (185). (Cunliffe 1962): Ernest Hemingway valued this tale and modeled one of his own best narratives on the structure of this one (27). (Solomon 1963-64): This is Bierce’s most-often-reprinted tale and resembles many other pieces of his writing in its bravura display of skill (187). (Cunliffe 1961): This tale is practically flawless and, by itself, made Bierce's life worthy of respect (254). (Weimer
38 Chapter II
The Text and the Critical Tradition 39
40 Chapter II
SECTION I: (Cunliffe 1962): This section emphasizes the mundane world as it really is (56). (Erskine 1973): The perspective and tone of the opening of this section are those of an observer who seems emotionally uninvolved, factually reliable, a bit superior, and only partially interested (70). As the focus of this section becomes increasingly panoramic, Farquhar seems less and less important as an individual (70). At the start of this section, the narrator expresses few evaluative opinions (70). (Davidson 1974): This section uses drab, plain language, rather than the heroic rhetoric of Section II, to describe the lives of soldiers (267). (Hayden 1980): Bierce emphasizes at first that there is nothing unusual about this occurrence (12). (Fabó 1982): This segment is a sequence of frozen movements (228). (Davidson 1984): The diction in this section is extremely dry and rigid (46). All the people in this section are precisely defined (47). The routine described here is far from the kind of military existence Farquhar had imagined (47). The phrasing of this segment is intentionally unemotional and impersonal (48). The language here never raises ethical issues. It thus stifles reflection and promotes death (48). ( Holladay 1986): This segment mostly reports objective events (1643). After a starkly unemotional beginning, the tone of this section changes as the focus shifts to Farquhar (1643; 1646). (Davidson 1988): This section foreshadows the very end of the tale by already distinguishing between external and subjective experience (26). (Linkin 1988): This section already foreshadows the distorted perceptions of time that will play such a large role later in the story (138). We tend to disregard the clues this section provides about how we should respond to the rest of the narrative (138). The language of the narrator in this section stresses military diction (138). As the section proceeds, the narrator begins to empathize more with the protagonist, and readers begin to respond more positively to both, and especially to Farquhar (139). Cleverly, Bierce no sooner begins to suggest the complexity of his narrator than he abandons the narrator's point of view and adopts instead the perspective of Farquhar himself (140). Changes in narrative perspective in this section are signaled by changes in the locations of the men on the bridge. The former changes, however, are not immediately obvious (140-41). In Section I, Bierce makes us share Farquhar's own disorientation by making various aspects of the narration ambiguous (141). (Joshi 1990): Ironically, although the section describes what is really happening, its style makes it seem far more dream-like than Section III (50). (Morris 1995): The phrasing in this section is exact and full of martial jargon and makes the ultimate outcome of the tale inevitable (216-17). (Berkove 2002): In its minute descriptions, this section resembles another story by Bierce. The mood of this section is sardonic, although that fact is not at first apparent (117). The narrator of this section seems reliable, although his tone is sardonic in an extremely understated and sophisticated way, and it is so even in the unrevised version of the tale. The narrator's sardonic point of view involves not only matters in the tale but also the tale's readers, whom he repeatedly teases and tricks (117-18).
SECTION II: (Cunliffe 1962): In this section, Bierce stirs up our positive feelings for Farquhar (27). (Marcus 1971): Although this section is the second one of the story, the events it describes are chronologically prior to the events described in Sections I and III (16). The chief purpose of the present section is explanatory, although its disruption of normal chronology also prepares us for the story's final sentence (16). Robert Enrico's film version of the story almost entirely deletes this section of Bierce's tale (22). (Davidson 1974): Although Farquhar enjoys a
The Text and the Critical Tradition 41
SECTION III: (Cunliffe 1962): The minutiae described in this section make escape seem credible at first (26). Eventually it becomes clearer and clearer in this section that Farquhar is only living out an imagined hope (26). (Wiggins 1964): The many details in this segment help interest the reader (200). (Woodruff 1964): Ironically, Bierce’s fantasy seems more vivid and convincing than the drab description of the “real” events (154). Bierce's heavy emphasis on concrete details in this section helps make the segment seem highly credible (158). (Crane 1968): Here as elsewhere, Bierce sentimentally emphasizes
The Text and the Critical Tradition 43
(Stoicheff 1993): This segment of the story both enlightens and deliberately confuses readers. The narrative both reflects and deflects the details of Farquhar's hanging (349-50). Farquhar's dream in Section III resembles the accounts of dreams provided by the most prominent nineteenth-century scholar of dreaming (350-51). Section III implies an ever-increasing division of units of time (351). Strangulation, a snapped neck, and then swinging are the three basic physical events Farquhar experiences in this section, and they are reflected in various details of his fantasy—although not necessarily in the three-stage sequence just mentioned (353). In this segment, Bierce is not merely implying that Farquhar's perceptions are “unreal” but that they reflect a kind of dream (353). Farquhar's
desire to see his escape as heroic (and not as cowardly) reflects Freud's idea that dreams often involve repression (354). The incredible aspects of Section III do not merely alert the attentive reader to the fact that the experience is a fantasy but also imply why Farquhar, in particular, would fantasize in precisely this “heroic” way (355). (Bailey 2001): Even an attentive reader will probably not realize, until a second reading, that Section III is a fantasy (168). Robert Enrico's film most resembles Section III of Bierce's tale (170). In Section III, the passage of time shifts from seeming very slow to seeming very fast (171). Farquhar's time “in the water” could not, in reality, last more than three minutes (171). The time he spends “fleeing,” once he “surfaces,” could not realistically last more than twenty minutes, and perhaps no more than five (171). (Berkove 2002): The beauty of some of the language in this section makes many readers resist admitting that the beauties are false or that Farquhar, the “perceiver” of the beauties, is a criminal (130). The narrator shuttles very subtly in this section between his own caustic point of view and the deluded perspective of Farquhar (130-31). In the next-to-last paragraph, the narrative skillfully changes tenses. In part this change reflects Farquhar's subconscious realization that death is imminent (132).
SETTING: (Woodruff 1964): The woods in Section III represent the depths of Farquhar's own thoughts and feelings (159). (Hayden 1980): Here as elsewhere, Bierce depicts a human being in the midst of a hostile or indifferent setting (3; 11). (Owens 1994): The Alabama locale is appropriate since the northern section of this state was the site of fierce conflict toward the end of the War Between the States. Nonetheless, the real Owl Creek was located in an adjacent state. The creek bordered a battlefield where Bierce himself had fought in 1862 (82). Many historical and geographical facts are relevant to the story (82-83). Bierce himself lived in northern Alabama after the war and mapped part of the territory (83). He probably intentionally relocated the Owl Creek of his story to Alabama when he composed his tale, perhaps because the real Owl Creek was not located near a rail line, whereas northern Alabama was crossed by two such lines (84). These lines were often the target of Confederate attack (84). Almost certainly Bierce had a particular rail line in mind when writing this story (85). One specific real location seems especially likely as the setting of the tale (83-84). Because owls often were associated both with knowledge and with mortality, the setting at Owl Creek seems appropriate since Farquhar learns by dying. Bierce seems to have deliberately chosen to emphasize the owl image, even to the point of changing the name of the real creek on which the story’s setting seems to have been based (85). (Bailey 2001): Neither Bierce's story nor Enrico's film is interested in emphasizing an especially particular historical context. Each work is more interested in the broader implications of its narrative (166). Bierce tends to de-emphasize the spe
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cific Civil War setting since such details are less important to him than are the more general implications of the story (167).
STRUCTURE: (Boynton 1927): Although this story is not any better than Bierce's other best writing, it is frequently praised for its clever structure and its shocking conclusion (84). (Wilson 1951): Bierce’s own life resembles the structure of this tale (634). (Grenander 1957): Here as in other tales by Bierce, the main character mistakenly assumes that he is not in true danger (213). (Cunliffe 1962): The final sentences of each section exemplify the skill with which Bierce has constructed the whole story (25). The story would be far less effective if its events were narrated in exact chronological sequence—i.e., if Section II preceded Section I (27). (Solomon 1963-64): The story is typical of Bierce's best work in its brevity and in its focus on a crucial instant in time (184). (Weimer 1964): The structure of this story resembles the structures of six of Bierce's other Civil War tales (230-31). This bravura work is especially remarkable for the way it manipulates time, which Bierce does better here than in others of his war stories (235). (Crane 1968): In this story as well as in similar narratives, the experience is given a four-fold structure. However, Bierce and two other writers who used this structure disagree about the nature of the third phase of the process (362). (Grenander 1971): Part of the effect of the tale results from a particular connection of protagonist to story-line—one that creates apprehension along with the unpleasant understanding that the apprehension is unmercifully out of place (93-94). (Marcus 1971): Bierce violates standard temporal patterns, so that most of the writing is devoted to events that consume just a few seconds of actual time (14). The story emphasizes the description of events, although this description alternates with brief touches of terror (15). The narrator's inserted interpretive comments aid the story in some ways but damage it in others (16-17). (Logan 1977): The story is very precisely structured (197). Bierce manipulates and alternates varying perspectives in Section I (202-03). The way Bierce distinguishes between the present rank of the captain and the possible former life of the sergeant typifies the precision with which he manipulates perspectives (202). Constantly shifting perspectives are central to the structure of this whole story (203). The faster Farquhar's mind labors, the slower his experiences seem (204). (Rubens 1978): Bierce plays with both the protagonist’s and the reader’s experiences of time, so that readers share Farquhar's experience even as they are being given enough information to puzzle out the truth (29). (Fabó 1982): The story is structured around a series of paired opposites, such as the two soldiers who guard either end of the bridge (226). The mirror-like structure of the story is reflected also in the way it ends where it begins: a living Farquhar standing on the bridge becomes a dead Farquhar swinging beneath the bridge (227). The story is full of intensifying repetitions. Its structure, like the ticking of the watch, is highly rhythmic (227). The story is full of pulsating patterns; the ticking watch is just one example (227-28). The tale is organized as a series of reverberating and everwidening circles (228). Farquhar grins when he encounters the scout and then cries when he thinks he has escaped. These mirror images typify the kinds of patterns that help structure the story (230). (Cheatham and Cheatham 1984): Bierce ends each section with a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact statement that subverts any unrealistic rhetoric that may precede it (46). (Davidson 1984): Each segment of the tale focuses on a different mode of seeing (46). Bierce's use of flashback here resembles his use of it in much (but not all) of his other fiction
The Text and the Critical Tradition 45
(108). His use of symbols and themes in this story differs from his use of seemingly similar devices in another tale (109). (Cheatham and Cheatham 1985): Every segment of the tale ends with a no-nonsense assertion of fact that subverts the over-blown language that sometimes comes before (221). The final sentence of each section involves not only a change in style but also a shift to an objective point of view (221). F.J. Logan exaggerates the precision with which Bierce alternates between different styles of narration and different points of view (221). Bierce wavers in his use of his narrative perspectives, partly because he must do so. However, such wavering makes F.J. Logan’s over-subtle analysis unnecessary (222). The kind of narration Bierce needed in order to make seamless alterations in point of view was not conceived until the twentieth century. In Bierce’s day, only two basic narrative voices were available (222). F.J. Logan is too sophisticated for his own good in describing Bierce's shifts in narrative voice. Parts of Logan’s analysis are unnecessary (223). Bierce's shifts in narrative point of view are often less subtle than Logan suggests. The shifts work, but they are rarely inconspicuous (223-24). (Holladay 1986): The first and second segments are so much focused on matters of fact, and are so pervaded with a neutral tone, that the reader is thereby lulled into accepting the plausibility of section three (1646). (Reynolds 1987): Bierce's alternation of perspectives in this tale is relevant to a reading of Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage (61-62). (Davidson 1988): Like most of Bierce's tales, this one is brief and has separate sections (25). (Linkin 1988): At three crucial points, Bierce begins a sentence with the word “As” in order to emphasize the central theme of time (150). (Stoicheff 1993): All the events of the story seem to occur over a span of about one day (352). (Fusco 1994): Bierce uses the surprise ending to display his control of his readers (115). (Walz 1995): The basic structure of this story has been adapted by other artists to other works, sometimes to express ideas different from the ones Bierce emphasizes (262). (Bailey 2001): The narrative focus of Bierce’s tale eventually narrows so that only Farquhar’s perceptions are emphasized (167). Enrico’s film adopts a more conventional structure than Bierce's tale (167). The episode centering on the ticking of Farquhar's watch is crucial to the entire tale, since it signals the story's basic shift to an emphasis on Farquhar's subjective impressions. This emphasis is especially dominant in Section III. The watch functions in an extremely different way in Robert Enrico's film (169-70). (Berkove 2002): Bierce alters the story’s point of view in four closely connected ways. At first the point of view is very broad; then it narrows; then it moves inside Farquhar’s mind; then eventually it shifts from present to past (120). The story’s point of view shifts between past, present, and future (121). Although some of Bierce’s other stories are not as rich as this one, they are often structured in similar ways (152). F.J. Logan’s comments on the logical structures of Bierce's tale are valuable (210-11).
46 Chapter II
devices (70). The phrasing, in the first part of Section I, tends to emphasize brevity, abruptness, and relatively simple sentence structure. Such language is somewhat off-putting and makes readers unsympathetic to the military mind set (70). As Bierce focuses more and more on Farquhar in Section I, the language and sentence structure become more complex and the rhythms become more gradual (71). Bierce links a lyrical style to Farquhar and a mechanistic style to the descriptions of the soldiers and the hanging. The contrasting kinds of language reflect contrasting outlooks on life (71). Section III reverses the deadening prose of Section I; instead, the style in the third section is highly rhythmic and full of images (72). The style of Section III draws on such techniques as repeated consonants, broken syntax, and similar units of phrasing (73). The phrasing in Section III overpowers the diction of Section I (73). The diction used almost at the very end of Section III is farthest removed from the martial language that predominates in Section I (74). In the last several paragraphs of Section III, Bierce uses many devices of figurative language (74). (Davidson 1974): The language in Section I is mostly devoid of emotions; the language in Section II is full of over-blown emotion; the language in Section III is full of subtle emotions and feelings (269). (Logan 1977): Bierce employs a variety of characteristic rhetorical devices in this story (201). He often uses repetitive, tedious phrasing to suggest mechanical characters and events (201). He juxtaposes understatement with overstatement to parody both kinds of language and the kinds of thinking they represent (202). He subtly and effectively uses particular rhythmic patterns as well as patterns of repeated consonant sounds (203). His shifts in point of view when describing the ticking watch symbolize the skill with which he varies perspectives (203). (Fabó 1982): As part of a general pattern of repetition, Bierce often reports Farquhar’s perceptions first by using clearly structured phrasing and then by making similar phrasing seem chaotic and broken. Such tactics deliberately retard the speed of the narrative, so that each datum gets maximum attention (230). (Grenander 1982): The style of this story is more impressionistic than realistic or naturalistic (33). (Powers 1982): The escape is described with active, not passive, verbs (277). (Davidson 1984): Paradoxically, the closer Farquhar comes to death, the more vital his perceptions—and Bierce’s language—become (49). The last part of the tale is a highly impressive piece of writing; its style reinforces Bierce’s insights about the ways we see (50). (Butterfield 1985): Here as in another effective tale, Bierce emphasizes strange perceptions conveyed without sound (143). (Holladay 1986): The tale opens with uncomplicated, matter-of-fact diction (1643). Bierce's skill as a stylist is crucial to the effectiveness of this tale. His combination of opposite tones is especially effective (1645). The emphasis on exclamations in Section III should imply—to a careful reader—that the description of events may not be trustworthy (1646). The only two previous exclamations in the tale had occurred in the first segment and had been associated with Farquhar’s subjectivity and imprecise perceptions (1646). The diction of the third segment is often highly general, highly imprecise, or highly emphatic (1646). (Davidson 1988): This tale fuses aspects of three major genres Bierce usually explored in his short fiction: gothic writing, military narrative, and stories emphasizing the bizarre and the absurd (25). A particular kind of diction is used in each segment. The diction in segment one is detached and martial; the diction in segment two is patriotic jargon, fraudulent and self-deluding; the diction in segment three is luxuriant and full of sensory details (25-26). (Linkin 1988): Bierce intentionally writes the story in such a way that readers will share Farquhar’s
The Text and the Critical Tradition 47
chaotic experiences (138). The narrator tends not merely to describe military procedures but to celebrate military values, sometimes almost lyrically. In this sense the narrator seems to differ from Bierce (139). Bierce’s language in Section I is often deliberately and effectively ambiguous, especially in its use of pronouns and other referents (141). The narrator of Section I emphasizes visual imagery, while the narrator in Section II emphasizes sounds(144). (Joshi 1990): Lucid writing is crucial to this story’s success, especially since it helps Bierce make Section III seem far more alive (paradoxically) than Section I (50). (Stoicheff 1993): The rhetorical devices Bierce employs in this tale reflect literal impossibility but still seem highly credible (351).(Fusco 1994): In Section I, Bierce alternates between objective and subjective styles in order to emphasize the theme of time (113). (Morris 1995): The story combines two kinds of writing Bierce had previously used separately: the war tale and the tale of mysterious or bizarre events (215).(Berkove 2002): This tale, when compared with two others, exemplifies the growth of Bierce’s stylistic talent (101). Although the narrator’s commendations of Farquhar are obvious, his much more frequent condemnations are subtle and depend on the reader’s intelligence if they are to be fully perceived (119). Comments by M.E. Grenader about Bierce’s distinctive combination of terror and irony are applicable to this tale (201).
THEME(S): (Partridge 1927): This is an exceptional tale of the human mind (12). (Fatout 1951b): Alienation tends to be an important theme in this work as in other fiction by Bierce (185). (Cunliffe 1962): The story implies the differences between realistic and idealistic ways of thinking and living (27). It implies the meanness and absurdity of warfare (27). The meaning of this tale resembles that of another memorable story by Bierce (27). (Bahr 1963): Bierce often writes, as here, about the final moments of a person’s existence. Although this interest in death might seem bizarre, death is actually one of the only events all persons share (161). (Woodruff 1964): Like many of Bierce’s tales about war, this one contrasts not only logic and fantasy but also intellect and emotion. Like the other tales, it features movement through woods that seem threatening to a central character and the eventual understanding that man’s fate can only be mortality and misery. This story, though, treats these common Biercean themes in an especially effective way (153). Farquhar’s dream of escape is rooted in the primal human impulse to survive (155). The story involves a descent into the depths of the human mind (150-57). Bierce had ambivalent views of the human capacity for fantasy (161). (Crane 1968): The device pioneered by Bierce in this story, and then later adopted by a few other writers, has been called “post-mortem consciousness” (361).In his last split second of existence, Farquhar tries to make his own sense of impending chaos (361). Like many of Bierce’s other writings, this tale emphasizes the vanity of human existence (365). (Fadiman 1968): The story implies how profound is the instinct to live (xvi). (Berkove 1969): War is a key topic in this tale as well as in some of Bierce’s other best-known stories. Often Bierce explored war in the largest senses of that term rather than in the most narrow senses (22). (Davidson 1970): This story trips up any readers whose views of war naive (2-3). (Grenander 1971): Here as elsewhere, Bierce plays with perceptions of time (139). (Marcus 1971): The story explores such issues as cruelty or mistreatment; the persistence of hierarchy even in the face of a seemingly indifferent mortality; and. how the loveliness of nature is usually overlooked (15). Bierce deftly combines the theme of cruelty with a story of
48 Chapter II
grotesque terror (16). (Erskine 1973): The first section of the story implies that the social order is not so much antagonistic toward individuals as completely oblivious (70). The story juxtaposes (especially in Sections I and II) the individual and the institutions in which he is enmeshed. It also juxtaposes lofty human aspirations with the cold facts of war (71). Time is a crucial topic in this tale (72). The story subverts not so much the illusions of Farquhar or the reader as the illusions of humanity in general (75). (Davidson 1974): This tale, which explores a trio of modes of comprehending the world and the events that affect each mode, also illustrates Bierce’s sophisticated understanding of how language works (265). Although Farquhar sought an individual identity through war, war
The Text and the Critical Tradition 49
anced but contradictory alternatives (229). In this work, intense sensations often are replaced by an absence of sensation altogether (229). (Grenander 1982): This tale, like many of Bierce’s best, explores mental suffering caused by abrupt and frightening confrontations (28). It is one of various tales by Bierce describing psychological transformations in response to external events (32). Differences in perspectives are an important theme of this story (33). (Powers 1982): Farquhar’s fantasy of escape allows him to enjoy a life of intense emotion probably not available to him in his rigidly organized civilian existence (280). (Stark 1983): Most of the events of the tale are projections of Farquhar’s own intense desires (225). (Davidson 1984): Farquhar is deluded as much by his own ideas as by the Northern spy. He then deludes himself further through his fantasy of escape (13). This story fuses three thematic patterns commonly found in Bierce's fiction. These focus on the lucky survivor, the deluded casualty, and the figure who learns from suffering (45). In this tale as in others by Bierce, revelation is also a crucial theme (45-46). Farquhar’s perceptions in part three, although inaccurate in a strict sense, often reflect a deeper understanding of his own circumstances than he had earlier possessed (52). Farquhar learns to value the home life he had earlier neglected, just as he also learns to value life itself (53). Paradoxically, his existence is most intense just as it comes to an end (54). In this story and in others by Bierce, reader and protagonist make the same mistaken assumption, although readers have a chance to learn from their errors (55). Sometimes Bierce dealt in a more humorous way with the serious issues this story raises (75). One function of this tale is to instruct readers in the restrictions human beings face in their attempts to achieve accurate knowledge. In this respect Bierce was ahead of his time (123). Bierce views war as involving a regression from full humanness (126). He mocks heroism in this tale (127). (Holladay 1986): This tale is representative of Bierce’s fiction because it explores an unexpected topic; because it is darkly comic; and because it concludes with a bitter shift (1644). Bierce often uses his fiction to depict the ugliness of war (1645). Here as elsewhere Bierce often tries to get inside the mind of a character whose thoughts are intense. By depriving his readers of all the facts in this tale, Bierce makes us realize how our brains invent details if details are not obviously available (1645). (Linkin 1988): Bierce’s skepticism about war and about military life may distinguish him from the narrator of this tale (139). Bierce explores the complex relations between the experiences of thought and narrative (143). At three crucial points, Bierce begins a sentence with the word “As” in order to emphasize the central theme of time (150). (Davidson 1988): The distinction between external and subjective experience is a crucial topic in Bierce's creative writing in general (26). (Joshi 1990): Inescapable isolation is a key theme in this tale as in many of Bierce's tales about war. Farquhar is, paradoxically, isolated in the midst of a crowd (47). (Stoicheff 3): Bierce suggests, in this story and in one piece of his non-fiction, that the moment of death may seem longer to the person dying than it seems to external observers (351). Section III implies an ever-increasing division of units of time (351). Bierce’s story is relevant to the study of dreams in the nineteenth century both by Sigmund Freud and by Louis Maury. Maury emphasized how external stimuli affect dreams, while Freud emphasized how dreams are affected by a person’s subconscious (356). (Fusco 1994): The story illustrates how fiercely people refuse death (115). (Owens 1994): Farquhar’s demise can be interpreted as the demise of escapist, transcendentalist ideas (85). (Solomon 1994): Like some of Bierce’s other tales, this one is brief but full of enormous paradox as a human
50 Chapter II
TITLE: (Cunliffe 1962): The title implies that what happens in this tale is quite insignificant (27). (Berkove 1969): The objective tone of the story is implied even by its title (25). (Marcus 1971): The word “occurrence” ironically implies an unimportant event (22-23). (Logan 1977): The neutral word “occurrence” suggests that Bierce will simply describe what happens (207). (Powers 1982): The owl of the title may symbolize a kind of secret wisdom and may thus be relevant to the story’s subtle revelations about Farquhar (279). (Berkove 2002): The word “occurrence” is intentionally neutral and unemphatic (206).
The Text and the Critical Tradition 51
THE RICHES OF THE TEXT
Robert C. Evans
Any reading of any work depends on theoretical assumptions, but relatively few readers are consciously aware of the interpretive ideas they assume or take for granted. One purpose of literary study is to make those assumptions self-conscious, so that they can be carefully examined and can then be either freely embraced, ultimately rejected, or deliberately combined. By being self-consciously aware not only of one’s own assumptions but also of the often contrasting and conflicting assumptions made by others, one can deeply enrich the reading of any literary work. Different interpretive approaches function, in a sense, as “equipment for readings”—equipment that offers one a huge range of questions to consider as one moves through a text. When texts are read with such questions in mind and with close attention to their minute details, even the briefest writings yield fascinating insights into the craftsmanship and conundrums that comprise any accomplished work.
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Over the years I have solicited their written responses or recorded their in-class reactions to Bierce’s story. The results are the commentaries reproduced in the following sections—commentaries that not only provide, perhaps, the richest, most detailed response ever offered to this particular work but that also offer (I hope) models of a kind of interactive, dialogic, pluralistic interpretive procedure that does its best to avoid the reductivism often inherent in even the best literary criticism. The numerous ideas and insights produced by the kind of on-going dialogue recorded below often conflict with one another, but that, I think, is part oftheir value: the chief purpose of the present experiment in criticism is not so much to provide answers as to stimulate questions. The goal is not to proscribe further thought but instead to provoke it. By offering sometimes clashing perspectives, the commentaries reproduced in the following pages implicitly invite each reader to choose which interpretations, if any, make most sense—or to offer his or her own readings of a particular word, phrase, or passage.
Although explicit familiarity with literary theory is not necessary in order to read and understand the following commentary on “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a quick review may nonetheless help. One of the best ways of grasping any theory is still the approach outlined long ago by M.H. Abrams. In the introduction to his classic study The Mirror and the Lamp, Abrams argued that any literary theory that tries to be complete must account for four basic aspects of literature: the author, the text, the audience, and the universe (or “reality”). Abrams' list can be usefully supplemented by adding a fifth category: the role or function of the critic herself. Any reasonably well developed theory, in other words,
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will be a theory about all these factors and the relations among them.  The assumptions a theorist makes about the author, for example, will inevitably affect (and be affected by) the assumptions he makes about the text, the audience, “reality” and the purposes of criticism. Indeed, Abrams argues that each theory will tend to emphasize one of these aspects as the crucial ormost important.
PLATONIC CRITICISM: Because Plato prizes an accurate, objective understanding of reality, he sees “creative” writers and “literary” texts as potential distractions since they may lead the already-emotional audience to neglect proper pursuit of philosophical truth, which the critic should seek, explain, and defend by using logic and reason.
 For a much more detailed explanation and defense of the ideas mentioned here and in the following paragraphs, see my “Introduction” to Robert C. Evans, Anne C. Little, and Barbara Wiedmann, Short Fiction: A Critical Companion (West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 1997), xv-lxxvi. This book also contains detailed and diverse student responses to one of Kate Chopin’s short tales—“The Story of an Hour” (271-95). For similarly detailed student responses to two other stories by Chopin (“Caline” and “La Belle Zoraïde), see pages 339-432 of my book Kate Chopin’s Short Fiction: A Critical Companion (West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 2001).
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HORATIAN CRITICISM: Because Horace emphasizes the need to satisfy a diverse audience, he tends to see the author as attempting to please and/or teach them, the text as embodying principles of custom and moderation (so as to please the widest possible audience), “reality” as understood in traditional or conventional terms, and the critic as a fatherly advisor who tries to prevent the author from making a fool of himself.
LONGINIAN CRITICISM: Because “Longinus” (whose real identity is unknown) stresses the ideally lofty nature of the sublime (i.e., elevated) author, he tends to view the text as an expression of the author’s power, the audience as desiring the ecstasy a great author can induce, social “reality” as rooted in a basic human nature that everywhere and always has a yearning for elevation, and the critic as (among other things) a moral and spiritual advisor who encourages the highest aspirations of readers and writers alike.
TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL CRITICISM: Because traditional historical critics tend to emphasize the ways social realities influence the writer, the writer’s creation of a text, and audience’s reactions to it, they stress the critic’s obligation to study the past as thoroughly and objectively as possible to determine how the text might have been understood by its original readers.
THEMATIC CRITICISM: Because thematic critics stress the importance of ideas in shaping social and psychological reality, they generally look for the ways those ideas are expressed by (and affect) the texts that writers create. They assume that audiences turn to texts for enlightenment as well as entertainment and that writers either express the same basic ideas repeatedly or that the evolution of their thinking can be traced in different works.
FORMALISM: Because formalists value the text as a complex unity in which all the parts contribute to a rich and resonant effect, they usually offer highly detailed (“close”) readings intended to show how the work achieves a powerful, compelling artistic form. Formalist critics help audiences appreciate how a work's subtle nuances contribute to its total effect.
PSYCHOANALYTIC CRITICISM: Freudian or psychoanalytic critics emphasize the key role of the human mind in perceiving and shaping reality and believe that the minds of writers, audiences, and critics are highly complex and often highly conflicted (especially in sexual terms, and particularly in terms of the moralistic “super-ego,” the rational ego, and the irrational “id”). They contend that such complexity inevitably af-
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GENERAL STUDENT COMMENTS
Ben Beard, John Conway, Michael Goldman,
PLATONIC CRITICISM: Because Platonic critics believe that creative writers confuse objective reality and subjective emotionalism, such analysts might be critical of Ambrose Bierce’s attempt at portraying the realities of war in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Platonists might contend that Bierce, in his effort to portray the futility of war and the harsh truth of an execution, undermines his objectivity when he provokes his audience’s sympathy and interjects theatrics into what should be a factual account. Furthermore, Bierce’s manipulation and deception of the audience encourage emotionalism and prevent a rational, philosophical inquiry into such important issues as honor, courage, and war. For example, Bierce opens the story by providing an apparently objective statement of the situation as he attempts to describe the execution of a novice saboteur. However, to create suspense and pique the audience’s interest, Bierce withholds essential facts (such as the name and background of the condemned man) and digresses by describing the irrelevant sensory experiences of the character. The deliberate delay in identifying Peyton Farquhar as the condemned man contradicts the objective, journalistic style and tone that Bierce had initially adopted in this opening section, with its straightforward description of the execution scene. Instead, Bierce allows the reader to drift into the irrational mind of the romantic Farquhar as his mind follows the shifting current of the creek. Instead of giving a factual account of the crime Farquhar has committed and the consequences this man’s death will have on others such as his wife and children, Bierce distracts the audience by recounting the protagonist’s hallucinations about ticking watch. Bierce thus shows that he
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FORMALIST CRITICISM: A formalist critic, who values a text as a complex artistic unity, can find grounds for both praise and criticism in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” One aspect of the story that a formalist might praise, for instance, is Bierce’s skillful combination of opposite tones and imagery. When Farquhar is being prepared for his execution, for example, he still has some vague hope of being able to escape. Corresponding to this vague hope is some sense of stability and order, as exemplified by the almost mechanical routine of the soldiers and by the overall static nature of the scene. However, after Farquhar is hanged, everything suddenly becomes fluid and chaotic. Farquhar imagines himself being tossed about by the swirling rapids below, only to be tossed later onto shore. He then imagines a journey home that will suddenly terminate before he reaches the loving embrace of his wife. The formalist critic would praise the juxtaposition of hope and despair and the corresponding juxtaposition of stability and chaos. A formalist might contend, however, that while this clever juxtaposition adds to the overall complexity of the story, Bierce falls short of achieving a fully complex unity. There seems to be a part of the puzzle missing, as the reader cannot perceive why Farquhar got himself into this predicament in the first place. Everything that takes place can be traced back to Farquhar’s inability to serve the Confederacy—an inability which (a formalist might argue) is carelessly explained as resulting from “circumstances of an imperious nature which it is unnecessary to relate here.” A formalist might argue that if Bierce had related the precise nature of these circumstances, his story would not only be better unified but also more plausible. [JK]
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SPECIFIC STUDENT COMMENTS
CONTRIBUTORS: Michelle Ackerman [MA]; Suzanne Armstrong [SA]; Eric W. Atkins [EWA]; Shannon M. Barco [SMB]; Bebe Barefoot [BB2]; Ben Beard [BB]; Larry Boswell [LB2]; Nataliya Bowden [NB]; Lee Bridges [LB]; Candice Briggs [CB]; Spencer Brothers [SB]; Scott Bruner [SB2]; Tanya Brummett [TB]; Maranda Bryant [MB]; Lisa Bush [LB2]; Karen Capps [KC]; Tabetha Carpenter [TC2]; Missi Carrier [MC]; Scott Champion [SC]; John Conway [JC]; Jessica Cook [JRC]; Tenika Cottingham [TC]; Melissa Crane [MC2]; Erika Davis [ED]; Shannon Davis [SD2]; Shannon Dean [SD]; Foster Dickson [FD]; Lauren Duke [LD]; Paul Duke [PD]; Kathleen Durrer [KD]; Heather Edwards [HE]; Leslie Evans [LE]; Angie Fuhrman [AF]; Robert C. Evans [RCE]; Heather Finley [HF]; Erin Gambino [EG]; Jimmy Garrett [JG]; Jeff Glass [JG2]; Michael Goldman [MG]; Shelley Green [SG]; Kenneth W. Griffin [KWG]; Anthony T. Hagan [ATH]; Gina M. Harper [GMH]; Barbara Hartin [BH]; Nikisha Hayes [NH]; Scott Hayles [SH2]; Phyllis Hedrick [PH]; Charlotte Henderson [CH]; Sonjanika Henderson [SH]; Deborah Cosier Hill [DCH]; Russ Holder [RH]; Laketa Huddleston [LH]; Jenny Hudson [JH]; Glenn Hunt [GH]; Jennifer Jacobs [JJ2]; Hashim C. Jeffries [HCJ]; Jason Johnson [JJ]; Travis Jordan [TJ]; John Kelley [JK]; Mark Koehler [MK]; Monica Felicia Lee [MFL]; Meg Lewis [ML]; Tony Liang [TL]; Danon Lucas [DL]; Denah Lucas [DL2]; Regina G. Lucas [RGL]; Katie Magaw [KM]; Kathy Mayfield [KM2]; Mandy McAlister [MM]; LaWendy Meadows [LAM]; Daniel Meredith [DM]; Christy Meyers [CM]; Toinette Mitchell [TM]; Laura Moore [LM]; Josh Mustin [JM]; Zachery Myrick [ZM]; Kristi Owen [KO]; Jason Peacock [JP]; Pamela Combs Pettis [PCP]; Lane Powell [LP]; Neil Probst [NP]; Derrick Rainwater [DR2]; Alma Ramirez [AR]; Jennifer Richardson [JR]; Rian Rider [RR]; Denean Rivera [DR]; Marie Robinson [MR2]; Melissa Roth
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[MR]; Terri Richburg [TR]; Katrina Sansom [KS]; Julie D. Sellers [JDS]; Tawanda Shaw [TS]; Kimberly Ann Sloss [KAS]; Mollie Smith [MS]; Charles Solomon [CS]; Quesha S. Starks [QSS]; Patrick Steele [PS2]; Caryn Stewart [CS2]; Frances Stewart [FS]; Patsy Stewart [PS]; Randy C. Stone [RCS]; Laura Stough [LS]; Sara Sweeton [SS]; Daniel Talley [DT]; Lori Taylor [LT]; Monica G. Tindol [MGT]; Mike Trotter [MT]; Barbrietta Turner [BT]; Sharon Watts [SW2]; Michael Webb [MW]; Marge West [MW2]; Ashley Wilkins [ANW]; Lisa Williams [LW]; Sasha Woods [SW]; Jonathan Wright [JW].
(These initials are used to identify the sources of the comments reprinted below. When students have independently arrived at the same idea, their initials have been listed in alphabetical order. When an individual student
An Occurrence at Owl Creek BridgeThe title of this story, like so much else, is effectively ambiguous. The word “Occurrence” allows for the possibility of Farquhar’s escape, whereas a title such as “A Hanging at Owl Creek Bridge” would have been more accurate but also less ambiguous [EWA]. Like much of the language in the first section of the story, the word “occurrence” is highly objective and neutral; it carries no strong emotional overtones [TS]. A READER-RESPONSE CRITIC might appreciate this objective tone, since it encourages each reader to respond to the story’s details, as well as to its central character, from his or her own perspective [RH]. By the end of the tale we will realize that there have in fact been at least two “occurence[s]” at Owl Creek Bridge: one external and the other internal, one physical and the other psychological [BH]. The name “Owl Creek Bridge” suggests that this stream is associated with nocturnal birds of prey -- symbolism appropriate for a story that seems so full of darkness and death, particularly since Farquhar will later feel so fiercely hunted [RGL; EWA]. The fact that Farquhar is being hanged from a “Bridge” seems especially ironic, since bridges are specifically designed to make life easier for people and keep them from danger [DM]. Symbolically, a bridge is a point of transition, of passage from one place to another [MGT]. The bridge in this story will serve, paradoxically, as the means by which Farquhar passes from life to death [DM; DT].
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I. 1. A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below.
Both an ARISTOTELIAN and a FORMALIST critic might admire the way Bierce plunges us immediately into the midst of his story (in medias res), thereby already catching us by surprise as he begins a story that also ends with a stunning surprise [MFL; ANW]. At the same time, the language here is extremely plain and objective, as it is throughout most of the first two sections of the tale. Nothing in this diction would lead us to suspect that anything unusual or mysterious is about to happen [JC]. A FORMALIST critic might appreciate the opening reference to the main character as simply a “man,” since the extreme generalness of this word invites any member of the audience to identify with him, even as it also immediately creates a hunger for more specific information about him [KM; ANW]. An ARCHETYPAL critic, concerned with whatever traits are fundamentally shared by all human beings, would also appreciate the generality of the word “man” [KM; AR]. Such a critic might argue that in a story so much concerned with the fundamental existential dilemma of a person facing death, issues of precise, idiosyncratic identity are relatively unimportant [JG2]. On the other hand, a feminist critic might argue that the word “man” signals that this will be a story by a male author, featuring a male central character, and adopting a characteristically male perspective. Rather than seeing the word “man” as inclusive, therefore, a FEMINIST might see it as exclusionary [KM]. A FORMALIST would also appreciate the way the sentence juxtaposes opposites [KM], since it immediately establishes a motif that will be central to the tale as a whole: the contrast between motion and stillness -- qualities later associated with such related contrasts as action and inaction, life and death. The fact that the man looks “down” may already imply his sense of dejection and defeat and may also foreshadow his ultimate direction of movement. Might this phrasing also suggest that the man has been praying, or has been trying to do so? [NP]. Or could this opening sentence be interpreted, ironically, as imply that the man is merely enjoying a pleasant view? [AR] The opening sentence manages to mention the story’s two main settings: both the “bridge” and the “waters.” The “bridge” is emphasized in the first section; the “waters” are emphasized in the third section. The second section focuses on Farquhar’s home [QSS]. The stillness of the man, in contrast to the “swift[ness]” of the water, may even be taken to symbolize the inevitable death of each individual person, in contrast with the eternal vitality of nature [RCS]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might in fact appreciate the power of this opening juxtaposition of a still, isolated man and the dynamic power of nature [MFL]. Certainly the contrast between stillness and “swift[ness]” is relevant to the structure of the story itself, especially to the contrast between its opening and closing halves [MB; KM], and particularly because, by the end of the story, this man will be “still” in the most profound sense possible [NP]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might see the reference to the “swift waters” as a complex image implying both vitality [KM; NP] and destructiveness and thus as playing both on a fundamental desire and a fundamental fear of all human beings [KM]. The symbolic association of water and life is ironic in this case, since the man is so near to death [NP]. The very brevity of this sentence makes it all the more effective; it provides enough information to interest us, but it does not tell us everything we need or want to know. Bierce provides no discriminating details about the “man,” and by failing to provide such information he actually stimulates our interest in this unnamed person. There is a pos-
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sibility that his situation is ominous -- even, ironically, that he is perhaps suicidal -- but we can’t be sure [NP; RCS; SW]. Indeed, the sentence is fundamentally ambiguous: we are not told who this man is or why he is standing on this bridge or why he is looking into the water. Not until the second sentence do we begin even to sense that this man is in danger [RCE]. The imagery of the “railroad bridge” seems crucial to this story. Certainly in American fiction, railroads are often symbols of freedom and escape. This symbolism is ironic in light of Peyton Farquhar’s situation of captivity [PD]. Bierce’s reference to the “railroad,” however, would also interest a TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic, who might note that the North was far more industrialized than the South and that the North’s superiority in modern transportation gave it a distinct advantage during the war. On the one hand Farquhar feels that he must destroy the “railroad bridge” to prevent further Northern incursions into the South, but the destruction of the bridge could also only further damage the South’s own prospects for winning the war. Thus Farquhar’s attempt to destroy the bridge, like so much else in this story, seems inherently paradoxical [EWA]. The “bridge” also seems significant, symbolizing a joining of two things. As the specific point from which Peyton is hanged, the bridge imagery is ironic in the context of the Civil War. This symbolic link between the North and the South will, paradoxically, be the cause of Farquhar’s demise. The end of the war, and the consequent peace between the North and the South, will both figuratively and literally cause the demise of Farquhar and the system he represents [EWA; PD]. In a broader, sense the fact that Farquhar stands in the middle of a “bridge” symbolically suggests that he has come to a crucial crossroads in his life -- a point of “in-betweenness” from which he must move in one direction or another [LS]. The imagery of the “water” seems significant. An ARCHETYPAL critic, interested in common human symbols, might suggest that Bierce perhaps mentions the “water” of the creek not only to provide some sense of movement and life but to introduce an element by which Farquhar will later feel somewhat purified: his plunge into the water will have, for him, a kind of redemptive, cleansing significance, as if he can wash off the stain of his captivity [EWA]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might also argue that the “water” symbolizes the subconscious. Thus the fact that Peyton’s later “escape” occurs through the water may already imply that the escape is a mere fantasy [PD], and Peyton himself may already be staring into the water as his only (remote) hope of possible escape [RCS].
I.2. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord.
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“hands,” which will be the subject of much attention later on. The fact that Bierce stresses so clearly and emphatically so early in the narrative that Farquhar’s hands are not only tied “behind his back” but are also have their “wrists bound with a cord” should make the later apparent freedom of Farquhar’s hands seem quite unlikely. It would be difficult enough to free one’s hands if they were merely tied; it would be all the more difficult to free them when they are bound behind one’s back. Bierce, then, is almost immediately providing a careful reader with strong reasons to doubt the probability of Farquhar’s later apparent escape [RCE]. Symbolically, the fact that the man’s “hands” are bound suggests that his destiny is no longer under his own control, since “hands” are frequently one of the main tools and symbols of human action. Both literally and figuratively, this man can no longer manipulate his fate [AR]. The reference to the “cord” introduces the first of many circular images into this story -- a story which itself possesses a clearly circular structure [EWA; AF]. Here and elsewhere in the story, such circular imagery is juxtaposed with vertical imagery: Farquhar’s hands are “bound with a cord,” but his body -- like so much else in these opening paragraphs -- stands rigid and straight [TR]. The “cord” reference is relevant to later, similar imagery -- imagery that becomes especially important after Farquhar apparently enters the water [AF]. It seems ironic that the word “cord” rather than “rope” is used, since the use of “cord” here may already help prepare for the story’s later ironic imagery likening the hangman’s noose to an umbilical cord (XIX.6). It seems highly paradoxical that Farquhar will finish his life at the end of a cord, since that is also how human life begins [PS2]. Perhaps the word “cord” is significant, too, because it may suggest that he is less firmly bound than another word (such as “rope”) might imply. In this case, the use of the word “cord” might help make his later fantasized escape seem more credible [GH]. Note that we do not even learn until the second half of this sentence that Farquhar’s hands are bound; all we know at first is that they are “behind his back.” The revelation that they are actually tied comes as a bit of a surprise, much as the structure of the story as a whole depends on a sudden surprise [KC; TC2; KAS]. The second phrase provides crucial information that clarifies the significance of the opening phrase, just as the story’s second sentence provides crucial information that clarifies the significance of the opening sentence. Indeed, much of the story is structured in this way: new details clarify the significance of details that preceded them until, in the very final sentence of the tale, the significance of the entire narrative becomes abruptly clear [SW]. The fact that Farquhar’s hands are “bound” is an effective way to symbolize his loss of independence, since hands often symbolize autonomy and activity. Moreover, the fact that Farquhar’s hands are “bound” also nicely foreshadows the later condition of his neck [NP]. The irony that Farquhar is “bound” becomes even sharper when we later learn that he is himself a slave-owner [ANW]. A TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic would be interested in knowing how accurate a description Bierce provides of the actual procedures by which a person was hanged by the Union Army during the Civil War. Because the first section of the story is so full of seemingly precise descriptions of real things and events, a historical critic would find this part of the story especially fascinating [TB].
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I.3. A rope closely encircled his neck.
Finally, by the third sentence of the story, it becomes clear that the unnamed man is in danger of losing his life, although we do not yet know whether the rope “encircl[ing] his neck” is there because he is being legally executed or because he is being illegally lynched. Ironically, such lynchings were, of course, a kind of “justice” more likely to be meted out to the slaves whom Farquhar owns than to a prosperous planter like himself [KD; SH; SH2]. Because this sentence is the most powerful and most important so far, Bierce emphasizes it by making it so brief [RR]. The fact that the rope is described as encircling Farquhar’s neck “closely” makes any likelihood of possible escape seem all the more improbable [KS]; by this very early point in the tale, Bierce has already created a sense of extreme hopelessness [RCS]. Ironically, the rope that now seems “closely” encircled around Farquhar’s neck will encircle it even more closely as the story proceeds, until the encircling becomes as close as possible in the final sentence of the tale [AF]. By using the word “encircled,” Bierce makes explicit the circular imagery that was already implied in the preceding sentence -- imagery that will also pervade the story and that will prove highly relevant to its structure [EWA]. The story itself, in a sense, comes full circle: it opens with a man standing rigidly on a bridge but closes with that same man swinging just as rigidly below that bridge. Both an ARISTOTELIAN and a FORMALIST critic would appreciate the symmetry with which this story is designed [RCE]. The transitive verb “encircled” almost makes the rope seem deliberately malevolent; imagine the difference in tone if Bierce had written that “a rope had been closely circled around his neck” [NP; PS2]. Just as water is often a symbol of life but is here linked to Farquhar’s death, so the circle is often a symbol of renewal but is here linked to his demise -- to a completion rather than a new beginning [NP]. The word “encircled” implies far less likelihood of escape than, say, the word “wrapped” would have suggested [KC; TC2]. The brevity of this sentence, combined with the fact that it comes so early in the story, gives it a paradoxical effect: it is as if Bierce is implying, even before the story hardly begun, that its crucial action is nearly finished. One wonders how -- or where -- the narrative can proceed much beyond the present point: in a sense, the story begins with what seems an ending [DL].
I.4. It was attached to a stout cross‑timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees.
The word “attached,” like the word “encircled” in the preceding sentence, helps emphasize the deterministic, cause-and-effect connections that are typical of the naturalistic fiction Bierce is composing. In a naturalistic universe, pure freedom does not and cannot exist: every thing and every person is bound to, or tied up with, a complex web of conditioning circumstances. Humans are tightly tied to their particular contexts and cannot act independently or autonomously [DL]. The reference to the “cross-timber” might perhaps be seen (especially by a sympathizer with the Confederacy) as an allusion to the crucifixion, and surely Farquhar himself probably considers himself a martyr for his cause [PS2]. The fact that the cross-timber is “stout” makes it all the less likely that the wood will break and that Farquhar will thereby be able to escape accidentally. His fate, therefore,
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seems even more rigidly defined than it had already seemed [AF]. Note how Bierce juxtaposes the “stout,” rigid timber with the “slack” of the rope. The story is full of such combinations of images with opposed connotations, and indeed the whole story juxtaposes the rigidity of confinement with the freedom of a supposed escape [AF]. Ironically, the very “slack” of the rope will make Farquhar’s subsequent fall and sudden stop all the more deadly: the more “slack” in a hangman’s rope, the greater will be the impact when the rope suddenly does snap the hanged man’s neck [GH; RR].
I.5. Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners ‑‑ two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff.A FORMALIST might appreciate the ironic use of such words as “loose” and “sleepers” to describe the boards from which Farquhar is about to be hanged, since these words imply relaxation and restfulness, while the ensuing death of Farquhar will be intense and violent [JJ]. Note also, however, how words such as “loose” and “laid” (as opposed, say, to “firm” or “nailed”) help to intensify our sense of Farquhar’s already-precarious position [LAM]. The narrator’s use of the word “sleepers” implies that he is familiar with the technical language of railway construction, just as he will later prove himself familiar with the arcana of military behavior. His expertise makes him seem a more credible narrator and thus makes us more willing to trust his account of events -- even when that account seems to become somewhat improbable, as it does in section three [EWA]. A DIALOGICAL critic, alert to any use of specialized language, would be particularly interested in Bierce’s reference to such technical terms as “sleepers” [EWA]. Note how effectively Bierce delays the key word “executioners”: only now do we discover for certain that this hanging is a legal procedure and that the men doing the hanging are acting according to law rather than engaging in an illegal lynching. Once Bierce has made this fact clear, he quickly identifies not only the particular ranks of the soldiers involved but the larger (“Federal”) cause they serve [RR]. A STRUCTURALIST critic, interested in the ways people structure their lives by defining it in terms of oppositions, would be interested in the numerous references in this sentence to various kinds of distinctions or divisions, such as the differences between the “private[s]” and the “sergeant,” between “civil life” and military life, between the prisoner and his “executioners,” etc. A STRUCTURALIST would argue that this way of dividing things into opposite categories is one of the prime ways that humans impose meaning on their existence [EWA; TB]. A HISTORICAL critic would be able to guess -- simply from the few facts mentioned so far (e.g., the reference to the railroad, the Alabama locale, and especially the mention of “the Federal army”) that the story takes place during the American Civil War [RCE]. A MARXIST critic, interested in class status, might note that war has helped the former “deputy sheriff” improve his rank and authority, at least temporarily. In the military as in civilian life, however, he continues to act at the behest of superiors. In both cases he is involved in enforcing the law [HE]. Ironically, one of the civilian duties of this “sergeant” who may once
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have been a “deputy sheriff” may also have been to hang condemned men. Perhaps this is one reason that he has been chosen for this present duty [JM]. Perhaps, too, the reference to the “civil life” of the sergeant helps distinguish him subtly from Farquhar, whose prominent “civil life” dramatically differs from that of the sergeant [RCE] but whose “civil life” is also, now, effectively over. The sergeant may be able someday to return to his civilian existence, but any such ability seems foreclosed for Farquhar [DL]. Suddenly it emerges in this sentence that the man who has been our sole focus so far is not alone after all but is surrounded by executioners. To be surrounded by executioners, however, is to be alone in an even deeper existential sense [RR].
I.6. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed.
The word “remove” seems symbolically significant: Farquhar is flanked by other persons, but even the persons closest to him are variously “removed” from him -- physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Even the narrator, who might have been expected to feel closest to his story’s protagonist, always seems to stand at “a short remove” from him, especially in this section of the narrative [KO]. This sentence, like the ones before it, not only incrementally adds new and important details, but it also effectively uses delay: not until the final word do we learn explicitly that the executioners are “armed.” This, of course, is merely the first of many references to the weapons at the soldiers’ command, and the fact that they do prove to be so heavily “armed” only helps make Farquhar’s plight seem even more hopeless. With each passing sentence, Bierce seems to be closing down our sense of Farquhar’s available options [RR]. A STRUCTURALIST critic would note the reference to the “uniform” of the “officer,” since particular kinds of uniforms perfectly exemplify the STRUCTURALIST interest in codes or coding: the addition of one seemingly slight strip of fabric to a soldier’s uniform can distinguish his rank from the rank of the soldier standing next to him. The first section of the story is full of highly detailed references to military codes; the narrator of the story shows himself to be intimately familiar with all the signals and signs that constitute this particular system or structure of meanings. His close knowledge of this code encourages us to trust him as a narrator and thus allows him, paradoxically, to surprise us at the very end of the tale by disrupting and undermining the very system of meanings on which his own story had seemed to depend [AF].
The very brevity of this sentence emphasizes the importance of the captain’s rank. He is apparently the highest-ranking officer present at Farquhar’s execution, and so his word will literally signal the difference between life and death. By making this sentence so short, then, Bierce stresses the captain’s significance, even as he effectively emphasizes the extremely long sentence that follows [AF]. On the other hand, it might be argued that this character receives such a short sentence because he is so relatively unimportant to the plot as a whole [EWA]. Inciden-
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tally, the mere fact that every single soldier mentioned in this story is a male might be of interest to a TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic as evidence of how differently the military is structured today than it had been in the past [DR2].
I.8. A sentinel at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as “support,” that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest ‑‑ a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body.
Each time Bierce adds another Union soldier to the list of those he is enumerating, we have a growing sense of Farquhar’s relative isolation: he is a single figure surrounded by enemies [RR]. This sentence is highly typical of the first section of the story since it gives the reader extremely detailed information in a style that is not especially eloquent or full of colorful adjectives. Instead the narrator provides a dry, matter-of-fact account of the “occurrence” -- an account that helps place the reader in the proper militaristic state of mind and that also emphasizes the gravity of the situation. The phrasing is precise but objective [LP]. The narrator’s detailed knowledge of military procedure and jargon helps increase our sense of his general expertise as well as his general credibility [RR]. He seems to possess the kind of precise knowledge a TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic strives to achieve [KM2]. The two sentinels hold their weapons in the position of “support,” just as they themselves function essentially as “support” personnel: neither the weapons and the men holding them have any real, active part in the scene: the soldiers are as static and lifeless as the guns they grasp [DL]. The last part of this sentence seems ironic in retrospect, since soon it will be Farquhar who will be an “unnatural position” that “enforc[es] an erect carriage of the body” [EWA; JDS; KS; PS2]. His body will eventually be in a “formal” position in the sense that his death will not be accidental but will be carried out with well-planned precision. A formalist critic would appreciate the subtlety with which Bierce includes a phrase that explicitly describes Farquhar’s captors but that also implicitly describes the eventual condition of Farquhar himself [EWA], while an ARCHETYPAL critic might suggest that such phrasing plays on the natural human fear of death [SD2; SH]. In a sense, the formality and stiffness of the characters in the opening paragraph is matched by the formality and stiffness of the narrative style: neither the narrator, nor the man about to be hanged, nor the men who are about to do the hanging, exhibit any emotion. Bierce adopts a style that can seem as “formal and unnatural” as the events he is now describing [KM; SW]. Perhaps the physical rigidity of the soldiers also implies the emotional rigidity and numbness that has developed in them (or that they have had to adopt) as a result of their exposure to the horrors of war [KM]. Perhaps their physical posture also implies their psychological discomfort -- their own sense of both inner and outer unease [CB]. Meanwhile, this sentence, like so many others in the first part of the story, emphasizes vertical imagery [TR].
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I.9. It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it.
Bierce’s use of the word “appear” is just one of many instances in which he emphasizes the theme of appearance vs. reality in this tale -- an emphasis that would, of course, be of great interest to a THEMATIC critic. Note that Bierce does not say that the sentinels actually did not know what was happening; he says only that the appeared not to know (or to be obliged to know, which is itself different from not actually knowing). Here as elsewhere, Bierce’s language is extremely subtle in its shades of implication [EWA; AF; KO]. The use of the word “appear” here is also the first time in the tale when the narrator introduces his own speculation; up until this point his narrative has been completely objective and factual [KO]. The reference to the “duty” of the soldiers seems a bit ironic since it was Farquhar’s own sense of duty that led him to his present predicament [KO]. Meanwhile, the fact that the soldiers are participants in the hanging without necessarily knowing (or at least needing to know) all the details about the act in which they are participating helps reinforce the sense of distance, of removal, that is characteristic of this whole first section of the narrative [KS]. These sentinels, who do not “know” what exactly is happening at the middle of the bridge, in one sense simply represent the military mind-set: it is not their function to know but simply to do what they have been instructed to do [RR]. In their relative ignorance, they seem to contrast not only with Bierce’s narrator (who seems to know about everything that is happening) but also with Bierce’s reader, who has privileged access to the narrator’s omniscience. For much of the story, however, readers will be in the same position as these sentinels: they will know that something important is happening but not be sure quite what those happenings are. Bierce touches here, then, on a theme crucial to the entire story: the contrast between knowledge and ignorance [DL; PS2]. The fact that the bridge is “blockaded” from both ends helps add to our sense of the hopelessness of Farquhar’s predicament: the blockades at either end of the bridge will make it equally difficult for him to be rescued [KS] or to escape [RR].
II.1. Beyond one of the sentinels nobody was in sight; the railroad ran straight away into a forest for a hundred yards, then, curving, was lost to view.
Like so much else in the first section of the story, this sentence emphasizes a static setting rather than active characters. Such emphasis on stasis and on setting contrasts with the emphasis, in Section III, on movement and on subjective perception [DL]. This sentence is typical of so many others in the story in its emphasis on “sight” [RR; KS] and on what appears to be the case [RR]: the mere fact that “nobody [is] in sight” does not automatically mean that no one is actually present in the forest [RR]. Does the fact that the woods seem deserted raise some glimmer of hope, implying that if Farquhar somehow can get free his escape will be relatively unimpeded? [SW] Or does the fact that “nobody [is] in sight” help increase our sense of Farquhar’s fundamental isolation? [ML; RR; PS2] An
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ARCHETYPAL critic might argue that such phrasing is appropriate to a story so much concerned with death, since death is almost by definition the loneliest, most private, most personal experience any human faces [MC; HCJ]. Presumably, if the bridge were as important a military asset as Farquhar has been led to believe, it would be surrounded by troops; is the fact that it is not (apparently) surrounded in this way suggest, then, that the bridge is of relatively minor importance after all? [EWA]. In any case, the reference to what is “in sight” implies, once more, how actively Farquhar is moving his eyes to explore his environs; although his movement is frozen in most respects, his eyes seem active [EWA]. Farquhar himself, no doubt, would ideally wish to imitate the railroad and run “straight away into [the] forest” and then be “lost to view,” but he does not seem (at this point) to have any such hope [RR]. A THEMATIC critic might argue that the phrase “lost to view” helps emphasize the fundamental idea of isolation which is such an important theme of this story [ML]. Perhaps the phrase also helps contribute to the story’s tone and sense of mystery [LE]. This image of the railroad penetrating into the forest might particularly interest a TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic, who might see it as epitomizing the rapid process by which even the South was being overrun with symbols of industrialization [EWA]. An ARCHETYPAL or THEMATIC critic, on the other hand, might see this juxtaposition of the forest and railway as typifying the story’s larger contrasts between the artificial (or man-made) and the natural [QSS]. Note that the symbolism of the “forest” can seem fundamentally ambiguous: on the one hand the forest can be associated with life and vitality [KM], but on the other hand the forest can also symbolize danger and death [KO]. Although the trees in the “forest” stand as rigid as everything else described so far, at least they are associated with nature and thus with life [SW]. Ironically, however one interprets the symbolism of the woods, it is the forest that will probably be Farquhar’s final resting place [RR]. For the time being, however, the “forest” is associated with nature and freedom and thus is a symbolic opposite of the structured civilization (symbolized by the “railroad”) by which Farquhar now feels captived [EWA]. The final reference to the railroad being “lost to view” emphasizes once more the importance of sight and appearance as themes of this story. The emphasis on such topics would be of clear interest to THEMATIC critics [KS]. The image of a railroad track fading into the recesses of the forest might suggest the uncertainties associated with death [KM]. Similarly, the abrupt loss of view of the railway may foreshadow the abrupt loss Farquhar himself will suffer by the very end of this tale, especially if the railway is seen as symbolizing continuance and continuity; the railway seems to end as suddenly as Farquhar later will [MK; LS].
II.2. Doubtless there was an outpost farther along.
This sentence is typical of the story as a whole because of its sense of ambiguity and supposition. It already implies a limited narrative point of view -- one that encourages the narrator, the protagonist, and the reader all to make assumptions about what is (or may be) actually occurring [MC2]. Once the reader realizes that nothing in this story can be taken at face value, the word “doubtless” becomes especially paradoxical [PH]. Throughout the story, Farquhar and the reader are continually making assumptions. Thus, while the word “doubtless” suggests an indisputable fact, the word actually signals merely another assumption by Far-
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quhar [JDS] -- perhaps an assumption the first-time reader at this point shares [MC2]. Farquhar’s confidence here is entirely consistent with his character elsewhere; he seems to have learned little from the surprises and disappointments he has already suffered [CM]. Bierce’s use of “doubtless” conveys a sense of confident certainty that is highly ironic in the context of this story [MR]; perhaps Farquhar has a particular need at this moment in his life to feel self-assured and certain [LS]. This sentence, and especially the word “doubtless,” is typical of the story because Bierce here creates a very passive yet suggestive tone, as he also does elsewhere. Rather than emphatically stating that “without a doubt, there was an outpost . . . ,” Bierce uses a more passive, non-committal tone as he merely suggests what may, in fact, lie ahead along the outer limits of the camp [OT-K]. Ironically, the word “doubtless” is also used again later, just before Farquhar suddenly dies (XXXVII.1). Both here and there, however, the word “doubtless” paradoxically helps plant a seed of doubt. Just as Bierce’s later stress on the word “conscious” will imply that Farquhar may not be conscious, so the use of the word “doubtless” suggests that Farquhar may, paradoxically, be unable to doubt because of his need for certainty [SD].
II.3. The other bank of the stream was open ground ‑‑ a gentle acclivity topped with a stockade of vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles, with a single embrasure through which protruded the muzzle of a brass cannon commanding the bridge.
The nature of this sentence is significant because it is typical of Bierce’s picturesque style. Bierce frequently creates long sentences packed with imagery so that readers can themselves imagine the scene exactly as it is described [OT-K]. The structure of the sentence is also interesting, because its two halves almost contradict one another [SD]. The image of the “stream” here, with all its connotations of life, freedom, and refreshing sensation, coupled with the sense of liberty implied by the reference to the “open ground,” may help lead the reader to suspect or hope that Farquhar is not doomed by the rope around his neck [MR]. At first the landscape seems to imply a sense of serenity and peace [CM]. The description remains seemingly innocuous even as the landscape begins to rise, and any question of the symbolic struggle often associated with climbing a hill is put to rest by Bierce’s calming reference to a “gentle acclivity” [MR]. However, as the visual panorama widens, there is an abrupt contrast to all this verbal innocence, for this “gentle” hill is “topped” (rather ironically) by the impenetrable walls of a “stockade” [MC2; CM; MR]. The transition from “gentle acclivity” to “topped” typifies the way Bierce often successfully juxtaposes two different ideas to create one concise image; “topped” implies that the “gentle acclivity” is dominated by the stockade [OT-K]. The “gentle” sloping is suddenly stopped short and flattens out into the man-made “stockade,” built from the now-dead “tree trunks” -- a potent image of nature’s submission to man that suggests Farquhar’s own inability to avoid the power of his captors [SD]. If the earlier reference to the deserted “forest” (II.1) had provided any sense of hope that Farquhar might escape, the present reference to the “vertical tree trunks, loopholed for rifles” seems to undercut any such optimism [SW]. This phrase, incidentally, is just one of many instances in the first part of the narrative in which Bierce ironi-
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cally juxtaposes circular and vertical imagery [TR]. As if to make Farquhar’s situation seem even grimmer, the narrator notes that the only breaks in the strong facade of this fairly solid barricade are in fact the “loophole[s]” and a “single embrasure” through which “rifles” and a “cannon” protrude. The cannon itself is said to “command” the bridge, apparently dashing any hopes of escape or survival for the lowly Confederate who stands with the noose about his neck [MR]. In this carefully constructed sentence, then, Bierce effectively begins by using language that seems almost pastoral (especially in such words as “bank,” “stream,” “open ground,” and “gentle acclivity”), but then he suddenly switches the tone to emphasize harshly militaristic language (for example, “stockade,” “rifles,” “cannon,” and “commanding”). The abrupt shift from one kind of diction and tone to another typifies Bierce’s technique throughout the story and also exemplifies, in fact, the structural shifts that characterize the entire tale [JDS]. However, while this sentence pivots on an abrupt shift of tone, a FORMALIST would also appreciate the way the sentence is also highly balanced [RCE]. A FEMINIST critic, on the other hand, might find it significant that nature is so clearly dominated and controlled by male forces in this story [SW]. The movement of the sentence follows the movement of Farquhar’s mind as he first imagines his escape and then realizes the impediments he faces [PCP].
II.4 Midway of the slope between the bridge and fort were the spectators ‑‑ 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.
Sight will be strongly emphasized in this story, as the reference to “spectators” already suggests. The fact that these men, although soldiers, are described here as simply “spectators” suggests that they are (for the moment, at least) both physically and emotionally removed from the hanging, although later they will be forced to resume their usual roles as active soldiers [CM; MR; PCP; JDS]. For the moment, though, the presence of relatively passive “spectators” helps reinforce Farquhar’s isolation while also suggesting the massed power and calm confidence of the Union army [CM]. The word “spectators” implies that the men are relaxed and do not anticipate Farquhar’s attempt to escape. (Ironically, of course, they ultimately prove correct in this assumption; none of the frantic activity in which they later seem to engage “really” happens.) Perhaps the word “spectators,” like so much else in this story, is fundamentally ambiguous: do the men really desire to watch the execution, or are they simply required to do so as part of their military duty? [SD] Ironically, Farquhar himself is a kind of “spectator”; as the soldiers watch him, he stares back at them; as they witness his death, Farquhar, in his mind at least, witnesses his escape [SD; JDS]. The lack of emotion of the “spectators” may serve a dual purpose: it may make it difficult for readers to sympathize with Farquhar, and it may also relate ironically to Farquhar’s own position, since until now he has largely himself been a “spectator” of the war rather than a participant in it [MR]. The collective noun “spectators” also suggests that the group of infantry functions as an impersonal body, as a whole or a unit -- an impression reinforced by the reference to the “single company of infantry”
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[PH]. Bierce’s readers are themselves now also “spectators” to Farquhar’s execution; indeed, they are far more “real” spectators than the soldiers, since the soldiers exist only as figments of Bierce’s (and the reader’s) imagination [SD]. While the phrase “‘parade rest’” is typical of the military language Bierce continually uses (especially in the first part of the story), the phrase also carries some extra irony since it implies a position that blatantly contrasts with Farquhar’s own stance [JDS], just as it will contrast with the apparently frenetic activity of the soldiers themselves later in the tale [CM]. While the soldiers have the luxury of being able to stand at “parade rest,” Farquhar, anticipating death, cannot be so relaxed, either in attitude or in position: he stands rigidly, with his wrists bound and a noose about his neck [CM; JDS]. Note how the word “parade” ironically qualifies the word “rest”: this kind of formal, regimented “rest” is not at all “rest” in the usual sense. Even the reference to “rest,” then, implies an element of tension [PCP]. The sense of danger instilled by the image of the “rifles” in these soldiers’ hands is temporarily quelled by the almost festive air of the phrase “parade rest.” The latter phrase simply adds to the irony of Farquhar’s situation, especially since these soldiers are presently, as Farquhar himself had once been, non-combatants who are loyal to a cause [MR]. Their present posture suggests that they (or their commanders) have no fear of Farquhar possibly escaping [SD]. The phrase “parade rest” reinforces our sense of the assembled soldiers as “spectators” [SD], but the phrase may also, however, be somewhat ironic, since it is doubtful that any of these soldiers is truly at “rest” mentally or physically, or that any of them views Farquhar’s hanging as much of a cause for celebration [PH], even though the hanging is very much a matter of military ceremony [OT-K]. Paradoxically, soldiers “at parade rest” are very much “at attention,” subdued though they may be by military protocol [PH]; their stance suggests, ironically, the formality of the occasion, even though it is called a kind of “rest” [CM]. This phrase is only one of many the Bierce employs throughout this part of the story in an attempt to subdue the reader as well. Bierce appears to encourage us to approach Farquhar’s predicament in the same way that Farquhar distances himself from the reality of his situation. Ironically, the reader tends to become somewhat of a “spectator,” too [PH].
II.5 A lieutenant stood at the right of the line, the point of his sword upon the ground, his left hand resting upon his right.
Note how the first three words of this sentence (“A lieutenant stood”) ironically echo the first three words of the story as a whole; now, however, it is not Farquhar who is described as standing but one of the soldiers who will participate in his execution [KO]. From a purely practical point of view, it was advantageous to Bierce as a writer to choose to describe a military execution: the very nature of the slow, steady, formalized procedures required by such a death gives him a perfect excuse to describe the scene in minute detail and to emphasize the sheer length of time involved. A description of a quick death (perhaps by a random gunshot) would not have suited his literary purposes as well [RCE]. Indeed, a THEMATIC critic would argue that time -- and particularly the different ways in which time can be perceived from different perspectives -- is one of the major topical concerns of this story [LH; CS].
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II.6 Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved.
Movement is a natural instinct, so the fact that “not a man moved” already suggests an unnatural position and unnatural conduct -- details which parallel Farquhar’s own unnatural position and the unnatural act of being hanged [CM; JDS]. The difference, of course, is that these men do not move because they have been ordered to be still, whereas Farquhar is immobile partly because he is physically bound [CM]. Furthermore, this solid stance demonstrates the rigidity both of these troops and of military formalities, as well. Of course, the motionlessness also effectively contrasts with (and emphasizes) the story’s later stress on frenzied movement [JDS]. Paradoxically, the phrase “not a man moved” may imply that apprehension, even among the spectators, is rapidly intensifying. Ironically, instead of standing still, the momentum at this point in the story actually seems to escalate. The fact that “not a man moved” physically may actually imply (paradoxically) just how emotionally or psychologically moved the spectators may feel at this moment [PH]. Or perhaps the phrase implies just the opposite -- that just as the men do not move physically, so they are fundamentally unmoved emotionally by Farquhar’s plight [SD]. Of course, Farquhar himself will not really “move” as much as the story later implies; his position is as stationary, in some ways, as those of the men who watch him. Their lack of physical motion also contrasts, of course, with his extreme psychological agitation [MC2].
II.7 The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless.
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II.8 The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge.
The words “might have been” are typical of this entire story, which is indeed chiefly about what “might have been” [CM; JDS]. The story is full of such words as “would,” “could,” and “seemed,” because Bierce is greatly interested here in subjective impressions and perceptions [MC2]. The phrase seems appropriate since perspective, perceptions, and possibilities are major themes of this tale [SD; PH]. Depending on how one interprets certain words and phrases, the whole tale wavers on the brink between reality and illusion [SD]. Thus the phrase “might have been” itself is almost an anthem for the plight of Peyton Farquhar, for his story is, indeed, a tale of the lost hope of what “might have been” [MR]. In the context of the sentence, this phrase is yet another means of drawing emphasis away from the present reality of Farquhar’s plight [MR]. In addition, such phrasing also suggests uncertainty and leaves room for questioning -- qualities typical of the entire tale. Furthermore, the word “statues” suggests that the soldiers are solid and steadfast in their positions, a fact that clearly contrasts with Farquhar’s own “‘unsteadfast footing’” (IV.9) [JDS]. The word “statues” may also imply that these men are so rigidly immobile that they would be highly ineffective in preventing Farquhar’s escape -- a possibility that will later seem strongly ironic [CM; MR]. Perhaps the word “statues” also implies a cold, impersonal, stony, almost seemingly inhuman attitude on the part of the men [PH]. The cold beauty implied by the word “statues” perhaps also is relevant to the coldly impersonal, objective style of Bierce’s own narrative here [MC2].
II.9 The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign.
The captain “observ[es] the work of his subordinates” as if Farquhar’s execution is mainly a training exercise -- an opportunity to test his men as they perform their duties. His distant attitude (emphasized by the fact that he is “silent” and “mak[es] no sign”) increases our sense of Farquhar’s psychological isolation. Neither the captain nor any of his “subordinates” seems to regard Farquhar as a fellow human being who is about to die or whom one should regard with any empathy or sympathy [RR]. Perhaps these details, and this entire scene, are meant to suggest man’s metaphysical isolation in the universe: just as the captain, the highest-ranking authority-figure, stands silent and makes no sign, so the idea of a benevolent, caring God seems entirely absent from this story [PS2]. The captain’s comfortably “folded arms” contrast with the arms of Farquhar, which are rigidly bound behind his back [RCE]. A MARXIST might note that the superior “captain” will not debase himself or his rank by participating directly in laborious “work” that is appropriate only for “subordinates” [MS]. A STRUCTURALIST, on the other hand, might argue that such division of labor is simply typical of the highly structured military code [MS].
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II.10 Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him.
On the one hand it seems stingingly (but typically) ironic that Bierce should treat “Death,” of all things, as if it were a living person [HF; DL]. On the other hand, Bierce’s decision to personify “Death” seems appropriate, especially in retrospect, since Death will play such a crucial role in this tale [EG; KO; KS]. In addition, personifying Death makes death seem less an abstract concept than a willful, even malevolent agent; such phrasing (an ARCHETYPAL critic might argue) thus captures some of the elemental fear that nearly all human beings feel concerning death [HF; LH; NH; MFL]. In a story so much concerned with rank and hierarchy, Death is the ultimate superior [JJ2]. A FEMINIST, therefore, would not be surprised that “Death” is personified as a male [NH; HCJ]. A MULTICULTURAL critic might suggest that a respectful regard for death, ironically, helps bridge the gap between northerners and southerners in this tale: it leads the northern soldiers to treat even their southern enemy (whom they also consider a traitor) with some respect [SW2]. Ironically, the description of “Death” as a distinguished character makes him resemble Farquhar himself, especially as Farquhar is described in section two (but see also III.3). By the last sentence of the story, these two key characters -- Farquhar and Death -- will suddenly become one [KO]. Moreover, the description of “Death” as a “dignitary” makes death seem calm, unhurried, unconcerned, in control -- all traits that contrast with Farquhar’s own feelings at this time [RCE]. Thus the reference to Death “com[ing] announced” is ironic in view of subsequent events, since when death does eventually arrive in this story it arrives brutally and abruptly, both to Farquhar and to the reader [PH; CM; MR; JDS]. Its sudden appearance in the story is less like an announced arrival than like a surprise visit [SD]. Farquhar, though by now familiar with the thought of death, obviously does not greet it with “formal manifestations of respect”; instead, he does everything possible to resist it (at least in his own imagination) [CM; JDS]. The phrasing here, however, seems to suggest that Farquhar will simply accept his fate in a dignified manner. Every detail of his impending execution has been carried out ceremoniously and with much formality, but such decorum will soon (apparently) be vigorously violated [PH]. Paradoxically, the only persons who, by definition, can be “most familiar with” death are those who experience it, as will soon be the case with Farquhar [PH].
II.11 In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference.
A STRUCTURALIST might argue that a “code” is especially helpful to humans during wartime, as a way of imposing some sense of order, coherence, and meaning on an experience that might otherwise seem completely chaotic [JJ2]. The extreme attention to order and discipline in this first section of the tale contrasts ironically with the chaos and disorder that break out in section three [KO]. A NEW HISTORICIST might contend that whether a soldier is actually fighting or killing or is simply obeying a strict “code of military etiquette,” he is nonetheless participating in some form of the imposition of power, since issues of power are funda-
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mental to human existence [JJ2; TS]. This is especially implied by the word “deference,” which implies not so much voluntary respect as acknowledgment of superior power [TS]. The reference here to “silence and fixity” helps emphasize, through contrast, the emphasis in section three on loud sounds and rapid movements [TR]. At the same time, the words “silence” and “fixity” seem appropriate to a situation that will result in the ultimate silence and fixity of death [MS]. A FORMALIST would appreciate the irony of a word such as “etiquette” being used in a situation that is so fundamentally violent [JJ2; MS], and a FORMALIST might also note the alliteration of “f” sounds in this sentence [TS].
III.1 The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty‑five years of age.
Quite often in the story Bierce uses highly formal language that is typical of the military. It would be hard to cite a better example than the reference here to the “man who was engaged in being hanged,” since its passive construction makes it seem especially distanced and removed [JDS, OT-K]. The four-word phrase also emphasizes the crucial element of a process of time -- a key theme of the entire tale [MC2]. The men who are engaged in hanging Farquhar are not even mentioned at this point; they have dropped out of this sentence, and the hanging is presented almost as an automatic, self-directed occurrence [OT-K]. Bierce’s use of the word “engaged” helps reinforce our sense of the ceremonial and formal nature of the occasion [OT-K]. Perhaps this word also has a slightly sarcastic overtone, as if Farquhar is involved by his own free will [KS] in a leisurely process and has all the time in the world [KO]. Or perhaps the word “engaged” suggests that Farquhar is locked into his predicament by an irrevocable commitment [SD]. Later, of course, such stiff language will be replaced by highly informal and personal diction that reveals Farquhar’s personality and enables the reader to establish some sense of closeness and identification with him [JDS]. The reference to the “man who was being hanged” also makes hanging seem almost a routine, everyday occurrence, while the fact that he is called simply “the man” keeps him, at this point, from seeming a distinct individual; only later, when we see him free, is Farquhar given a personal name [MR]. Meanwhile, Bierce’s use of the word “apparently” reinforces the emphasis on appearances in this story [CM; JDS]. Much of the narrative is based on appearances and impressions [MR; JDS] that must be taken at face value [JDS], although part of the point of the story is that nothing can really be taken at face value [PH]. By using the word “apparently,” Bierce merely passively suggests a possibility rather than actively stating a definite fact [OT-K; KS]. Note how both “apparently” and “about” introduce elements of uncertainty into the phrasing, but the use of such words also suggests, paradoxically, that we are dealing with a narrator who is concerned with accuracy: it seems that he will not pretend to offer more information that he confidently possesses. His very ambiguity, then, leads us to trust the basic accuracy of his account [LP]. Farquhar’s supposed age (“thirty-five”) seems significant, partly because he is -- chronologically, at least -- a mature man. His romantic fantasies about war might seem less foolish in a teenager or very young man, but they seem especially naive in a man of Farquhar’s age -- a man with serious domestic responsibilities [KO]. Perhaps “thirty-five” is significant, too, because it
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places Farquhar at the exact mid-point of the Biblical life-span of three-score-and-ten, which was the conventionally expected age of death [RCE]. Farquhar is being cut down in the prime of life, when he still potentially has much to contribute. The tragedy of his death would be less powerful if he were a considerably older person [KS].
III.2 He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter.
By mentioning that Farquhar is a “civilian,” the narrator immediately implies one of the binary oppositions that STRUCTURALIST critics find so important, since they believe that such oppositions are the means by which we structure and make sense of our experiences [KS]. A STRUCTURALIST might also note that, as this sentence implies, the ways people dress are often highly coded [MB]. A TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic might want to investigate the military roles “civilian[s]” actually did play during the Civil War [ML]. A HORATIAN critic might note that Bierce, by including a “civilian” character in a story so obviously concerned with military events, automatically broadens the potential readership of his work [SD2]. The phrase “if one might judge” is significant because, throughout the story, Bierce continually encourages (or forces) the reader to make judgments, but often he does not provide enough information for us to judge effectively. A phrase such as this, then, emphasizes the theme of judging by appearances [CM; JDS], of engaging in mere speculation [PH]. The phrase implies the importance of individual opinion and perception [SD], it is one of many such phrases that Bierce sprinkles throughout the story to alert the careful reader to this aspect of his narrative [MR]. Its tone is typically non-committal and passive; here as elsewhere the narrator encourages readers to draw their own conclusions [OT-K]. Interpretation of the whole story depends greatly on how each reader will “judge” the evidence presented [SD]. Ironically, the narrator’s apparent ability to determine Farquhar’s profession simply from the ways Farquhar is dressed helps increase our trust in the narrator: he seems to be a person who is familiar enough with the culture he describes to draw reliable inferences [LP]. Farquhar’s status as a “planter” is ironic, for he is a man who is accustomed to authority and power but who is now in a position of total helplessness [MR]. He is a slave-owner who has now himself lost his freedom [SD; NH; PCP]. Evidently Farquhar finds the life of a “planter” too settled and insufficiently exciting; instead, he wants to be a war hero [SD]. The word “planter” is also ironic since it seems unlikely that Farquhar engages in actual planting himself; instead, he supervises the agricultural work of his slaves [PH]. At the same time, a historical critic would note how the word “planter” emphasizes the fundamentally agricultural basis of the Southern economy [OT-K]. It seems all the more appropriate, then, that Farquhar is being hanged from a railway bridge -- as if Bierce means to symbolize the coming domination of a new kind of industrial, mechanized economy [RCE]. The word “planter” also seems ironic since the Union soldiers are about to kill a man whose primary occupation is, by definition, to replenish the earth and renew life [KS].
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III.3 His features were good ‑‑ a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well‑fitting frock coat.
Now, for the first time so far, Bierce begins to describe his protagonist in ways that might be expected to evoke emotions. This is especially true because of his use of adjectives, particularly the adjective “good.” The apathy that may previously have been felt by the reader may now even begin to give way to sympathy or empathy [MC; KS; SW]. The reference to Farquhar’s “features” again emphasizes the theme of appearance in this story [JDS]. Here, as in the preceding sentence and indeed throughout the opening section of the story, most of the emphasis is on such merely external “features” of Farquhar, whereas later we enter deeply into his mind [SD]. Is the description of his “features” as “good” meant to make us sympathize with him or make us assume that he is capable of great courage (on the common literary principle that heroic figures are also often attractive)? [CM; MR; OT-K]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might suggest that Bierce here describes Farquhar in ways that associate him with many of the standard “features” of an “ideal” male, especially since so many of those features are associated with strength and vigor [HE]. Note how many of the adjectives associated with Farquhar’s physical appearance also often have moral or ethical dimensions: words such as “straight,” “firm,” “broad,” and “well‑fitted” may suggest the impression that Farquhar is also a strong, solid, stable, honest, and trust‑worthy man [KS]. His present circumstances are, of course, now anything but strong, solid, or stable [MC2]. On the other hand, a MARXIST critic might suggest that Farquhar’s “features were good” partly because of his relatively privileged lifestyle, and such a critic might also contrast the goodness of his physical appearance with the unattractive fact that he derives much of his income from owning slaves [JDS]. The reference to Farquhar’s “well-fitting frock coat” subtly suggests his superior economic and social status and even implies that he is wealthy enough to afford tailored suits [AF]. Ironically, after having spent so much of the preceding part of the narrative describing the uniforms and rank of the Union soldiers, Bierce now describes, in a sense, the “uniform” of Farquhar. His clothing is a uniform in the sense that it, too, immediately establishes his rank in a social hierarchy. Although he is dressed as a civilian, his clothes tell us almost as much about his status as the uniforms of the surrounding soldiers tell us about their status [AF]. A STRUCTURALIST critic might argue that Bierce is now simply evoking a different kind of sign-system -- a different sort of structural code -- than the one he has been detailing so far [AF]. In a sense the story is partly about the juxtaposition or collision of military and civilian codes of conduct [AF].
III.4 He wore a mustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp.
Many of the details in this sentence make Farquhar seem distinguished; even the color of his “eyes” is distinctive and unusual [HE] and appropriately ominous
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[JRC]. He is set apart from the norm not only in his physique but in his grooming and (as the previous sentence made clear) also in his style of dress [HE]. The reference to the “kindly expression” of a man who is being hanged as a criminal typifies the kinds of paradoxes that are central to the whole story [LAM]. The tone of the final words of this sentence is very passive, yet the phrasing is also quite descriptive and even picturesque. The ending of the sentence -- “one whose neck was in the hemp” -- is also a bit surprising and unexpected (in a way, for instance, that a reference to “one who had a noose around his neck” would not have been). This story is full of many such surprises, large and small, especially the final surprise at the very end [OT-K]. The genteel appearance of Farquhar, which is emphasized by the first half of the sentence, seems to conflict with the brute physicality of the closing statement that his “neck was in the hemp,” but conflicts of this sort are typical of Bierce’s style [OT-K]. The reference to the rope as “hemp” seems ironic since the very fiber of subsistence in the South becomes the tool by which Farquhar’s life will be extinguished. Adding to the irony is the fact that the fiber or “hemp” used to manufacture rope in the North may have originally derived from plantations in the South [PH]. The word “hemp” helps the narrator maintain the unfeeling, distanced, indifferent tone he has so well established in this first section of the story. The final phrase here is also significant because the monosyllabic words -- “whose neck was in the hemp” -- give it a sense of plainness and abruptness; certainly Bierce does not sentimentalize his description of Farquhar’s predicament [SD]. The dispassionate narrator presents the execution as just another hanging [CM].
III.5 Evidently this was no vulgar assassin.
The narrator’s use of the word “[e]vidently” is typical of Bierce’s procedure throughout this tale, since the word implies a fact without definitely stating one. The use of such a word typifies Bierce’s emphasis here on the distinction between appearance and reality [RR]. Does this comment help to create some sympathy (or even empathy) for Farquhar? [SB; MC; SW] A FORMALIST might note that “vulgar” could mean “common” “coarse,” or “lacking in cultivation,” while a MARXIST might be particularly alert to the implications concerning social class suggested by the word “vulgar” [TS]. A MARXIST might stress that the perception that Farquhar is “no vulgar assassin” depends almost entirely on his superficial appearance -- on how he is dressed and groomed [TS]. The suggestion that Farquhar is “no vulgar assassin” is typical of Bierce’s sardonic irony and contempt for human pretentiousness: the phrase paradoxically implies that some ways of killing are socially respectable -- a claim which may be true in some senses but which seems foolish from another, larger perspective [PS2].
III.6 The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.A STRUCTURALIST critic would be interested in the explicit reference to the “code” by which this entire event is organized [JG; MS]. In a sense, the individuals Bierce describes are acting as mere functions of a larger social code; their
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individuality is less important than the code itself. The “military code” provides a structured method which gives these men strength to ignore whatever sympathy they may feel for their fellow man; it thus allows them to take part in a punishment that might otherwise seem cruel. The “code” or method provides order, which helps the military function almost mechanically [JJ]. Meanwhile, a HISTORICAL critic would emphasize the way this “code” reflects the conditions of a particular moment in time -- a moment when “gentlemen” were more highly valued than other persons [MC]. A historical critic might also note, however, that similar “military code[s]” are not peculiar to one moment in time but also have existed in many cultures throughout history [MS]. A certain kind of reader might find it tragic or unfortunate that a “gentleman” should be hanged [RCS]; however, a MARXIST critic might enjoy the irony of the fact that Farquhar’s economic class, which has benefitted him so much throughout his life, can do nothing now to forestall his death [MFL; PS2]. Indeed, he is probably being hanged by men who would, in other circumstances, include many of his social inferiors [MFL]. The fact that the Union soldiers here follow so strictly such a rigid code implies their power: they are organized enough, and secure enough, to do everything by the book. They are not behaving in a chaotic or disorganized fashion, as they might be behaving if they were under threat [MC]. A FORMALIST might appreciate the irony of calling such a rigid code “liberal” [JP; RCS], especially in view of the particular kind of “provision” that is being made so “liberal[ly]” available here to Farquhar [PS2]. The juxtaposition of the words “liberal” and “military” is typical of the paradoxical phrasing that characterizes Bierce’s entire tale [JP].
IV.1 The preparations being complete, the two private soldiers stepped aside and each drew away the plank upon which he had been standing.
This sentence marks a turning point in the story, just as it marks a turning in the life of the ill‑fated planter, whose death, we now know, is imminent. Bierce, though, does not simply just let it happen. He leads us, slowly and ceremoniously, through each phase of the hanging, as if it were,
IV.2 The sergeant turned to the captain, saluted and placed himself immediately behind that officer, who in turn moved apart one pace.
Here again, as the ceremony continues, we are given each painful detail. With each movement from the soldiers, we are drawn one step closer to the end, forced to stand back and “watch” as the event unfolds. We are observers, but we are neither allowed the benefit of detachment nor spared the pains of anticipation [RCS]. A STRUCTURALIST critic might note how precisely a predetermined code
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controls even the movement of the soldiers’ bodies in this sentence and the previous one. Such codes (a STRUCTURALIST might suggest) normally go unnoticed, but this is a situation in which strict and obvious adherence to the code is part of the code itself. Meanwhile, a NEW HISTORICIST critic might notice how this sentence epitomizes the smooth, flawless operation of a clear system of power relationships [MFL], while a FORMALIST critic might note how the rigid, mechanical movements of the soldiers here contrast with the erratic, flailing movements of Farquhar himself later in the story [RCE].
IV.3 These movements left the condemned man and the sergeant standing on the two ends of the same plank, which spanned three of the cross‑ties of the bridge.
A STRUCTURALIST might note the various oppositions embedded in this carefully balanced sentence, including oppositions between north and south, executioner and prisoner, and military man and civilian. The north and the south were indeed standing on opposite ends of a metaphorical plank [EWA; ATH; RR], and a TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic might point out that railroads were an integral part of the war. The ability to maintain a balance between the two sides kept the war going, but eventually, just like the captain in Bierce’s story, the north stepped off of the plank and metaphorically hanged the south. At that point all of the dreams of white Southerners flashed before them in much the same way as Peyton Farquhar’s dreams later flash through his mind. In the end the south was destroyed by this war in much the same way that Peyton Farquhar is killed by the rope [EWA]. Although Farquhar and the sergeant do stand “on the two ends of the same plank,” the similarity of their physical positions only emphasizes, by contrast, the differences in their actual power and ultimate fates [RCE]. In a sense these two men stand on “the two ends” of a small bridge within the larger bridge that gives the story its title [ATH].
IV.4 The end upon which the civilian stood almost, but not quite, reached a fourth.
The phrase “almost, but not quite” epitomizes the technique of the entire story [CM; JDS] and alludes to Farquhar’s entire experience [SD]: during the course of the narrative we are given almost enough information to discover the truth, but never quite enough information to make accurate judgments. Farquhar, too, is trapped in a situation characterized by “almost, but not quite” circumstances: he almost hangs, but apparently not quite; he apparently almost makes it home, but not quite; he apparently almost lives, but not quite [SD; PH; JDS]. Farquhar, too, “almost, but not quite, reach[es]” stability [MC2].
IV.5 This plank had been held in place by the weight of the captain; it was now held by that of the sergeant.
A TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic would be interested in knowing whether this detail, as well as all the others enumerated in this section, were typical of military
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executions during the time Bierce describes [SW2]. The “weight of the captain” is both literal and figurative [PS]; The captain’s “weight” is removed from the plank just as, figuratively, the ultimate physical responsibility of the execution is also lifted from him. A MARXIST critic would contend that it is often the case among military forces that the higher‑ranking officer observes the action from afar, rather than actively engaging in unpleasant incidents himself. He delves out the orders by a series of brief commands and signals, leaving his subordinates to do the “dirty work” at hand. A MARXIST might argue that such exploitation is typical of the relations between “inferiors” and “superiors” in a capitalist society [PS; SW2]. The fact that the plank once held in place by the “captain” is now held in place by the “sergeant” symbolizes Farquhar’s figurative (and eventually literal) fall in social status [JJ2].
IV.6 At a signal from the former the latter would step aside, the plank would tilt and the condemned man go down between two ties.
The opening half of this sentence epitomizes the anonymity of the various characters; before now they have been described by reference to their status or rank; now they are merely “the former” and “the latter”; it is almost as if they are embodied functions rather than full-fledged human beings. Such phrasing is typical of the way Bierce creates a tone of emotional and psychological distance in this opening section of the story. By keeping both the characters and the readers so distanced from one another at the beginning of the tale, Bierce creates a yearning in us to know more intimate details about the people he describes, and thus the sudden shift into Farquhar’s consciousness in section three comes with all the more force and effectiveness [EWA]. Typically, Bierce here effectively creates expectations and then abruptly surprises or fools both the reader and Farquhar. The word “would” sets up the expectation, yet the process does not occur in the expected manner [JDS]. It is as if Bierce is describing what “would” happen if the hanging really were going to occur, but the very use of this word leaves open the possibility that the hanging may not occur [CM; SD]. The word “would” implies an inevitable physical consequence, and although Farquhar for a time seems miraculously to cheat inevitability, we later learn that the consequences are inevitable after all [PH]. In addition, the logical process described here resembles the seemingly logical reasoning in which Farquhar later engages (VI.2; XXXVIII.1-4; XXXI.1-2) [JDS]. Note how the double use of the word “would” (“the latter would . . . the plank would”) equates the sergeant with the plank; both the man and the board are described merely as unthinking, unfeeling parts of an elaborate mechanism [SD].
IV.7 The arrangement commended itself to his judgment as simple and effective.
Ironically, the word “arrangement” calls attention to each individual component of the stage Bierce has set thus far and, at the same time, gathers those individual elements into one innocuous image. The “arrangement” is far from harmless -- a
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fact which makes the calm, non-judgmental connotations of this word ironic. The word helps reinforce the apparently neutral tone of the tale. Even Farquhar seems to take a distanced, neutral perspective at this point -- another hint that the issue of perspective will be a major issue in this story (PH). The word “commended” seems ironic as well, since it is the condemned man who is commending the arrangement by which he will be executed [PH]. Note the potential ambiguity of the word “his”: presumably it refers to Farquhar’s judgment, but it might also be associated either with the captain or with the sergeant, who have both been very recently mentioned. By leaving the precise reference of the word unclear, Bierce once more creates a potentially ambiguous moment in a fundamentally ambiguous story [PH]. An ARISTOTELIAN or FORMALIST critic might argue that the “arrangement” of Bierce’s own narrative structure will itself finally seem both “simple and effective” [LH].
IV.8 His face had not been covered nor his eyes bandaged.
This sentence helps encourage us to take Farquhar’s perspective seriously: if Farquhar’s vision were obviously obscured, or if he literally could not see clearly, we would be instantly mistrustful of his later visions or apparent observations. The sentence also raises several questions. It was a customary practice to cover the head of anyone about to be hanged -- for the benefit of those witnessing the event, if not for the victim. If Farquhar’s eyes had been bandaged or his face covered, the procedure would have been completed prior to securing the noose around his neck -- prior, that is, to the point at which Bierce begins the story. The direct observations by Farquhar recorded thus far would thus have been impossible; the story would had to have been told from a completely omniscient perspective, and much of the ambiguity of its point of view would thus have been sacrificed. Did Farquhar refuse the customary covering in an effort to appear courageous, or was he (deliberately or through incompetence) denied the dignity of a simple point of military etiquette? [PH] If the lack of a covering was deliberate on the part of the Federal troops, does it perhaps suggest an almost sadistic impulse to see Farquhar suffer? [SH] Or does it suggest a purposeful violation of his dignity? [RCE] We have previously been led to believe, however, that these Union soldiers would adhere to proper procedure. Here as throughout the story, therefore, Bierce implies questions without clearly providing an unambiguous answer [PH]. Ironically, although this sentence implies that Farquhar will almost literally stare death in the face, in fact his mind will invent an elaborate fantasy that will seem to allow him to escape this kind of clear-eyed confrontation with mortality [LS]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might argue that in a figurative sense, Farquhar imaginatively “bandage[s]” his own eyes in order to avoid a direct confrontation with one of the greatest sources of all human fear: the prospect of death [MFL].
IV.9 He looked a moment at his “unsteadfast footing,” then let his gaze wander to the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet.
Ironically, Farquhar’s eyes are one of the few parts of his body he can still move; they are among the few things over which he still has some independent control.
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He apparently can control what he sees, if nothing else [SD]. Note, though, the contrast between his active “look[ing]” and the more passive description of how he “let his gaze wander” [OT-K]. On the other hand, the word “looked” can imply a cursory, sensory-only glance at something, while the word “gaze” may suggest a more intent, fixed absorption in something [MC2]. Such contrasts between activity and passivity are typical of Bierce’s phrasing throughout the story [CM; OT-K]. While the sense of sight will later play a seemingly key role in Farquhar’s supposed escape, at this moment the captured man relies little on this sense. His seemingly unobservant manner here will contrast with his later apparently keen sense of sight [JDS]. The quoted phrase “‘unsteadfast footing’” is taken from Shakespeare’s play King Henry IV, Part I, Act I, scene 3: “. . . I’ll read you matter deep and dangerous; / As full of peril, and adventurous spirit, / As to o’er walk a current, roaring loud, / On the unsteadfast footing of a spear.” The offsetting quotation marks suggest that Bierce intends the allusion to be an obvious one. Bierce seems to use the quote to offer an ironic comparison of Peyton Farquhar to Hotspur and his associate rebels in Shakespeare’s play [PD]. A DIALOGICAL critic would be interested in Bierce’s subtle incorporation of another author’s voice into his own text [RCE]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might suggest that the phrase “unsteadfast footing” plays on the very basic human fear of lack of control [SH], while the phrase “swirling water” symbolizes the continuation of life (with or without Farquhar). Meanwhile, a FORMALIST critic might note how the rapid motion of the water contrasts with (and thus emphasizes) the slow motion of the narrative at this point [JDS; OT-K; ML], even while it also anticipates the rapid motion of Farquhar’s mind in the story’s third section [SD; JDS]. At the same time, such phrasing is typical of Bierce’s frequently picturesque and vivid style in this story [OT-K]. Once again, moreover, Bierce draws attention to the cyclical nature of all things by choosing to describe the water as “swirling” [PH] -- a word that helps not only symbolize but also induce the nearly hypnotic state of mind into which Farquhar is about to enter [AF]. The fact that the water is “swirling” may also be appropriately symbolic, since such motion involves a constrictive change, from a larger circle to a smaller one, in much the same way that Farquhar’s existence is now in the process of rapidly narrowing [LS]. Words such as “swirling” and “racing” can simultaneously suggest both vitality [ML] and danger [RCE]. In addition, the “swirling” of the water may mirror both the swirling emotions of Farquhar and the swirling, as-yet-unanswered questions the story has begun to raise in the minds of its readers [JC; PCP]. The structure and rhythm of this sentence are intriguing: Bierce first exposes us to one danger (the abstractly phrased “‘unsteadfast footing’”), then seems to shift attention away from that danger by using the word “wander,” but then seems to emphasize an even more intensely threatening danger by referring in very precise detail to “the swirling water of the stream racing madly beneath his feet.” This type of sentence structure is prevalent throughout the story and effectively creates a disturbed sense of accompanying Farquhar on his psychological roller-coaster; neither Farquhar nor Bierce’s readers can ever feel settled or at ease [PH]. Appropriately enough, the word “stream” is often used symbolically to represent one’s journey from birth to death. Paradoxically, in this story life-giving water is also capable of taking life. Farquhar eventually views the “stream” as an avenue of escape and thereby equates it with life. Ironically, he will also have a chance to express his contempt for this same stream once it occurs to him that he might drown in it [PH]. The stream, “racing madly,” resembles Farquhar’s own mind, especially later in the
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story [PH; KS]. Farquhar’s repeated focus on the “water” suggests his growing obsession with it [EWA].
IV.10 A piece of dancing driftwood caught his attention and his eyes followed it down the current.
If the preceding sentence had created apprehension, this sentence (especially the word “dancing,” which implies movement that is free and easy [SW]) seems to dissipate that mood [PH]. It implies the sense of lively rejoicing in the midst of a fundamentally grave situation, even as it anticipates the later joyous movements of Farquhar’s mind when he imagines that he is escaping [SD; KM; SW]. A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might suggest than the “dancing driftwood” resembles the deepest impulses of Farquhar’s id, which are yearning for activity and liberty [SW]. It seems ironic that a piece of dead “driftwood” can move so freely while the living Farquhar is trapped in immobility [PCP]; perhaps Bierce thereby implies the indifference of nature to human fate [EG]. Both the “driftwood” and Farquhar, however, are under the control of external forces and can exercise little influence over their separate fates [SMB]. On the other hand, while Farquhar’s body is fixed, his mind and thoughts move as freely and erratically as the wood he watches [PCP]. The earlier reference to the “swirling water . . . racing madly” [IV.9] is now replaced by the much more innocuous reference to the “current.” This kind of alternation of tone is typical of Bierce’s methods throughout the story as a whole [PH]. Once more Bierce uses imagery associated with motion, vitality, and life -- imagery that not only contrasts with the slow, deliberate narrative pace of this part of the story but that also anticipates the wild motion that will dominate the story in section three [JDS]. The fact that a mere piece of “driftwood” catches Farquhar’s attention implies how keen his senses are becoming. Also, this may ironically be a piece of the driftwood the Federal scout had claimed was dry (XVI.2-3) [PH; JDS]. Farquhar himself, of course, will soon (in his imagination, at least) be moving like a piece of “driftwood” down this stream [SMB; PH], and perhaps it is the sight of the driftwood that helps spur him to imagine his fantastic escape [PH]. The reference to “driftwood” also seems fitting for at least two other reasons: first, because later Farquhar’s mind will also be wildly buffeted but will lead him nowhere; and, second, because driftwood moves rapidly but is dead, having been broken off from the tree that sustains its life [SD]. Farquhar himself will later imagine himself “follow[ing] . . . the current” [PH]. For the time being, however, the rapid movement of the small piece of “dancing driftwood” contrasts with -- and thus helps emphasize -- the massive solidity and stability of the wooden bridge on which Farquhar stands [OT-K].
IV.11 How slowly it appeared to move. IV.12 What a sluggish stream!
Both time and life seem to pass “slowly” when one is pondering the past or anticipating the future [PH]. The driftwood that had earlier appeared to be “dancing”
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(IV.10) is now seen as moving “slowly” [SD; PCP], just as the soldiers who are executing Farquhar seem in no great hurry [JRC]. Likewise, the same stream that Farquhar had perceived as “racing madly” only moments earlier (IV.9) is now called “sluggish” [CM; SD; JDS]. A THEMATIC critic would argue that this is just one way in which this story calls attention to the crucial topic of different perceptions of time: just as the soldiers probably experience time differently than Farquhar does, so Farquhar himself experiences changes in his perceptions of time from moment to moment [LH]. Just as the story’s imagery is here reversed, so Farquhar is about to experience a far more profound reversal of sorts [SD]. Moreover, the sudden shift here from one perception to another highlights the confusion in Farquhar’s mind [SD; MR] and creates a certain confusion or unsteadiness in the reader as well [SD; PH]. Does the shift here also perhaps suggest that Farquhar’s own mind is becoming “sluggish” (just before it becomes extraordinarily active)? [SD]. Farquhar appears unable to come to a definite conclusion -- a fact which may lead the careful reader to doubt the veracity of his later “escape” [MR]. Bierce describes not how the stream does move but how it “appear[s]” to move [MR]. Such phrasing is typical of the passive, suggestive, non-assertive style Bierce frequently adopts throughout this story; he does not tell us how the stream did move but rather suggests how it “appeared” (at least to Farquhar) to move [OT-K]. Once again, then, Bierce subtly implies that appearances can be deceptive, or that we perceive the world as our individual feelings dictate. Farquhar’s inconsistent perceptions of the stream in this earlier section of the story foreshadow the uncertainties surrounding his supposed escape later in the story. Ironically, it is precisely this seemingly “sluggish stream” that will later seem to move quickly enough to allow Farquhar to escape the rifles and cannons he imagines are fired at him [JDS]. Such apparent inconsistencies -- is the stream “really” sluggish or “really” quick? -- might lead a DECONSTRUCTIVE critic to view the stream as an apt symbol of the difficulties and contradictions involved in any attempt to interpret anything (including this entire story) with assurance and finality [EWA]. Ironically, the same “sluggish” pace that Farquhar now attributes to the stream will later seem to characterize his own movements, at first, when he afterwards appears to enter that stream [MR].
V.1 He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children.
Paradoxically, Farquhar’s ability to see and to move his eyes -- one of the few remaining aspects of life he can control -- also allows him to choose not to see. His literal closing of his literal eyes here seems symbolic, since so much of the latter part of the story will be seen through his mind’s eye [SD; HF]. Does Farquhar’s focus on his family make him seem a more sympathetic character? [SB] Ironically, Farquhar’s final focus on his family comes only after a fantastic and misguided adventure motivated largely by the need to feel self-important [LP]. A LONGINIAN critic, interested in the ways literature appeals to and encourages elevated or lofty feelings, might note Farquhar’s attempt to focus his final thoughts on “his wife and children” [SH]. Similarly, an ARCHETYPAL critic might note that love of family is one of the most universal of human emotions [KM2]; perhaps Bierce’s reference to this emotion therefore helps make Farquhar a more sympathetic figure [RCE]. On the other hand, a FORMALIST critic, interested in the
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ways irony can complicate and enrich a text, might observe that Farquhar will not be able to maintain this focus for long, and that his lofty thoughts will soon be interrupted by something as seemingly trivial as the ticking of his watch [RCE]. At the same time, a FORMALIST might note how this passage foreshadows Farquhar’s vision of his wife at the very end of the story [HF].
V.2 The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift ‑‑ all had distracted him.
Does the reference to the “water, touched to gold” already imply the preciousness Farquhar is beginning to attribute to the stream as his only possible avenue of escape? At the same time, the reference to the “brooding mists” perhaps implies that if Farquhar does manage to escape, he will have some cover, but not much [MR]. The phrase “touched to gold” implies a delicacy and beauty that seems to contrast with the grimness of Farquhar’s situation. At the same time, such phrasing anticipates the vivid, striking language that dominates the third part of the story. The use of such language here helps link the two sections and helps prepare us to accept the use of such language later [SD]. The reference to the “early sun” is clearly ironic since it suggests ideas of rebirth and rejuvenation at precisely the moment when Farquhar is about to die [KM]. Ironically, the word “brooding” suggests a thicker kind of coverage than the word “mists” implies [MR]. Note how, in the sequence mentioning “the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift,” all the basic realities of the situation are described without the elaboration of fancy, thus making them seem the barest and most believable elements of the story [MR]. Meanwhile, the word “distracted” seems highly appropriate to this tale, which deals with the distraction not only of the main character but of the readers, too [CM; MR]. This single sentence, in fact, effectively reproduces in miniature the structure of the entire story, since the whole tale involves a process of distraction followed by an abrupt switch back to “reality” [MC2]. Indeed, a PLATONIC critic might argue that this entire story perfectly illustrates the ways in which literature can be distracting and deceptive [JK]. Ironically, the concrete details that should pull Farquhar back to reality are among the data that serve to “distract” him [MR]. In a sense, then, the reference to “drift” seems highly appropriate since it seems to symbolize the current state of Farquhar’s mind; the very structure of this sentence reflects a kind of drifting from one topic to another. The sentence suggests that he is losing touch with reality or becoming as psychologically imbalanced as his footing is unsteadfast [PH]. A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might emphasize how Farquhar here attempts -- but fails -- to shut out an unpleasant reality by deliberately attempting to evoke a pleasant fantasy (V.1) [JJ; MC].
V.3 And now he became conscious of a new disturbance.
By adding this sentence, Bierce ratchets up the tension another notch. As usual, he describes the “new disturbance” at first in only the most general terms, just as
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he earlier moved from general to specific in his description of Farquhar himself [SW]. Note how the phrase “And now he became” seems to blend and combine the past and present tenses -- a blending which is typical of the fundamental ambiguity of the entire story. In general, Bierce does a fine job in this tale of making the narrative of a past event seem vividly present. Here as elsewhere, Bierce subtly suggests that Farquhar is existing simultaneously in two different realms of time [SD], or is at least moving constantly between them [CM]. The phrase “And now” is also completely typical (in another respect) of Bierce’s technique in this story, since the words set up another expectation for the reader; for a brief moment, readers anticipate that Bierce may drop a substantial clue about the actuality of the events. (READER-RESPONSE critics might therefore be particularly interested in moments such as this.) In addition, the words “and now” also suggest a logical order -- the kind of order Bierce has followed so far in the story (but which he will soon seem to violate) [JDS]. The reference to Farquhar becoming “conscious” here seems significant. Although later in the story his awareness and sense of his perceptions will seem to become fine-tuned, thus far the references to his awareness or consciousness have been low-key. Such contrast is one of many means by which Bierce organizes the narrative [JDS]. In addition, the word “conscious” will soon prove ironic, since it will quickly become clear that Farquhar is not in fact fully conscious at all of the sensation he now seems to perceive. Bierce thus plays a trick here (and, even more strikingly, later) on the gullible reader [CM; PH; MR]. Indeed, the reliability of the reader’s consciousness will soon be as open to question as the reliability of Farquhar’s [SD]. Moreover, this moment of supposed “conscious[ness]” immediately precedes Farquhar’s abrupt loss of all consciousness (or perhaps his entry into a different kind of consciousness) through death [OT-K].
V.4 Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality.
The opening words of this sentence seem to foreshadow the abruptly stunning blow that Farquhar receives at the very end of the tale. Furthermore, Bierce uses this sentence as a whole to continue to develop the irony of Farquhar’s allegedly acute senses. The words “striking” and “dear ones” have conflicting connotations, thus epitomizing the contrast and conflict between so many of the details in this story, as well as symbolizing the larger conflict in the tale between the harsh reality Farquhar faces and the peaceful fantasies that tempt his mind [SD]. Significantly, Bierce refers to the “thought” -- not plural “thoughts” of Farquhar’s “dear ones,” as if to emphasize the narrowing of his experiences [PH]. Rather than being immediately aware of the “metallic percussion,” Farquhar merely becomes conscious of the noise -- a fact which possibly suggests that he is not in full possession of his mental faculties and that his senses at this point are dulled. Later, of course, he will seem to be keenly alert to everything -- but that alertness will in fact be only illusory and will indeed signal his loss of genuine consciousness [JDS]. Like almost everything else in this section of the story, even the sounds here are rigid and formal and stiff [RCE]. The sound constitutes a kind of
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imagined death knell [MR]. The words “sharp, distinct, metallic percussion,” with their heavy emphasis on sharp consonant sounds and their individual distinctness, almost mimic the sounds and the rhythm they describe [SD; MR; OT-K]. Note, too, that the first word has one syllable, the second word has two syllables, and the third word has three syllables -- as if Bierce is trying to mimic in the rhythm of his language the progression of time [CM]. Simply by piling on three adjectives, Bierce effectively extends this moment as well as this sentence, thereby playing with our own experience (as readers) of the passage of time [PH]. In addition, the phrase “sharp, distinct, metallic percussion” moves from general to specific, from vagueness to precision, so that the reader almost shares in Farquhar’s growing level of awareness here [SD].
V.5 He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by ‑‑ it seemed both.
The phrase “it seemed both” is completely typical of Bierce’s technique in this story, which is full of such ambiguity and equivocation [SD; CM; MR; JDS]. At this point Farquhar is more than likely only half conscious, not only of his thoughts but also of the external world. Therefore, it is natural for him not to be able to distinguish what and how close the noise is. The use of “seemed” here is similar to the use of “like” at the very end of the story (XXXVII.9). In both these cases Bierce creates a sense of uncertainty, as indeed he does throughout the tale [JDS]. The fact that the sound seems to come from “both” far and near perhaps implies that the present world and the distant eternal world are about to mesh into one existence for Farquhar. In this sentence as so often elsewhere, Bierce makes the reader share Farquhar’s own sense of confusion and uncertainty; at this point we are no more sure than he is what is causing this sound. Both Farquhar and the reader find themselves “wonder[ing]” [PH].
V.6 Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell.
Bierce effectively suggests that death itself is in some ways less terrifying than the seemingly “slow” passage of time that precedes the moment of extinction. It is as if death itself seems less horrible to Farquhar than the agonizing process of waiting to die [KWG]. A FORMALIST might note that the long “o” sounds of “slow” and “tolling” help drag out the sound of the second phrase, so that the words mimic the effect of slowness they describe [RCE].
V.7 He awaited each stroke with impatience and ‑‑ he knew not why ‑‑ apprehension.
The phrase “he knew not why” epitomizes much of the mood and atmosphere of this story as a whole: neither Farquhar nor the reader can ever be exactly sure of
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much of anything. This is a story that revels in uncertainties -- or in certainties that turn out to be uncertainties [RCE]. To a PSYCHOANALYTIC critic, the phrase may also imply the failure of rational thought as Farquhar moves more and more into the realm of the id [JG]. The “impatience” and “apprehension” the narrator attributes to Farquhar mirror, in a sense, our own responses as readers to the events described: just as Farquhar is anxious to discover the source of the sounds, so are we anxious to discover the details of his circumstances and fate [JC]. The interruption of the sentence structure, through the sudden insertion of the phrase within dashes, is typical of the similar disruptive tactics Bierce uses elsewhere in this tale [RCE].
V.8 The intervals of silence grew progressively longer, the delays became maddening.
This sentence, like the whole conclusion of the first section, helps emphasize time itself as a crucial theme of this story [TR]. A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic would note that the “intervals” in fact do not change: all that changes is Farquhar’s perception of them, as his unconscious begins to dominate his thinking [MS; TS]. From a PSYCHOANALYTIC perspective, the delays are potentially quite literally “maddening” in the sense that Farquhar risks losing touch altogether with his rational mind [MS]. From a PLATONIC perspective, Farquhar does indeed become “madden[ed]” by the end of the tale, since he loses his grasp of rationality [TS].
V.9 With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness.
A THEMATIC critic might note how the word “infrequency” once more emphasizes a key theme of this story -- our perception of the passage of time [CS; TS]. Ironically, even as the sounds diminish in one sense (through their “greater infrequency”), they become more intense in another. Even the very term “greater infrequency” has a paradoxical, oxymoronic quality that is appropriate to the story as a whole [RCE].
V.10 They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife; he feared he would shriek.
A FORMALIST critic would note that here, as elsewhere in the story, Bierce tends to use similes to convey Farquhar’s perceptions of reality rather than to describe reality itself in any accurate way. Nearly all the similes in the story function in this way [TB]. A FORMALIST might also contend that the word “thrust” is almost onomatopoeic -- i.e, it almost mimics in sound the action it describes [EG]. The word helps give physical force to what is, after all, a mere sound [DL]. A formalist might note that the word “shriek” is appropriately intense and is much more effective than (say) “yell,” “cry out,” or even “scream” would have been [JRC]. A
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PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might argue that Farquhar’s fear that he may “shriek” represents a fear of losing control over his id, while a FEMINIST might argue that Farquhar fears any violation of conventional standards of masculinity. It is less the pain itself that bothers him than the fear of showing his fear. Meanwhile, an ARCHETYPAL critic might suggest that Farquhar’s fear represents a very basic kind of fear: a fear of fear itself [RCE].
V.11 What he heard was the ticking of his watch.
Just as Farquhar is abruptly shocked and awakened here by a loud, maddening sound, so, at the very end of the story, he will also be abruptly startled by a “sound like the shock of a cannon” (XXXVII.9). A FORMALIST critic would appreciate the similarity between these two passages. In both cases Farquhar is confronted by a sound he cannot at first comprehend but which he also cannot ignore [JDS]. Bierce’s reference to the “ticking of [the] watch” not only subtly introduces another circular image into the story but also helps emphasize the theme of limited time, which is so crucial to this tale [AF]. Indeed, a THEMATIC critic might argue that time -- and the different ways it can be experienced -- is one of the most important ideas explored in this narrative [LH]. It is the process of time (rather than a noose, bullets, or drowning) that is finally inescapable, not only for Farquhar but for all humans [DL]. Just as the hands of the watch never move outside of a highly circumscribed circle, so the same is true of Farquhar, especially when we see him swinging (and perhaps even rotating) at the very end of the tale [AF]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might argue that the fear of the passage of time -- and thus of approaching mortality -- is one of the greatest fears all humans face. From this perspective, therefore, although Farquhar’s circumstances seem highly unusual, in a deeper sense he is merely confronting an exaggerated instance of the same predicament all human beings confront [JK; SW2]. The imagery of the constantly “ticking” watch implies a deterministic universe in which death is inevitable. The image of the ticking “watch” anticipates the final imagery of the story, in which Farquhar is seen swinging, like the pendulum of a clock, from the bridge from which he has been hanged. A FORMALIST would appreciate the pattern Bierce constructs: just before Farquhar’s death, the narrator emphasizes the image of a watch; just after Farquhar’s death, the narrator implies the image of a clock [JK]. A FORMALIST might also appreciate how the word “ticking” mimics the sound it describes [RCE]. It seems significant that Bierce refers to the sound of the mechanized “watch” rather than to the man’s own heartbeat, since the latter sound would at least imply nature and vitality rather something than man-made, mechanized, and lifeless [ML].
VI. 1. He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him.The description of Peyton’s action is curious: Bierce uses the word “unclosed” rather than “opened.” In part, the verb “unclosed” here looks back directly to the verb “closed” in V.1: through this echo, Bierce signals that the episode just described has now ended [RCE]. However, use of the word “unclosed” may also
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imply that Peyton does not have any options “open” to him, and perhaps it also suggests his fundamental passivity. That Peyton’s eyes are not “opened” here contrasts with his later intensely “visual” awakening after he falls into the water [PD; MS]. The word “unclosed” may imply that his eyes are not fully engaged and thus that he does not see entirely clearly or distinctly -- a possibility that would be relevant to many of the larger themes of this story [CB; JJ2]. His view of “the water below him” may help emphasize his isolation, especially if he can see his reflection in it [JJ2].
VI.2. “If I could free my hands,” he thought, “I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream.
A DIALIOGICAL critic might note that this is one of several passages in the story in which Farquhar seems to engage in dialogue with himself -- a fact that only emphasizes (ironically) his essential isolation, the absence of anyone other than himself to talk to [TS; BT]. Ironically, although Farquhar’s situation might seem hopeless to an outside observer, the first words we hear from him are paradoxically hopeful [DL]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might suggest that this fact implies the intensity of the primal will and desire to survive [RCE]. The simple use of the word “might” introduces an element of hope and possibility into the narrative [SW]. An ARISTOTELIAN critic might appreciate the way this very brief sentence, along with the one that follows it, foreshadows and prepares for the whole third section of the story and thus contributes to the complex unity of the work [SW2]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might argue that the idea of “spring[ing] into the stream” plays on a standard symbolic connection between water and life [JJ2]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might also argue that the desire to escape death is perhaps the most basic of all human impulses [TS]. As Farquhar contemplates the possibility of renewed life, his language becomes packed with active verbs, including “free,” “throw,” and “spring” [RCE].
VI.3. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home.
This entire sentence functions as an ironic bit of foreshadowing of Section III. It briefly encapsulates, in a few words, the fantasy described at such length in the third segment of the story [ATH; JP]. The brevity of present sentence matches quite closely the real length of time actually consumed by the later imaginary escape [ATH]. Farquhar’s desire to “get away home” helps emphasize the pattern of circular imagery that is so prominent in this story [LB]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might argue that the desire for a “home” or safe haven is one of the most important of all human impulses [RCE]. A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might contend that Farquhar’s ability to think and plan implies that his reason has once again become dominant, although such a critic might note that what seems to be Farquhar’s rational planning here is also partly a fantasy and becomes the basis of his fantastic hallucination of escape later in the tale [TS]. Once more strong, active verbs are emphasized: “diving,” “evade,” “swimming,” “take,” “get.” These not only
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contrast with the passivity and immobility emphasized so far but also help foreshadow -- and make credible -- the events of the third section [RCE].
VI.4. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader’s farthest advance.”
A DIALOGICAL critic might appreciate the way in which Bierce accurately captures the probable tone of Farquhar’s voice, with its arguably maudlin reference to the vulnerable “little ones” and its ominous reference to the dangerous “invader” [TB]. On the other hand, an ARCHETYPAL critic might contend that such thoughts and such phrasing would be perfectly natural to any father and patriot [JK]. A FEMINIST critic might argue that Farquhar should have considered the welfare of his “wife and little ones” before embarking on such a foolhardy adventure. A FEMINIST might suggest that Farquhar was really less concerned with his family than with his own fame [JK]. On the other hand, it is possible to argue that Farquhar, by seeking to defend his way of life, also seeks to protect the long-term interests of his family [JK]. Perhaps a FEMINIST might also argue that now, in his moment of most extreme vulnerability and weakness, Farquhar has a special need to imagine himself as a conventionally masculine protector of a “wife and little ones” [RCE].
VII.1 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.
A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic, who is especially concerned with the relations between the unconscious id and the rational ego, might argue that this passage shows the id directly seizing control of Farquhar’s mind. Thus, a PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might contend that the unconscious is truly the strongest force working in humans. In a precarious and daunting situation, Peyton’s conscious mind gives way to the most primitive and basic of thoughts -- those of home, God and family. Therefore, the PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might argue that although Peyton’s response to reality is definitely shaped by his external circumstances, his circumstances also trigger a reality that is founded primarily on the fundamental human desire for comfort in the face of peril [KO]. A MARXIST might note that a mere “nod” from a superior to an inferior is enough, in this rigidly hierarchical society, to end a man’s life [JJ]. How should the “nod” be interpreted? Is it a sign of indifference or a sign of respect? Is it an indication of the captain’s self-assured superiority, or does it suggest his unspoken bond with the soldier who executes his command? Does it suggest reluctance or disdain? A READER-RESPONSE critic would argue that individual readers will inevitably decide such matters for themselves. A FORMALIST might note how the subtle, silent “nod” contrasts with all the noisy actions the story will soon seem to emphasize [RCE]. A STRUCTURALIST might note how this sentence is doubly structured by the opposition of outside/inside, not only when it refers to the thoughts “flashed into” a brain rather
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than “evolved from” it, but also when it contrasts the internal thoughts of Farquhar with the external action of the captain. Meanwhile, a DIALOGICAL critic, interested in the use of different tones and inflections of voice in the story, would note how such issues are made explicit in the reference to thoughts needing to be “set down in words.” In phrases such as this, the story calls attention to itself as a verbal construct [SH2].
VII.2 The sergeant stepped aside.
A FORMALIST would probably appreciate the effective brevity of this crucial sentence, as well as the plainness of its diction -- a plainness complicated by its effective use of alliteration [JG; TS]. The simple, understated movement of the sergeant here helps emphasize, by contrast, the dramatic, excited movements the story will soon seem to describe [RCE]. Ironically, Bierce uses an extremely simple, matter-of-fact sentence to describe perhaps the most crucial event in the story [JG]. Farquhar’s ultimate fate is finally determined by two extremely a simple physical movements -- a nod, then a step: nothing more, and nothing less [DL]. The fact that this sentence ends only the first part of the story, and that the story now jumps backward in time, contributes to the suspense of the tale. Meanwhile, Bierce’s decision to structure the story in this fashion is relevant to a larger theme of the narrative: our shifting experiences of time. FORMALIST critics would appreciate both the suspense and the structural and thematic sophistication [TS]. The new section of the story that now begins provides a flashback, perhaps, not only for the reader but for Farquhar as well: we learn in the following section how he came to be where he now is, while Farquhar perhaps remembers these crucial events [KAS].
VIII. 1. Peyton Farquhar was a well‑to‑do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family.
A FORMALIST critic would appreciate the abrupt narrative shift this sentence represents. Just when we thought we were about to see Farquhar hanged, we suddenly jump back into his past. This sudden shift in perspective is typical of the design of the story as a whole, and it also subtly and effectively foreshadows the final abrupt shift with which the story will end [LH; RH]. A FORMALIST might also appreciate the irony of the fact that it is only when Farquhar’s existence is effectively over that Bierce reveals the protagonist’s identity and name [TB]. The shift into the narrative past is appropriate, since Farquhar’s former life is now entirely behind him [RCE], and the shift also helps finally satisfy the curiosity that has been steadily building on the part of the reader, who has been wondering about the name and nature of this protagonist [JC]. Ironically, the opening sentence of this section of the story might easily be the first line in a printed obituary [CH; SW]. In this second section of the story, we learn much more than we have learned before about the specific identity of the main character. Similarly, when
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the story shifts from section two to section three, we penetrate even more deeply into this character, since we actually enter his inner consciousness [KO]. Section two also tends to focus much more explicitly than either of the surrounding sections on themes, ideas, topics, and conflicts; in this as in other ways, it functions as a bridge between the other two portions of the story [KO]. A TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic might note how efficiently and effectively this one brief sentence implies the larger historical context of the tale [LH; MFL]. A FORMALIST critic would appreciate the complex design of Bierce’s narrative, which is full of stories within stories [LH; SH]. Does this opening sentence invite the reader to identify with Farquhar, and even sympathize with him, by implying that he is not a common or heinous criminal? [MC] A MARXIST critic might note that, from the beginning, Peyton’s personal and social worth is immediately defined by his worldly possessions and his position in the existing socio-economic hierarchy. A MARXIST might also note the immediate emphasis on property in this section of the story -- an emphasis that seems all the more ironic since part of that property consists of enslaved human beings of an allegedly lower class [BB; TB; AF; SH; KM2; DL2; SW]. A MULTICULTURALIST critic would find it very significant that Farquhar, in this sentence and in the next, is described as the representative of a particular group of people, since MULTICULTURALISTS emphasize the ways in which humanity is segmented into such groups [MG; LH]. Ironically, Farquhar, who comes from one of the highest-ranking families in his country, is now surrounded by symbols and manifestations of a different kind of hierarchy and ranking -- a kind of hierarchy that will soon prove fatal to him [AF]. The phrase “well-to-do” has an elevated, almost feminine tone. It gives the impression that Farquhar is not at all rugged but lives a soft, pampered life. Perhaps his sheltered life has blinded him to the cruel realities of the war-ravaged world around him [MR2]. A MARXIST might contend that the word “planter” is highly ironic, since Farquhar is arguably no more a real planter than he is a real soldier. Instead, he either employs or even owns the people who do his planting for him. A MARXIST might see the term “planter” (which refers to a worthy occupation, from a MARXIST point of view) as a way for Farquhar and his society to disguise the true basis of their income, which is the exploitation of the labor of others, whether through low-paying jobs or actual slavery [MW]. The fact that Farquhar is from an “old and highly respected Alabama family” suggests that he is known mainly for his pedigree. He has not earned respect for anything he has accomplished himself. He had no control over the fact that he was born into a certain family. That is, he has performed no personal act of distinction or shown any extraordinary private talent. The phrase also suggests that the main reason his family is respected is for the length of time in which they have abided in one area and the amount of wealth they have acquired [MR2]. Ironically, many of the factors that made Farquhar’s family “highly respected” in “Alabama” would have earned him contempt by many in the North [TM], and his recognition that his social status depends mainly on lineage rather than on personal achievement may in fact help explain his yearning for personal glory and individual courage [RCE]. A READER-RESPONSE critic might argue that different kinds of readers might respond differently to Farquhar’s background as it is described here. While many readers today might hope that Farquhar can escape, an ex-Confederate veteran, reading the story in 1891, might feel this hope even more intensely, while the a Northern widow whose husbands and sons were killed in battle might have just the opposite reaction. Similarly, a latter-day admirer of the Confederacy might sympathize
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with Farquhar, while a modern reader who saw the Confederacy as an inhuman political system might fight Farquhar totally unsympathetic [MG]. A STRUCTURALIST critic might note how even such an apparently simple sentence as this one implies a whole series of binary oppositions, including rich/ poor; agriculturalist/industrialist; ancient/recent; respected/obscure; Southern/Northern [TM].
VIII.2 Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause.
A READER-RESPONSE critic might argue that white Southerners of Bierce’s own time might have found Farquhar’s role as a “slave owner” less troubling than Northerners of that time or than Southerners today [JH]. A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might note a certain element of defensiveness in this sentence, especially if the sentence expresses Farquhar’s own view of himself. From this point of view, Farquhar might consider that he is only behaving as anyone else in similar circumstances would behave [SG]. In any case, note the peculiar and rigid chain of cause-and-effect implied by this sentence [BB]. A TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic would want to know precisely how typical were the motives described here; such a critic would explore whether Farquhar’s motives were indeed typical of persons of his class and social status [MG]. Is there any irony in the description of Farquhar as a “politician”? Does the word suggest that Farquhar uses the pretense of public service to promote his private interests? [PCP] Or does the word simply highlight (as a MARXIST might note) the links that typically exist between economic and political power? [JH] A MARXIST critic might assert that the word “naturally” is ironic, since Farquhar’s political views are not natural or innate but simply reflect his perception of his economic self-interests and the self-interests of other persons of his social class [LH; KO]. A MARXIST might also suggest that slave-owning is merely one example of the kind of economic domination and exploitation that capitalist systems can promote [JH; MW]. Perhaps there is a paradoxical sense in which even men like Farquhar, who seem to enjoy unusual power in their societies, are themselves shaped and constrained by those societies and by social expectations. Farquhar, in other words, may be less free and less autonomous than he imagines [FS]. A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic, noting that Farquhar is described as “ardently devoted” to the Confederacy, might suggest that this devotion satisfies some deep, perhaps even desperate emotional need in Farquhar and appeals in some basic way to the strongest impulses of his id [MG]. Does the phrase “ardently devoted” suggest an almost romantic attachment, as if Farquhar is enamored of an unrealistic promise of glory and heroism? [MR2] On the other hand, a MARXIST critic might claim that Farquhar is motivated by far more pragmatic impulses, particularly by the desire to preserve his wealth and status [MG, KO]. A READER-RESPONSE critic or a MULTICULTURALIST might suggest that the revelation that Farquhar is not merely a “secessionist” but also a “slave owner” might alienate large groups of readers who might otherwise have been sympathetic to a man being hanged [JH; RGL; LW].
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VIII.3. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army that had fought the disastrous campaigns ending with the fall of Corinth, and he chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction.A DIALOGICAL critic might pay special attention to the tone suggested by such adjectives as “gallant” and “disastrous,” which seem to imply some sympathy for the Southern cause. Do judgmental words such as “imperious,” “gallant,” “disastrous,” and “inglorious” imply that the narrator is here adopting Farquhar’s own point of view? [SG]. Or are such words in fact meant to be read as slightly ironic and sarcastic? [LT] Or is it conceivable (as with so much else in this story) that both readings are possible? [RCE] In any case, by mentioning these “circumstances” without clearly explaining them, Bierce contributes to the story’s fundamental ambiguity and sense of mystery [RCE]. A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might be particularly intrigued by the mystery such phrasing raises [MG]. Does the word “imperious” perhaps imply that Farquhar’s elevated station (or political status) has kept him from active duty? In either case a MARXIST critic would note the practical consequences of social inequalities [BB]. A TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic would probably be very interested in learning the precise historical significance of “the fall of Corinth” and the possible relevance of that battle to Farquhar’s own predicament [DL2; TM; LT; LW]. A FORMALIST critic, on the other hand, might instead pay particular attention to the special irony, in this context, of the word “fall,” since Farquhar himself is about to fall in a different but equally “disastrous” way [RCE]. Has Farquhar’s distinguished social rank allowed him to escape the kind of hard military service that he could not so easily have evaded if he had been poorer? [AF] Note the irony of the verb “chafed”: chafing is associated with skin that is tender and not exposed to rough treatment, such as the skin of a baby or of the lips. Peyton has apparently not been subjected to many of the harsh realities a soldier would endure, and he would probably not survive very long if exposed to them. The verb “chafed” is especially ironic, of course, in view of Peyton’s present circumstances, with a noose around his neck [CB; ATH; MR2]. The first part of the story had emphasized conflict between two large political and military entities; the present part of the tale, however, emphasizes conflict within an individual’s own mind [RCE; SW2]. Ironically, Farquhar’s desire for “distinction” and glory makes his motivation seem more selfish than genuinely patriotic [BB]. A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might suggest that while Peyton’s frustration may imply that he is responding to the impulses of his id [TM], his yearning for “distinction” may suggest either an inflated sense of ego or an ego that needs to feel inflated [AF]. A LONGINIAN critic, on the other hand, might see this desire for “distinction” as a reflection of the natural human desire for sublimity or elevation [PS]. Meanwhile, an ARCHETYPAL critic might contend that Farquhar is simply responding to the innate, wide-spread human impulse to feel valued by his community [LH], while an ARISTOTELIAN critic might see his romantic notions of warfare as the crucial mistake that leads to his somewhat tragic end [JC]. Alternatively, a MARXIST might suggest the ways in which even Farquhar’s military ambitions are affected by his class status: it is not
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enough for him to be a common soldier or even a regular officer; instead he feels the need for the sort of “distinction” he has always enjoyed because of his socioeconomic status [AF]. Both psychoanalytic and Marxist critics might note that Farquhar seems to conceive of war (or at least of his participation in it) as an individualist enterprise, either because of his fundamental egotism or because of the bourgeois ideology he takes for granted [AF]. Might a psychoanalytic critic even see some sexual sublimation implied by Farquhar’s desire to “release . . . his energies”? In other words, does Farquhar see his participation in the war effort as a means of proving his potency? [SG; MR2] Plato might see Farquhar’s emotional need for distinction as an irrational impulse that endangers not only Farquhar himself but also the wife and children who depend on his ability to think clearly [TS]. Meanwhile, a feminist critic might regard the notion of viewing war as a chance for the “release” of “energies” a typically masculine perspective [MW]. On the other hand, an archetypal critic might argue that the desire to be noticed and recognized is a very common human trait [LT]. A formalist might argue that the reference to Farquhar’s “longing for the release of his energies” is a sardonic bit of ironic foreshadowing, since by the end of the tale Farquhar will seem to be struggling as energetically as possible to forestall the final “release of his energies” in death [CB; ATH].
VIII.4. That opportunity, he felt, would come, as it comes to all in war time.
Perhaps this sentence reinforces our sense of Farquhar as a deluded romantic. War is bloody and cruel and is mentally and physically torturous. Most soldiers are never known individually; many lie in unmarked graves. Very few are given any extraordinary “opportunity” to set themselves apart [MR2]. A Longinian critic might argue that the desire for distinction reflects the basic human desire for elevation -- for participation in some lofty cause [SW2; TS]. A Marxist or multiculturalist, of course, would argue that the Confederate cause was anything but lofty [RCE].
VIII.5. Meanwhile he did what he could.
A formalist would note how even such a simple word as “[m]eanwhile” subtly reiterates the story’s concern with the passage of time [TS]. A structuralist might note that this section of the tale, like the larger story itself, is based on the fundamental opposition of civilian and military modes of life [SW2]. Arguably, the first part of the story emphasizes the military code; the second part emphasizes the civilian code; while the third section blends the two, showing Farquhar apparently moving from one realm to the other before being suddenly jerked back again into the military sphere of existence [RCE].
VIII.6. No service was too humble for him to perform in aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if
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consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier, and who in good faith and without too much qualification assented to at least a part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war.
A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might argue that Farquhar is driven by a desire to perform in ways he considers essentially “male”; from this perspective, part of Farquhar’s motive is a desire to assert and prove his “masculinity” [SG]. The claim that Farquhar is willing to perform even “humble” services on behalf of his cause seems to conflict with the earlier reference to his desire for “distinction” (VIII.3). Ultimately, of course, Farquhar will be given the chance to perform the most “humble” service possible for the Confederate cause: he dies for it, having accomplished nothing [MR2]. A DECONSTRUCTOR might argue that Farquhar’s willingness to perform “humble” services is actually a reflection of his desire for fame and glory: his ostentatious humility is actually a source of pride [RCE]. Contrast the final seven words of this sentence with the sentiment Farquhar later feels at (XVIII.19), when he considers his circumstances unfair [KO].
IX.1. One evening while Farquhar and his wife were sitting on a rustic bench near the entrance to his grounds, a gray‑clad soldier rode up to the gate and asked for a drink of water.
The relaxed tone of the first part of this sentence contrasts with the different kinds of tension highlighted in the first and third sections of the story [JR]. The opening half of this sentence suggests that although Farquhar plays many roles (for example, as master, planter, and politician), he is also a family man who is willing to take time to enjoy a moment of leisure with his wife. Farquhar’s present lifestyle of comfort, if not passivity, contrasts sharply with the adventurous life he envisions for himself (and which he later seems to experience). His relaxed, seated posture here indicates both his power and his ease as a civilian, whereas his tense, precarious posture on the bridge emphasizes his weakness and vulnerability as a captive. Ironically, just as Peyton’s fantasies of glory prod him from the inactivity, stability, peace, and safety of the “rustic bench,” his later fantasy of a sweet reunion with his wife allows him to escape psychologically from the reality both of his captivity and of his impending death [JW]. A MARXIST critic would note how much wealth and status are implied even by the simple word “grounds” [LB2; TS; LW], as well as how this implication of immense wealth and property nicely contrasts with the word “rustic”: Farquhar and his wife may sit on a “rustic” bench, but their decision to sit on such a bench is a free choice rather than a situation forced upon them by economic need [RCE]. The reference to the “gray-clad soldier” helps emphasize once more the importance of appearances in this story. We later discover, of course, that the soldier is a Northern scout, but his appearance is only one instance among many in this tale in which things are not really as they seem [JW]. Indeed, a FORMALIST critic might note the appropriateness of the fact that he is dressed in “gray”: this is a story without clear distinctions between black and white, between truth and falsehood [RCE]. It seems ironic that Peyton, who considers himself a sophisticated man, assumes that the
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soldier is a Confederate merely because he is wearing a gray uniform; apparently Farquhar makes no further effort to determine the soldier’s true identity [LP]. The anonymity of the “soldier” is also ironic in view of Peyton’s own ambitions to achieve distinction by participating in the war. Instead, Peyton ultimately dies an obscure traitor’s death [JW]. The fact that the soldier asks “for a drink of water” seems all the more ironic in light of the strong desire by Farquhar, which we have witnessed in part one, to reach water, which he perceives as a source of renewal [RCE]. Just as the soldier pauses in his journey and asks for a drink of water, so this section of Bierce’s story constitutes a kind of pause, or slight intermission, in the larger narrative [DM].
IX.2 Mrs. Farquhar was only too happy to serve him with her own white hands.
Just as Farquhar is eager to serve the larger Southern cause, so his wife is eager to serve an individual Southern soldier [MR2]. A FEMINIST might observe that the woman is never given an independent name: she is simply identified as “Mrs. Farquhar” [TS]. A FEMINIST might also note how closely the wife’s impulses reflect those of her husband -- yet her ability to serve the “cause” is even more limited than his has been: he is constrained by unknown limits, but she is constrained by her fundamentally inferior position in society [RGL; KM2; MS; ANW]. Perhaps her excitement over a casual visit further emphasizes how relatively shallow and uneventful her existence seems [MR2]. A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might even suggest that Mrs. Farquhar is excited to serve a man who, despite his humble status, may seem more virile and intriguing to her than her own husband [RCE]. On the other hand, a TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic might claim that her service was merely an impersonal convention of her time and place: it was simply the behavior expected of someone in her position [ANW]. A MULTICULTURALIST critic might focus on how the reference to Mrs. Farquhar’s willingness to “serve” with “her own white hands” implicitly contrasts her position with that of her husband’s slaves, whose service is compelled and who possess black hands [KM; JW]. Ironically, Mrs. Farquhar may feel that her slaves are not good enough to serve this heroic Confederate soldier, or she may feel that allowing a slave to serve him would be to show him insufficient respect [KM2] -- a possibility that is particularly ironic since the soldier is even now deceiving her [RCE]. However, the reference to her “white hands” may imply not only a sense of racial superiority but also a sense of economic superiority over the presumably lower-class scout [ANW]. Indeed, a MARXIST might argue that the fact that she is “only too happy to serve” an economic inferior is a bit paradoxical, since such service is still actually a way of displaying her economic and social status [ANW]. She also realizes, of course, that to “serve” a soldier who seems to be fighting to preserve her privileged way of life is actually a way to “serve” her own best interests [RCE]. The fact that Mrs. Farquhar’s hand’s are “white” not only makes an obvious point about her race but also implies something less obvious about her economic status: she is apparently not used to doing hard, servile labor [BH; JW]. Indeed, a MULTICULTURALIST might note how many different social groups are explicitly mentioned or subtly implied in this section of the story: upper-class Southern white civilians; white northern soldiers (presumably lower on the economic scale than planters); males and females; blacks and whites. In one brief passage
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in a relatively brief story, then, Bierce conjures up a whole word of sometimes-conflicting, sometimes-overlapping social groups [LB2; SH2]. These kinds of related contrasts would also interest STRUCTURALIST critics [HF]. Both STRUCTURALIST and ARCHETYPAL critics might see the fact that her hands are “white” as a standard symbol of purity, innocence, perfection, cleanliness, etc. [SH; MFL]. A FEMINIST critic might agree that this imagery does indeed reflect the sexist stereotype of the ideal woman of Farquhar’s day [EG; LH]. The fact that her hands are “her own” again helps to distinguish her from her husband’s slaves. She is free to use them as she deems fit, and she, like her husband, seems more than willing to use her hands to serve the South. Indeed, her decision not to call upon a slave to serve the supposed Confederate soldier implies that she deems only herself worthy to enjoy the privilege of serving him [BH; JW]. At the same time, the image of “Mrs. Farquhar” here would also interest a FEMINIST critic, who would note how closely this woman is associated with domestic service. In a sense “her own white hands” are not in fact her own but belong to her husband, and although she is socially and economically superior to the visiting male soldier, it is nonetheless part of her expected social role to “serve him” [JG2; KM]. The fact that she is “only too happy” to do so simply suggests the extent to which she has willingly embraced her subservient position in the social hierarchy [KM].
IX.3 While she was fetching the water her husband approached the dusty horseman and inquired eagerly for news from the front.
A feminist critic might note the use of the word “fetching” and suggest that Mrs. Farquhar is described almost as an obedient animal [JG; JG2; JJ; LB2; SW2]. A FEMINIST might also note that the men wait until the woman has departed before discussing the conventionally “male” topic of war [DL2]. The fact that Farquhar inquires “eagerly” implies that he is bored with his uneventful, unexciting life, just as it also implies that he tends giddily to romanticize warfare, thinking of it in highly unrealistic terms -- as an opportunity for adventure [JW]. A FORMALIST, a THEMATIC critic, and a STRUCTURALIST might all note how appropriate the word “dusty” is in a story so much concerned with the contrast between life and death. The “dusty horseman” will help lead Farquhar to his demise [MS]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might contend that Farquhar, by “inquir[ing] eagerly for news,” displays a natural human curiosity [MS], while a PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might suggest that his “eager[ness]” reflects his particular emotional and psychological compulsions [TS]. Just as Farquhar here inquires “eagerly for news from the front,” so he will later even more eagerly seek to return home [TS].
X.1 “The Yanks are repairing the railroads,” said the man, “and are getting ready for another advance.
A DIALOGICAL critic might appreciate the irony of the fact that the Northern soldier, by using the word “Yanks,” is here adopting the jargon of Southern speech in order to make his deception more effective [MFL; LT]. At the same time, a DIALOGICAL critic would also appreciate Bierce’s own familiarity with -- and abil-
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ity to exploit -- such jargon in creating his characters. Imagine how different the effect would be if the soldier had referred to “the Army of the Republic.” His use of the word “Yanks” is simple and colloquial and therefore makes him seem (ironically) all the more trustworthy [MFL]. A MULTICULTURAL critic might suggest that the reference to “Yanks” helps remind us that this entire narrative is, in part, a story of conflicting cultures [TB]. A FORMALIST might point out that Bierce himself subtly uses the most neutral phrasing possible -- “the man” -- when describing this soldier who is not who he seems to be [LT].
X.2 They have reached the Owl Creek bridge, put it in order and built a stockade on the north bank.
Because a TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic seeks thorough historical knowledge, he would be able to tell the reader if there is such a place as Owl Creek Bridge, if the Yankees were ever there, and if the building of a stockade occurred or would have been plausible [TS]. A DIALOGICAL critic might note that even the conversation between Farquhar and the visiting soldier seems for the most part extremely dry, objective, and reportorial -- a tone in keeping with the neutral tone of the whole story up to this point, and a tone that will help emphasize the extreme shift of voice and point of view that occurs in section three [JC].
X.3 The commandant has issued an order, which is posted everywhere, declaring that any civilian caught interfering with the railroad, its bridges, tunnels or trains will be summarily hanged.
FORMALIST or ARISTOTELIAN critics would appreciate the ways this sentence helps retrospectively explain the events described in the first part of the story [LT]. On the one hand the scout gives Farquhar fair warning of what may happen to him; on the other hand he later seems to tempt Farquhar. In this respect the encounter with the scout, like so much else in the story, seems fundamentally ambiguous [ED]. The scout’s use of the word “any” is significant because it makes clear that the Federal soldiers will indiscriminately and mechanically punish all persons who might jeopardize their mission. The scout truthfully warns Farquhar of the dangers that surround the bridge, and he is truthful about the Federal soldiers’ position (since his version coincides with the narrator’s description at the beginning of the story). However, Farquhar deliberately ignores the soldier’s warning, perhaps because he does not consider himself to be a mere civilian but instead identifies with military personnel. Furthermore, Peyton foolishly assumes that he will not be caught even though he now realizes that he must pass through three dangerous defensive zones. The reference to “interfering” is vital to understanding why Farquhar ends up swinging by his neck from a piece of Yankee rope. The fact that Farquhar is “interfering” suggests that his activity at the bridge, although it was undoubtedly an exercise in inexperience and ineptness, was neither innocent nor accidental [JW].
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X.4 I saw the order.”
Because the soldier claims to be an eyewitness to the “order,” Peyton apparently could not have found a more reliable source of information. However, Peyton’s presence at the bridge suggests that he either doubted or dismissed the scout’s report [JW]. The verb “saw” helps emphasize, one more time, the crucial themes of sight, and of appearance vs. reality, in this tale. The present sentence may be the briefest, aside from a few one-word exclamations, in the entire story [RCE].
XI.1 “How far is it to the Owl Creek bridge?” Farquhar asked.
Ironically, this is the only piece of conversation Farquhar has with another human being in the story -- a fact that would greatly interest both DIALOGICAL and FORMALIST critics [TS]. It seems ironic that Farquhar knows so little about a bridge that seems so relatively close to his home. Perhaps this is just one more slight indication that Farquhar is not nearly as knowledgeable or perceptive as he tends to think he is [RCE].
XII.1 “About thirty miles.”
A DIALOGICAL critic might note the objective tone of the conversation, particularly of the soldier’s responses to Farquhar’s questions. Such a tone implies a certain degree of honesty and truthfulness and is thus one more example of something in this story that is not really as it seems [TS].
XIII.1 “Is there no force on this side the creek?”
In some respects it seems highly unlikely that the northerners would defend only one side of the bridge, and it seems particularly unlikely that they would neglect to defend the side most likely to be attacked. Is Bierce thus suggesting again that Farquhar is militarily naive? [RCE] On the other hand, perhaps Farquhar is primarily thinking of a Southern “force” that might try to re-capture the bridge [RCS].
XIV.1 “Only a picket post half a mile out, on the railroad, and a single sentinel at this end of the bridge.”
A TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic would know (or find out) the precise meaning of the phrase “picket post” [RCE]. Although the scout mentions only “a single sentinel” here, Bierce is careful to mention twice earlier (I.8 and II.8) that Farquhar is flanked by two sentinels as he stands on the bridge. The scout gives no
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clear indication of how heavily the bridge is actually guarded [MC]. Instead he offers seemingly precise (if actually misleading) details that may be designed to tempt Farquhar [EWA].
XV.1 “Suppose a man ‑‑ a civilian and student of hanging ‑‑ should elude the picket post and perhaps get the better of the sentinel,” said Farquhar, smiling, “what could he accomplish?”
Notice that the idea for the destruction of the bridge is not suggested by the Federal scout but by Farquhar himself, who thus seems all the more responsible for his own final fate [LH]. Peyton invites the scout to imagine the possibility of a person eluding the Federal forces when he uses the word “suppose.” This request suggests that Peyton’s thinking is not grounded in reality. The scout has already told Peyton what he knows for a fact. To ask the scout to speculate is to seek unreliable, unconfirmable, and untried information. Peyton’s description of himself as a “student of hanging” is ironic because the word “student” denotes someone who has intensively studied hanging. In the end, of course, Farquhar tragically learns a severe lesson, not only about hanging but about life and reality. He later has plenty of time to learn all there possibly is to know about being hanged [CB; AF; MR2; JW]. Although Farquhar may mean the word “student” to imply his considerable expertise, the word can also suggest his humility -- or pretended humility. In all these ways, then, the word typifies the ambiguity that pervades this story [RCE]. A FORMALIST critic would appreciate the structural cleverness of the reference to “hanging” here”: it “foreshadows” the fate we have already glimpsed Farquhar about to suffer in section one of the story, even as it also foreshadows the fate we will actually see him suffer in section three. By making the second section of the tale a flashback into the past, Bierce can effectively use it to foreshadow not only events we have already seen (in section one) but also events we have not yet witnessed (in section three). Such complex “foreshadowing” is typical of the structural complexity of the story as a whole [AF]. It is also significant that Farquhar is “smiling” when he asks the soldier what a man could accomplish if he were able to elude the post and overcome the sentinel. As his smile implies, Farquhar is overly confident that he will be able to deceive the Federal forces [JW]. A READER-RESPONSE critic might note that northern readers might especially appreciate the irony of Farquhar’s self-assurance [JK]. Note the violence that seems implied by Farquhar’s hope to “get the better of the sentinel.” This intended violence not only seems typical of Farquhar’s lofty view of his own capacities (he imagines that he, an untrained civilian, will be able single-handedly to overcome a trained soldier), but it also perhaps makes his own violent death seem more deserved than it might have seemed otherwise. This would be particularly true, of course, if he did commit some violence against the sentinel when approaching the bridge [RCE].
XVI.1 The soldier reflected. “I was there a month ago,” he replied.
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Note the ambiguity of the soldier’s moment of “reflect[ion].” Farquhar probably interprets the soldier’s pause to reflect as an indication that the soldier is giving serious consideration to Farquhar’s question, as if to make sure that he gives Farquhar the best possible advice. On the other hand, the solider may in fact be using this moment to determine exactly how best to deceive Farquhar and lure him into a trap. In the latter sense the soldier merely reflects back to Farquhar what Farquhar wants to hear [KO]. The possibility even exists, of course, that the scout is pausing to “reflect” about whether it is morally right to proceed with his plan to dupe Farquhar, especially since Farquhar is now seeming to be so eminently capable of being duped [RCE].
XVI.2 “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.
Ironically, the only “driftwood” mentioned in the first section of the story is moving rapidly (IV.10), whereas it is Farquhar himself who is there described as stationary and trapped [RCE]. Notice that the scout is careful to specify that the driftwood has conveniently deposited itself against the side of the bridge that is supposedly least protected. Presumably, if such a quantity of driftwood were indeed lodged against one side of the bridge, a reasonably intelligent officer would be careful to ensure that the most vulnerable side of the bridge was especially well guarded. However, such reasoning never seems to occur to Farquhar [RCE].
XVI.3 It is now dry and would burn like tow.”
A FORMALIST would be interested in the meaning of the word “tow,” and a TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic would be particularly interested in any particular connotations the word may have had at the time Bierce wrote [TS]. Ironically, the Oxford English Dictionary records that one meaning of “tow” in Bierce’s day was a “hangman’s rope, a halter.” The word also had ironic associations with the word “hemp” (see III.4) [RCE].
XVII.1. The lady had now brought the water, which the soldier drank.A FORMALIST critic might note the irony of the juxtaposition of fire (mentioned in the preceding sentence) and “water” (mentioned here, as indeed it is often mentioned throughout section two) [KO]. A FEMINIST critic would note that Farquhar’s wife remains nameless throughout the tale [BB]; instead she is identified by her conventional social status -- as a “lady” [MC]. She is defined by her relation to her husband rather than being treated as an individual in her own right. On the other hand, all the other characters in the story (besides Farquhar) are also nameless. Perhaps the wife’s namelessness, then, is due less to her status as a
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woman than to Bierce’s desire to make Farquhar -- and Farquhar’s individual consciousness -- the central focus of the story [BB].
XVII.2 He thanked her ceremoniously, bowed to her husband and rode away.
The fact that the scout thanks Mrs. Farquhar “ceremoniously” seems doubly ironic -- not only because of the elaborate ceremony that is the focus of the first section of the story but also because there is a distinct difference between the scout’s pretended graciousness and his actual deceitfulness [MC; ED]. Here as so often elsewhere in the story, a distinction exists between what we see and the meaning of what we see [RCE]. Is there any cynicism in his elaborate display of courtesy, especially since he knows he is tricking the Farquhars? [LT] Although he is said to have “bowed to her husband,” he has just helped contribute to her husband’s undoing [MC]. Once more Bierce implies a distinction between appearances and reality -- although that very distinction does not become obvious, ironically, until the story is read for a second time [RCE]. The fact that the scout merely “thank[s]” the woman but actually “bow[s]” to the man might signal, to both FEMINIST and HISTORICAL critics, the relative status of men and women in the society Bierce describes [MC; LT]. In any case, a STRUCTURALIST critic might note that such conduct probably reflects a code of behavior that was widely understood during Bierce’s day [RCE].
XVII.3 An hour later, after nightfall, he repassed the plantation, going northward in the direction from which he had come.
The setting at “nightfall” seems symbolically appropriate, not only because the story will now return to its figuratively darker tone but also because the scout will have served as an essential agent in Farquhar’s destruction [EWA; MS; TS]. A FORMALIST might note the ironic appropriateness of the “northward” journey of this apparently southern soldier [MA; TS]. Note how the word “repassed” epitomizes the essential duplicity of a spy, whose whole function is a matter of coming and going, of penetrating and then withdrawing [MS].
XVII.4 He was a Federal scout.
A THEMATIC critic might comment that this one brief sentence epitomizes an important theme of the entire story: the contrast between appearance and reality. Farquhar is deceived by the scout in much the same way as readers are deceived by the apparent events described in section three [JJ; LM]. An ARISTOTELIAN critic might contend, however, that Farquhar is less a victim of the scout than a victim of his own self-deceptive notions of the glory of war; his fall, both figurative and literal, results from a crucial mistake of his own making [JC]. Meanwhile, a FORMALIST might note how the simplicity and factualness of this brief sentence stands in sharp contrast to the extravagant detail and length used to de-
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scribe Farquhar’s desire to live the exciting life of a soldier [RH; MR2]. This Federal spy, ironically, is leading the type of brave, dangerous, and patriotic existence Peyton longs for and is performing the kinds of daring deeds of which Peyton feels he is capable. Instead of consuming many paragraphs, however, this fact is conveyed in one simple statement [MR2]. Here, just as in the final sentence of the entire story, Bierce tricks his reader. He delays until the last moment the crucial fact that makes everything clear, and when he does finally report that fact, he does so in a sentence that is effectively abrupt. This sentence thus foreshadows the very final one, but that final sentence nevertheless still comes as a shock -- even though Bierce has, in a sense, given us fair warning in the present sentence that he is able and willing to alter perspectives abruptly [EWA; RH; TS]. Of course, from Farquhar’s perspective, the fact that the soldier pretending to be a Confederate is really “a Federal scout” would suggest the general perfidy and duplicity of the Union forces [TB]. A TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic might investigate the role actually played in the war by “scout[s]” on both sides of the conflict [ML], while a NEW HISTORICIST critic might note how Bierce embeds numerous “minor” struggles for power (such as the struggles between Farquhar and the scout or between Farquhar and his captors) within a narrative of the larger power struggle between two regions in the Civil War [RH].
XVIII.1 As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead.
The claim that Farquhar “lost consciousness” is ironic in at least three different ways: (1) he probably does in fact lose any “normal” consciousness of reality; (2) on the other hand, his loss of such “normal” (rational) consciousness is accompanied by a tremendous outburst of consciousness of an altogether different sort; (3) but this sudden access to a more intense kind of consciousness is only a very brief prelude to his final, utter loss of all consciousness altogether [EWA]. The very first sentence of Section III directly anticipates the very last sentence of this section, which reveals that Farquhar is indeed “dead” [RCE]. A FORMALIST might appreciate the irony of this kind of subtle foreshadowing [RH].
XVIII.2 From this state he was awakened ‑‑ ages later, it seemed to him ‑‑ by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation.Farquhar is “awakened” in one sense (since he will now experience some of the most intense and most vivid sensations of his entire life), but in another sense, of course, he never truly awakens from the loss of consciousness mentioned in the preceding sentence [MC]. Paradoxically, at the very moment that Farquhar’s body is moving in rapid descent, his mind is experiencing a kind of transcendence or elevation [LH]. Ironically, Farquhar already here experiences the same delayed
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and distorted sense of time to which both he and the reader will now be subjected on an even larger scale: it seems “ages later” to him now since he first began falling, just as the whole third section of the story will seem to take a lengthy time to describe an event that occurs, in “reality,” almost instantaneously [MC]. By repeatedly using such words as “seemed,” Bierce repeatedly implies the distinction between perception and reality -- a distinction crucial to one of the main themes of his entire narrative [AF]. Ironically, in this sentence Bierce apparently describes precisely the kinds of physical sensations one might expect a hanged man to experience. Bierce thereby lulls us into confidence in the general credibility of his narrative [SW]. On the other hand, “suffocation” is not the true cause of a well-executed death by hanging; instead, death results from a broken neck. Thus, however realistic Farquhar’s perception of “suffocation” may seem, Bierce may also be using it to imply that the perception is a mere fantasy [MT].
XVIII.3 Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fiber of his body and limbs.
By using the word “seemed” once more, Bierce once more subtly implies not only a main theme of the story but also the unreliability of Farquhar’s perceptions. Paradoxically, by appearing to be so scrupulous in his manner of description (by not claiming, for instance, precisely or absolutely to know what Farquhar is feeling), Bierce makes his narrative appear more credible and plausible. By telling us only what Farquhar “seem[s]” to be experiencing, the narrator not only behaves with painstaking honesty but also makes himself seem all the more trustworthy just before he tricks us [AF].
XVIII.4 These pains appeared to flash along well‑defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity.Once more, by using a word such as “appeared,” the narrator is both scrupulously honest and ultimately deceitful, and the same word also again signals an important theme of the story as a whole [AF]. The reference here to an insistent “beat” inevitably reminds us of the earlier description of the ticking of Farquhar’s watch (V.11) [MC; DCH]. There is some irony in the fact that the movement of the pain is described as “inconceivably rapid,” since in a real sense Farquhar is not, in fact, mentally grasping it [MC]. Note how the very reference to rapid “periodicity” almost imitates what it describes: Bierce manages to pack six quick syllables into one relatively brief word [DCH]. Notice how, in this sentence and in the one that follows, Farquhar’s life-destroying pain is implicitly and ironically compared to life-sustaining blood: his pain is so great that it penetrates every fiber of his entire body. It becomes a major part of him. It flows like blood through his veins (“well‑defined lines”) and pulses with his quickly pounding heart (“beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity”) [SMB].
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XVIII.5 They seemed like streams of pulsating fire heating him to an intolerable temperature.
Again, by using a word such as “seemed” Bierce not only plays on an important theme but also, paradoxically, enhances our sense of the narrator’s credibility: he is not claiming to know more than it is possible to know [EWA; AF]. The image of “streams of . . . fire” is appropriately paradoxical or oxymoronic [SA; DCH], even almost hellish [SA; SH], and the sense of paradox is intensified since Farquhar appears to be feeling this sensation of “fire” while supposedly immersed in water [KS]. Ironically, Farquhar now feels as if he is being burned by the very kind of “fire” with which he had earlier hoped to destroy the bridge [ED]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might argue that the dread of being burned alive is a primal human fear [JRC].
XVIII.6 As to his head, he was conscious of nothing but a feeling of fullness ‑‑ of congestion.
After several sentences in which the narrator was careful to use such words as “seemed” and “appeared,” he now uses a term (“was”) that implies much more definitiveness and certainty [DCH]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might find this sentence, like the ones that follow it, as typifying a common human reaction to immense danger: Farquhar’s entire focus at the moment is, naturally, on himself, not on anything else. ARCHETYPAL critics might contend that this would be a standard and highly predictable human reaction given the circumstances [MG].
XVIII.7 These sensations were unaccompanied by thought.
A PLATONIC critic might suggest that this sentence sums up a major theme of the story: the absence of logic and rationality, the surrender to pure feeling, and the delusion that results from such surrender. Both Farquhar and the reader are tempted to give into pure “sensations” and to fail to be guided by rational “thought” [JJ2]. Similarly, a THEMATIC critic might argue that this entire tale is, in one sense, a story of the conflict between reason and feeling [JJ2]. A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might suggest that this sentence implies a complete surrender to the id or the unconscious, while STRUCTURALISTS might contend that “sensations” that are “unaccompanied by thought” are physical impulses that humans have not yet encoded or systematized [JJ2]. Meanwhile, a FEMINIST might suggest that Farquhar here illustrates an ancient male prejudice concerning women: that they are emotional rather than rational, that they operate according to feeling rather than thought [JJ2].
XVIII.8 The intellectual part of his nature was already effaced; he had power only to feel, and feeling was torment.
A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might focus on this sentence since it implies that human beings possess both intellects and emotions -- both egos and ids [KO]. A
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FORMALIST critic, on the other hand, might notice how skillfully Bierce creates a balanced structure in this sentence in order to emphasize the conflict between these two aspects of the human personality: the intellect is emphasized in the first half of the sentence, while the feelings dominate the second half [KO].
XVIII.9 He was conscious of motion.
A FORMALIST critic might observe that this is another in a series of extremely short sentences in this story that describe very basic realities in very simple language. Such sentences help contribute to the story’s alternating rhythms, especially when juxtaposed with longer, more complex sentences such as the one that immediately follows [RCE].
XVIII.10 Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum.
By beginning with the word “[e]ncompassed,” Bierce once more invokes the circular imagery that runs throughout the entire story [EWA]. Once more Bierce juxtaposes opposites: the imagery in the first half of the sentence seems almost weightless, celestial, or even heavenly, but the second half of the sentence balances this impression by suggesting the movement of an enormously heavy weight [MC; DCH]. Similarly, the reference to being “[e]ncompassed in a luminous cloud” sounds almost heavenly, while the reference to being the “fiery heart” of that cloud sounds almost hellish. Once again, then, Bierce’s language is ambiguous and paradoxical [SA]. Meanwhile, words such as “unthinkable” not only contribute an element of mystery to the tale but are also ironically literal: these arcs are strictly “unthinkable” partly because they are not the products of conscious thought [AF]. A word such as “oscillation” manages to describe simultaneously not only what is going on inside Farquhar’s head but also what is happening to his body, suspended as it is from its rope [EWA]. Is there any subtle suggestion, in the image of the pendulum, of the operation of a giant clock? If so, the imagery would reinforce the story’s over-all emphasis on the theme of time [SA; TR], particularly the image of the ticking watch from Section I [CB; SMB].
XVIII.11 Then all at once, with terrible suddenness, the light about him shot upward with the noise of a loud plash; a frightful roaring was in his ears, and all was cold and dark.The word “plash” is used instead of “splash” because it is a harder sound. It suggests the sound of limbs slapping against the water rather than the sound of a graceful dive. It could also suggest how this noise would sound to a person going under water. The noise is quickly cut off when Farquhar's head goes beneath the
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surface of the water [SMB]. Note how intensely this sentence appeals almost simultaneously to several of the reader’s (and Farquhar’s) senses, especially the senses of sight, touch, hearing [RCE].
XVIII.12 The power of thought was restored; he knew that the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream.
The first clause of this sentence is clearly ironic [RCE], and the irony is only intensified by the falsely assertive verb “knew.” Paradoxically, the one “fact” that Farquhar feels most sure of is the one we should most suspect [AF]. Note how the sudden switch from the preceding sentence (which had emphasized coldness and darkness) to this sentence (which emphasizes restoration of power) typifies the unstable, shifting, paradoxical patterning of the tale as a whole [CS]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might argue that Farquhar’s dream that he has “fallen into the stream” represents the fundamentally deep human desire to survive, to maintain contact with life (here symbolized by the water), and to be cleansed and reborn [SH].
XVIII.13 There was no additional strangulation; the noose about his neck was already suffocating him and kept the water from his lungs.
Paradoxically, the rope designed to kill Farquhar now seems to be saving him. This is just the latest irony in a story that is full of such details [AF].
XVIII.14 To die of hanging at the bottom of a river! ‑‑ the idea seemed to him ludicrous.
In a move typical of this story’s cleverness, Farquhar seems, in one sense, quite conscious of the irony this sentence expresses, but in another sense he has no real idea of the irony involved: the idea is “ludicrous,” but not for the reason he assumes [RCE].
XVIII.15 He opened his eyes in the darkness and saw above him a gleam of light, but how distant, how inaccessible!
The contrasting imagery of light and darkness in this sentence is typical of the entire story and is especially appropriate to a tale so much concerned with the boundaries between life and death. Indeed, this is one of many sentences in the story that seems to hint of the Christian ideal of a heavenly afterlife [CS]. Perhaps it even suggests the “light” often associated, in recent writings, with “near-death” experiences [CB; LB2; MW2]. An ARCHETYPAL critic would argue that the desire
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to survive is one of the most potent urges possessed by all human beings, so that although Farquhar’s experience seems in some ways unusual, in other ways it is highly representative [AF]. Although the word “inaccessible” might seem, at first, merely to repeat the word “distant,” the word “inaccessible” implies a desire to reach a goal -- a desire not implied by “distant.” This fine distinction is typical of the frequent subtlety of Bierce’s phrasing [DCH].
XVIII.16 He was still sinking, for the light became fainter and fainter until it was a mere glimmer.
Having fallen and apparently plunged into the water, Farquhar now imagines that he is falling again -- this time through the water. Similarly, the image of the light becoming “fainter and fainter” until it is a “mere glimmer” suggests, once again, that Farquhar is facing death. This sentence is therefore typical of the ways in which Bierce intensifies an idea or image by repeating it [DCH].
XVIII.17 Then it began to grow and brighten, and he knew that he was rising toward the surface ‑‑ knew it with reluctance, for he was now very comfortable.
A FORMALIST critic might appreciate the sudden juxtaposition this sentence introduces, especially since this technique of using abrupt shifts is typical of the narrative strategy of the story as a whole [NB]. A READER-RESPONSE critic might argue that different kinds of readers would respond differently to this sentence. Someone sympathetic to Farquhar’s desire to live might be uplifted by this sentence, while someone convinced of Farquhar’s guilt might dread the possibility that he might now escape. Meanwhile, a skeptical reader might doubt that Farquhar’s impressions are accurate, while a more trusting reader might accept those impressions at face value [SW]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might explain Farquhar’s “comfortable” feeling as a result of an almost mystical sense of union with the unconscious, while a more scientifically-inclined reader might see it as a result of oxygen deprivation to the brain [JJ]. A THEMATIC critic might see the imagery here as suggesting a kind of baptismal rebirth [ML]. The claim that Farquhar “knew” that “he was rising” is, of course, ironic, since in fact he knows no such thing, but the additional claim that he “knew it with reluctance” makes the first claim seem all the more credible. Even when Bierce describes something that is literally untrue he describes it in a psychologically convincing way [RCE]. Indeed, a READER-RESPONSE critic might note that the phrasing here could remind many contemporary readers of the sensations often associated with widely-reported “near-death” experiences, in which the “spirit” seems reluctant to return to the body [CB].
XVIII.18 “To be hanged and drowned,” he thought; “that is not so bad; but I do not wish to be shot.
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A DIALOGICAL critic would appreciate Bierce’s use here of Farquhar’s inner voice [LM; SW2]; the fact that he has no one else with whom to “talk” except himself only emphasizes his fundamental isolation [RCE].
XVIII.19 No; I will not be shot; that is not fair.”
Perhaps Farquhar reasons that it is “fair” to be hanged because he had been warned, by the Federal scout, of the possibility of hanging (X.3); thus he had approached that possible peril at his own risk and with deliberate resolve. Perhaps he feels, however, that he had not been warned of the possibility of being shot if the hanging proved unsuccessful [KO]. Earlier Farquhar had reasoned that “all is fair in love and war” (VIII.6), but apparently he has now changed his mind [SB2; KO]. A POSTMODERNIST, suspicious of any attempt to impose “universal truths” on life, would note how quickly Farquhar’s perception of fairness changes when his own existence is involved [SW2]. Perhaps Peyton feels that being shot in the back while trying to escape would not conform to his own image of himself as a courageous, heroic volunteer soldier [KO]. A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might suggest that Farquhar is so narcissistic that he is determined to control even the manner -- and/or the public image -- of his death [AF]. Perhaps Farquhar worries that to die by being shot would bring him less “distinction” (VIII.3) than an execution by hanging [AF]. Part of the irony of this whole sentence, of course, is that Farquhar will indeed “not be shot,” nor indeed will he even need to be shot at; he will simply be (is in fact simply being) hanged [RCE].
XIX.1 He was not conscious of an effort, but a sharp pain in his wrist apprised him that he was trying to free his hands.
A Freudian PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might suggest that this sentence implies the distinction between the id (which is causing the “hands” to move) and the ego (which is merely observing their movement) [SG].
XIX.2 He gave the struggle his attention, as an idler might observe the feat of a juggler, without interest in the outcome.
The reference to the “juggler” implies that Farquhar is both as distanced from, and as interested in, his own situation as he would be while watching an act at a circus [DR2]. A Lacanian PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might observe that Farquhar looks at his hands here almost as a baby might see its hands: as objects operating of their own accord, without being consciously controlled by the mind watching them. Farquhar, like a very young infant, has not yet reached the stage of full self-consciousness [SG]. At this moment in the narrative, Farquhar seems paradoxically caught on the cusp of fixity and motion; he is both fixed (like the “idler”) and moving (like the “juggler”) [TR]. Ironically, it was because Farquhar resented seeming an “idler” that he became involved in the first place in his self-destructive mission to destroy the bridge [RCE].
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XIX.3 What splendid effort! ‑‑ what magnificent, what superhuman strength!
Is there any irony in the language of this and the next few sentences? Is the narrator giving us a glimpse into Farquhar’s somewhat melodramatic mind -- a glimpse that directly contradicts the elevated image he would like to have of himself? In any case, a LONGINIAN critic would note that the desire for “superhuman strength” may reflect a common human desire for elevation and power, whereas an ARCHETYPAL critic or PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might contend that the desire for such power is a common human fantasy [RCE].
XIX.4 Ah, that was a fine endeavor!
To the extent that we share and sympathize with Farquhar’s desire to escape his fate and to the extent that we share his assessment of his own behavior, are we falling victim to the very romanticism that led him to his current predicament? [JC] Farquhar, who at the beginning of the story was the center of spectators’ attention, has now himself become a spectator of himself. Note that his language, even in a moment of supreme tension and danger, is cultivated and genteel -- a fact that speaks volumes about his own image of himself [RCE].
A DIALOGICAL critic, alert to differences of tone, would note how this and the two preceding sentences introduce a new and far less objective or neutral “voice” into the story [JC; SW2]. A READER-RESPONSE critic might suggest that while some readers might respond sympathetically to this new tone, others might respond with sarcasm or mockery [RCE].
XIX.6 The cord fell away; his arms parted and floated upward, the hands dimly seen on each side in the growing light.
The reference to the “cord” which “fell away” resembles the description of a baby being freed from an umbilical cord. In this sense, the imagery here anticipates imagery later in the story (especially at XIX.15) that suggests that Farquhar is undergoing a kind of symbolic rebirth [LB2; SG; PS2]. This imagery of birth is especially effective in a story so much concerned with death [LB2]. In fact, part of the effectiveness of the possible allusion to an umbilical “cord” is that whereas such a cord is associated with life, the present “cord” is associated with death [DT]. Perhaps the phrase “growing light” takes on a deeper implication after the story is read for the second or third time, since there is a sense in which the whole story involves our own movement, as readers, from a kind of ignorance or darkness to a kind of knowledge or light [MC].
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XIX.7 He watched them with a new interest as first one and then the other pounced upon the noose at his neck.
A THEMATIC or FORMALIST critic might note how this sentence reflects the contrasts between stasis and activity, and between observation and participation, that help structure this entire tale [RCE]. The use of the verb “pounced” (the action of a hunting animal when it attacks its prey) is especially effective in suggesting Farquhar’s hunger for life [SS].
XIX.8 They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water snake.
A FORMALIST would appreciate the vividness of such active words as “tore,” “thrust,” and “fiercely” [JJ]. Here as in the preceding sentence, Farquhar’s hands are described almost as if they are animals whose actions Farquhar merely watches: they are described as having “pounced” and “tor[n]” and “thrust fiercely.” The passage, like some others earlier, would interest a PSYCHOANALYTIC critic because it implies a clear distinction between the rational part of Farquhar’s consciousness (which acts as a mere spectator) and the irrational part of his mind (which does everything possible to survive) [KO]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might suggest that the “snake” imagery is highly appropriate, since snakes are associated in many cultures with evil and danger [HF; EG; JJ] and even death [EG; GH]. The snake here thus represents very primal fears [JJ]. A MULTICULTURAL critic might note that associations between snakes and evil are especially strong in the kind of Christian readers whom Bierce was mainly addressing [JJ]. At the same time, the fact that the rope appears as a “water snake” and that its movements are described as “undulations” may help associate it with another primal human fear: the dread of drowning, or death by water [JJ].
XIX.9 “Put it back, put it back!”
This sentence, like all the others that seem to reflect a distinctive tone or voice, would greatly interest a DIALOGICAL critic [RCE].
XIX.10 He thought he shouted these words to his hands, for the undoing of the noose had been succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced.
The simple words “[h]e thought” help remind us that everything in this section of the story is being filtered through Farquhar’s (perhaps unreliable) consciousness [RCE].
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XIX.11 His neck ached horribly; his brain was on fire; his heart, which had been fluttering faintly, gave a great leap, trying to force itself out at his mouth.
Once more there is an ironic reference to “fire” -- ironic since Farquhar is now supposedly engulfed in water. Here as so often elsewhere, Bierce juxtaposes opposites, thereby increasing the paradoxical tone of the story [MC]. Ironically, later in the story (XXXVII.5) it will be the dress of Farquhar’s wife that will seem to be “fluttering” [MC].
XIX.12 His whole body was racked and wrenched with an insupportable anguish!
Bierce increases the force of his language, here and elsewhere, by effectively using alliteration (“racked and wrenched”) and other such devices of sound [RCE]. These two verbs seem especially appropriate to death by hanging [DCH].
XIX.13 But his disobedient hands gave no heed to the command.
He cannot seem to control his hands, in large part, because they are presumably still firmly tied behind his back [MC]. A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might suggest that nearly all human beings are familiar with the kinds of sensations Farquhar is experiencing here, since nearly all people have had dreams in which their bodies seem to have behaved with minds of their own [MC]. Ironically, Farquhar’s hands are now being “disobedient” to him in much the same way that he has shown disobedience to the Federal troops; perhaps his hands are, at a subconscious level, reenacting Farquhar’s own rebellion [MC]. A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might even suggest that there is an element of poetic justice in the “disobedient” behavior of Farquhar’s hands, as if Farquhar is subconsciously punishing himself for his own earlier disobedience because his hands are now inflicting pain on him [MC].
XIX.14 They beat the water vigorously with quick, downward strokes, forcing him to the surface.
In his fantasy, Peyton's mind no longer controls his actions: he unwittingly imagines that, in an attempt to preserve itself, his body has taken over, despite what his mind desires, and that his hands seem to work on their own [MGT]. Ironically, of course, his mind is still very much in control since, in reality, his hands are not moving at all [RCE]. This sentence epitomizes the paradoxical phrasing of much of the story, with its emphasis on paired opposites: the “downward strokes” force Farquhar to rise up. His vigorous activity here contrasts with his total passivity in Section I and thus help emphasize how much the mood and tone of the work have now changed. Note how the verb “beat” gives the sentence an even
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greater sense of physical force than would be literally possible in such circumstances: the word suggests greater freedom of movement than Farquhar could actually possess if he were really under water [RCE]. This vigorous “swimming” is child‑like and unsophisticated: it is the frenzy of a body overpowered [MGT].
XIX.15 He felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!
The detailed imagery of this paragraph strongly implies that Farquhar is almost literally being reborn; much of the imagery is highly comparable to imagery associated with birth [AF; SG; KM]. A FORMALIST critic might appreciate the complex combination of pleasure and pain described in this sentence [KM], and a FORMALIST would certainly appreciate the irony that imagery of birth is used just before Farquhar’s death is described [RCE]. Meanwhile, an ARCHETYPAL critic might argue that birth and death are two of the most profound of all the most commonly shared human experiences [KM].
XX.1. He was now in full possession of his physical senses.
Farquhar, supposedly, is not simply in “possession” of his senses but in “full” possession; through such slight touches in phrasing, Bierce lulls his readers into accepting the probability of Farquhar’s perceptions [FD]. Likewise, the emphasis on his “physical” senses perhaps suggests a lack of distortion caused by Farquhar’s emotions or thoughts [FD]. A LONGINIAN critic might argue that Farquhar is here experiencing (or thinks he is experiencing) a truly sublime moment -- a moment of elevated insight [MB].
XX.2 They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert.
Even the mere addition of a simple word such as “indeed” encourages us to trust Farquhar’s perceptions at this point, as does the more unusual word “preternaturally” (that is, abnormally or unnaturally) [FD]. At the same time, a word such as “preternaturally” will also suggest, to a second-time reader, that Farquhar’s perceptions should indeed not be trusted. The word thus conveys two meanings at once [RCE]. Perhaps this word also suggests that Farquhar now perceives -- or imagines he perceives -- experience with an almost divine penetration and comprehension [CS]. The use of words such as “preternaturally” helps contribute to the rather formal, elevated tone of Bierce’s diction; imagine the difference if Bierce had simply written that Farquhar’s senses were “sharper than usual.” An ARCHETYPAL critic might argue that Farquhar is now equipped to see
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the world freshly again -- almost as an infant might see it before the infant’s vision had been straight-jacketed by socially-imposed ways of seeing [SG].
XX.3 Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived.
The phrase “awful disturbance” is almost oxymoronic: the adjective suggests something immense, while the noun suggests something slight. Phrasing such as this is typical of the ambiguities and ironies of Bierce’s language in general [FD]. Use of such words as “organic system” (rather than, say, “body”) helps give Bierce’s diction here an almost scientific precision and thus enhances its credibility [FD]. Again, by using words such as “exalted” and “refined,” Bierce adds an element of ironic elevation and sublimity to his otherwise gruesome tale. Once more, then, his story exhibits ambiguity and paradox in its very diction [FD]. Words such as “exalted” and “refined” imply that Farquhar’s senses are reaching a state of perfection when, in fact, they are severely handicapped and are about to cease existing altogether [FD]. Similarly ironic is the phrase “made record of,” which implies precise, permanent perception when in fact Farquhar’s experiences are as fleeting and ephemeral as possible [FD]. Note that it is not even Farquhar who is doing the perceiving; it is, allegedly, his senses themselves -- with no distorting input, presumably, from his mind or emotions [FD]. The claim that Farquhar now perceives what he has “never” before experienced helps prepare us to expect the unexpected [FD].
XX.4 He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck.
Words such as “ripples” and “separate” imply the minuteness and precision of Farquhar’s supposed perceptions [FD]. Earlier Farquhar had been obsessed with his place in society and with how other people viewed him; now he is keenly focused on his relations with physical nature. An ARCHETYPAL critic might regard the latter kind of relation as more significant and elemental [SG]. A FEMINIST critic might see the opposition as a contrast between a conventionally masculine life of social conformance and competition for status and a freer, more “feminine” connection with nature [SG].
XX.5 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.
The word “looked” emphasizes the senses once more [FD] and implies deliberate, purposeful, focused attention [RCE]. The rest of the sentence implies the alleged perfection of Farquhar’s perceptions [FD], but such perfection should, of
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course, help make as suspicious of the narrator’s claims [RCE]. Bierce himself uses language of extreme precision as he describes Farquhar’s supposedly precise perceptions. The word “veining,” for example, almost by definition implies life and vitality [ML], while the simple word “very” implies the tininess of the insects Farquhar thinks he perceives [FD]. The references to “locusts,” “spiders,” and especially to the “brilliant-bodied flies” suggest that Farquhar is now able to perceive beauty in details of life that are normally either overlooked or are considered ugly, annoying, or repulsive [FD; AF]. The reference to the “spiders” is particularly interesting since Farquhar himself is at this very moment attempting to escape from a situation in which he has felt trapped by a confining rope [SS].
XX.6 He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass.
The word “noted” again suggests that Farquhar is perceiving in a way that seems almost permanent, conscious, and deliberate [FD]. Here as elsewhere in this third section of the story, the narrator suggests that Farquhar, having now survived an extremely close brush with death, is better able to more fully appreciate the beauty of simple things, such as “dewdrops” on “grass.” It is as if Farquhar suddenly has a new, more grateful perspective on life [MO]. A FORMALIST critic would appreciate the irony of this emphasis on beautiful imagery, since such imagery contributes to the complex unity of the story, which begins with a tone that is dry and objective and which ends with a sentence that is abrupt and even somewhat ugly [LH]. The word “prismatic” is appropriate, since by definition a prism helps us see the intricacy of what might otherwise seem simple and plain. In this sense, all of Farquhar’s perceptions in this section are “prismatic,” and this world also describes the impact of the story as a whole [RCE].
XX.7 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.
The precise details of the phrasing in this sentence help reinforce the notion that Farquhar’s senses are now unusually alert [FD]. Use of the word “music” implies the pleasantness of the sounds Farquhar now supposedly hears -- unlike the “noises” mentioned later (XXV.10) [FD]. Sounds that would probably have once seemed annoying now seem fascinating or pleasant [AF].
XX.8 A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.
One irony of this entire paragraph is that just at the moment when Farquhar seems most alive and most in touch with life and the natural world, he is actually dying
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and is least conscious of his real circumstances. Ironic, too, is the fact that Farquhar is now experiencing (but only in his fantasy) the adventure he has always longed for. He is, in a sense, fulfilling his long-held dream to be at the center of a heroic narrative -- but in this case the narrative is a mere fantasy or illusion. His last fleeting moments of life are spent inventing a suitable end for himself -- even as he dangles at the end of a rope [BB].
XXI.1 He had come to the surface facing down the stream; in a moment the visible world seemed to wheel slowly round, himself the pivotal point, and he saw the bridge, the fort, the soldiers upon the bridge, the captain, the sergeant, the two privates, his executioners.
A STRUCTURALIST critic might notice the sheer number of binary oppositions that help structure even such a seemingly simple sentence as this one. Such oppositions include the following: surface/depth; up/down; visible/invisible; world/individual; speed/slowness; pivot/circumference; point/line; light/darkness; vastness/containment; sky/earth; movement/stillness; others/self; present moment/eternity; solids/liquid; etc. [SG]. The crucial word in this sentence, when we read the sentence for a second time, is the unobtrusive word “seemed” [FD]. The description of the world “wheel[ing] slowly round, himself the pivotal point” helps reinforce the important pattern of circular imagery that runs throughout the story [LB; AF]. Here as throughout the tale, Farquhar is clearly at the center of his own consciousness; he is the true focus of his own and others’ attention [AF]. The quick catalogue of rapidly alternating general images in the second half of the sentence (“bridge . . . fort . . . soldiers . . . bridge . . . captain . . . sergeant . . . privates”) contrasts with the minute, precise details of the phrasing earlier, when Farquhar was supposedly perceiving the beauty of the plants and insects (XX.5-7) [FD]. The “wheel[ing]” or spinning motion here, combined with the rapid catalogue of nouns, connotes confusion, disorientation, and instability, yet the spinning may also allude to the literal movement of Farquhar’s body as it turns at the end of the rope [CS].
XXI.2 They were in silhouette against the blue sky.
Farquhar now perceives the enemy soldiers mainly as dark, shadow-like apparitions. The contrast in colors -- their blackness against the blue of the sky -- emphasizes the threat Farquhar perceives them to be. The phrase “blue sky” has conventionally happy or pleasant connotations. From Farquhar’s point of view, the enemy soldiers stand both figuratively and literally “against” it, obscuring his view of it and threatening his chances for happiness [FD]. The dark blue of their uniforms takes on an ominous significance -- indeed, seems almost black -- against the light blue of the sky [RCE].
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XXI.3 They shouted and gesticulated, pointing at him.
The presumably unpleasant “shout[ing]” of the men contrasts with the earlier use of such pleasant words as “humming” and “music” (XX.7) [FD]. Earlier Farquhar had seemed to perceive with unusual keenness; now his perceptions seem blurred and distorted [FD].
XXI.4 The captain had drawn his pistol, but did not fire; the others were unarmed.
This sentence would seem to mark the beginning of the second stage of Farquhar’s struggle for life (the first being the hanging, which he supposedly escaped). Since the time of his fall into the water and his escape from the noose, this sentence provides the first new reference to a means of execution [FD]. It seems odd (but is therefore part and parcel of this generally strange narrative) that only the captain is armed, and not his subordinates. Perhaps this incongruous detail is meant to provide another subtle clue that Farquhar’s perceptions are untrustworthy [FD].
XXI.5 Their movements were grotesque and horrible, their forms gigantic.
Words such as “grotesque,” “horrible,” and “gigantic” make the enemy soldiers seem less than human; in fact, they seem almost monstrous [FD]. Farquhar perceives them simply as agents of death; they -- or at least their “movements” -- seem hideous and almost demonic. The adjective “gigantic” makes them seem larger than life -- insurmountable obstacles [FD]. Their “grotesque” and “horrible” movements contrast with (and thus emphasize) the graceful, superhuman traits Farquhar associates with his own movements; whereas the soldiers strike him as subhuman or monstrous, he sees himself as heroic and almost supernatural [CS].
XXII.1 Suddenly he heard a sharp report and something struck the water smartly within a few inches of his head, spattering his face with spray.
In the phrase “spattering his face with spray,” Bierce not only effectively uses the alliteration of soft “s” sounds [MC] but also employs onomatopoeia in the “sp” sounds, which mimic the very action and object they describe [EWA].
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XXII.2 He heard a second report, and saw one of the sentinels with his rifle at his shoulder, a light cloud of blue smoke rising from the muzzle.
Ironically, just as Farquhar seems to have burst free of the rigidity used to describe him in section one, so the soldiers who also once seemed so rigid have now begun to come to life. Their own new vitality, though, has one ironic purpose: to end Farquhar’s life [AF]. The “light cloud of blue smoke” might almost appear beautiful if it were not “rising from [a] muzzle” [RCE]. It seems ironically appropriate that the “blue smoke” should be rising from the muzzles of Union rifles. Such imagery is part of a larger pattern of blue-and-gray images that runs throughout the story [ATH].
XXII.3 The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle.
The sudden switch to a more distanced, “objective” perspective (which is particularly signaled by the double emphasis on the general word “man”) is typical of the way Bierce frequently plays with perspective [DCH] and tone [EWA] in this story. Paradoxically, the tone here is highly objective but the perspective is literally impossible [EWA]. The word “man” ironically implies that the two figures are in some ways equals, that they are in some fundamental and elemental way connected, even though one has a clear advantage over the other, and even though the second “man” is trying to kill the first [DCH].
XXII.4 He observed that it was a grey eye and remembered having read that grey eyes were keenest, and that all famous marksmen had them.
Of course, such precise observation as this would be literally impossible and is thus a clue that the whole imagined escape is merely a fantasy [ATH]. It seems a bit ironic, of course, that Farquhar perceives the eyes of the Union soldier as “grey” -- a color generally associated with the Confederacy. Such phrasing is part of a larger pattern of blue-and-gray imagery within the story as a whole [ATH]. Perhaps, subconsciously, he perceives the enemy’s eyes as “grey” because that color is associated with lifelessness, with death; it is a color that is, in some ways, merely the absence of color. It is therefore an appropriate color to attribute to the eyes of a potential killer [EG; ATH]. Ironically, Farquhar himself had been described (III.4) as having grey eyes [LD]. The words “observed” and “remembered” are ironically juxtaposed here: Farquhar is, of course, literally “observing” nothing; instead, he is probably relying entirely on his memory in constructing this small detail of his fantasy. His entire imaginative escape, in a sense, results from his memories of earlier details [DCH]. This sentence is also interesting because it reveals a bit more about Farquhar’s background by implying the kind of reading he enjoyed -- reading dealing with the details of expertise with guns. Such reading fits with his general interest in military matters
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and martial heroism, while the fact that he knows about such matters through reading rather than through practical, personal experience implies how distant he has been from actual military service [RCE].
XXII.5 Nevertheless, this one had missed.
Here as elsewhere in the narrative, Bierce tricks his readers: he leads us to expect that Farquhar may indeed be shot, but then he reveals that the expert marksman missed his target. This “bait-and-switch” narrative technique had already been used to conclude section two, and it will, of course, be most powerfully used at the very end of the story. Bierce is dropping clues all along the line to suggest that he is fully capable of upsetting our expectations [MC]. Indeed, this is now the third time in the story so far that Farquhar seems to have cheated death: first he seemingly escaped hanging, then he seemingly escaped drowning, and now he seemingly escapes being shot. Of course, we later learn that none of these escapes is real, but Bierce is subtly creating a pattern that leads us to expect Farquhar to make it home safely. The story’s final sentence, however, will trip up both him and us [DCH]. Just as the grey-eyed marksman misses his target here, so had the grey-eyed Farquhar earlier failed to perceive the trickery of the Northern scout. In both cases, keen grey eyes fail a crucial test, and perhaps Farquhar imagines the marksman’s eyes as being grey (like his own) precisely because he subconsciously associates the marksman’s failure with his own imperceptiveness [LD].
XXIII.1 A counter‑swirl had caught Farquhar and turned him half round; he was again looking into the forest on the bank opposite the fort.
Again Bierce uses circular imagery, this time perhaps implying the way Farquhar is spinning at the end of his rope [EWA]. Note how Bierce subtly juxtaposes the image of the “fort” (symbol of danger) with the image of the “forest” (symbol of vitality, refuge, and safety) [AF]. An ARCHETYPAL critic, interested in the resonances of various symbols, might note that the “fort” consists of dead trees standing in rigidly unnatural close ranks; the “forest” consists of living trees with healthy spaces between them. A FORMALIST might note that the similarities in the sounds of these two words ironically emphasizes the differences in their connotations [RCE].
XXIII.2 The sound of a clear, high voice in a monotonous singsong now rang out behind him and came across the water with a distinctness that pierced and subdued all other sounds, even the beating of the ripples in his ears.
The “monotonous” sound Farquhar now hears resembles the regular ticking of his watch earlier in the story (V.11) [MC], just as it also resembles the “rapid periodicity” mentioned at XVIII.4 [DCH]. This repetition of image patterns is typical of Bierce’s procedure throughout the tale, especially since his repetitions usually
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also involve the introduction of some key difference. Earlier, for instance, the sound of the watch ticking had obviously seemed annoying and almost maddening; here, however, the “sound of [the] clear, high voice” ironically seems almost pleasant, especially given Farquhar’s circumstances [AF]. Soon, though, Bierce will once again alter an impression he has created (see XXIII.3) [DCH].
XXIII.3 Although no soldier, he had frequented camps enough to know the dread significance of that deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant; the lieutenant on shore was taking a part in the morning’s work.
A PSYCHOANALYTICAL critic might argue that Farquhar’s irrational id had earlier fantasized about military glory, but that now his rational ego is forced to concede that Farquhar is “no soldier” [TB]. Bierce here effectively contrasts Farquhar’s perspective with that of the soldiers “on shore.” To Farquhar this moment seems crucial and unique and all-important; to the “lieutenant” and his men, it seems merely part of a mechanical exercise for which they have been trained -- simply part of their unemotional “morning’s work” [AF; SG]. Once more, then, Bierce implies the importance of differing perspectives (a key topic of the story as a whole, as a THEMATIC critic might note). The reference to the “deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant” of the lieutenant makes his behavior seem almost mechanical and inhuman, as if he is acting not as an individual agent but as a cog in giant machine [SG]. Bierce effectively strings three long adjectives together, as if to drag out his own description of the slow action he describes [RCE]. Note how this sentence echoes details from the one preceding it while also altering those details. In the preceding sentence, the sound of the voice had seemed “monotonous” but had also seemed “clear” and “high”; now, however, that same voice seems a “deliberate, drawling, aspirated chant” [AF; DCH]. This sort of shift in phrasing helps subtly reinforce the story’s larger point that different perspectives can change our perceptions of the very same things [DCH]. The sound of the word “drawling” almost imitates the action it describes [EWA], while the reference to “morning” seems ironic in some ways (since a death is occurring at dawn) [EWA] but appropriate in others (since executions almost always do occur at day-break [KS]). There is a nice touch of irony in the use of the word “drawling” to describe the sound of the Northern soldier, since “drawling” is a word more commonly associated with Southern speech [EWA].
XXIII.4 How coldly and pitilessly ‑‑ with what an even, calm intonation, presaging, and enforcing tranquillity in the men ‑‑ with what accurately measured intervals fell those cruel words:
Note the way Bierce drags out this sentence, postponing the subject (“cruel words”) and verb (“fell”) for as long as possible. By delaying their appearance in this way, he not only effectively emphasizes all the preceding phrasing but also gives the subject and verb maximum impact when they do finally arrive. This
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sentence typifies Bierce’s skill in playing with the sound and rhythm of his writing, so that he essentially forces the reader to experience many of the same sensations as Farquhar. A READER-RESPONSE critic would be especially interested in sentences such as this [RCE]. It is only from Farquhar’s perspective, of course, that the words the officer pronounces seem “cruel.” From the perspective of the officer the words are merely examples of his professional jargon; they carry no personal animus [MC]. Farquhar now regards the words as “cruel,” but it was Farquhar himself, paradoxically, who had earlier professed the belief that anything was fair in love or war (VIII.6) [DCH].
XXIV.1 “Attention, company! . . Shoulder arms! . . . Ready!
A STRUCTURALIST critic would note how the soldiers rely on a specific and learned code of behavior to coordinate their response to this event. Their training in this code, and their familiarity with it, allow them to impose order on a potentially chaotic situation [DR2]. In contrast to Farquhar himself, these men do not seem at all panicked or excited; the officer speaks in a tone of total control and self-assurance [AF]. The word “Attention” seems partly ironic, since it is meant to summon the soldiers to a state of special alertness and awareness, yet this command itself occurs in kind of fantasy of Farquhar’s own imagination -- a fantasy in which he both is and is not himself highly alert and aware [AF]. There is some further irony in the sense that the character who is calling other characters to a special state of alertness is himself part of an elaborate deception by which Bierce is tricking his own readers. It is Bierce’s readers, after all, who most need to be alert and aware [EWA]. It seems ironic that Farquhar, who had previously “assented to at least part of the frankly villainous dictum that all is fair in love and war” (VIII.6), must now face death by a method he considers “not fair” (XVIII.19) [KD]. A DIALOGICAL critic would appreciate the way Bierce precisely captures in this sentence a particular way of speaking; his inclusion of this further “voice” give his text greater credibility [MFL]. Note the diminishing number of syllables in each phrase as the sentence proceeds; it is as if the phrasing mimics the increasing concentration it attempts to elicit [RCE].
XXV.1 Farquhar dived ‑‑ dived as deeply as he could.
Just as Farquhar has been saved once by immersion in water (with its ironic overtones of baptism), so he hopes to be saved again. His plunge into the water to escape death seems quite appropriate since water has long been associated symbolically with life [KD]. Bierce’s repetition of the word “dived” is typical of his use of repetition throughout the tale, especially since the word is here repeated with a difference that intensifies the force of its second appearance [MC]. The force of the phrasing is intensified even further through the use of alliteration [KM]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might suggest that this passage implies Farquhar’s descent deep into the collective unconscious, while a PSYCHOANALUTIC critic might see it as symbolizing his descent into his personal id [KM]. A PSY-
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CHOANALYTIC interpreter might even view Farquhar’s re-submergence into the water as a kind of yearning for a return to the safety of the womb [SG].
XXV.2 The water roared in his ears like the voice of Niagara, yet he heard the dulled thunder of the volley and, rising again toward the surface, met shining bits of metal, singularly flattened, oscillating slowly downward.
The reference to “Niagara” suggests a landmark which is at once universally known and distinctively American -- a double resonance that seems especially appropriate to Bierce’s tale [KD]. Bierce’s reference to the “dulled thunder of the volley” shows his talent at skillfully using sound-effects: the assonance of these low vowel sounds is especially appropriate to the action Bierce describes [DCH]. The reference to Farquhar “rising again toward the surface” repeats almost exactly phrasing from earlier in the story (XVIII.17). Such repetition reinforces the circular structure of the tale [EWA] while also suggesting a kind of rebirth or resurrection [KD]. Ironically, Farquhar’s movement toward the “surface” implies both his strength (after all, he is still alive) and his weakness (he must surface in order to breathe and survive) [KD]. The “shining bits” of metal might almost seem attractive until we realize that they are bullets; they represent bits of the hard reality Farquhar has temporarily been able to escape [KD]. The bullets look almost like pennies someone has tossed into a fountain or a well to make a wish [SMB]. The fact that they have been “flattened” by their impact with the water not only seems somewhat paradoxical (who, after all, would normally expect water to be able to distort the shape of metal?) but also implies the immensely deadly force with which the bullets themselves have hit the stream [EWA]. Now, though, the bullets are “oscillating slowly downward” -- phrasing that is not only effectively realistic [DCH] but that also implies how suddenly and radically their speed has been changed. This kind of shift seems appropriate to a story whose tempo is constantly changing [RCE]. This kind of imagery suggests the distortion of Farquhar’s sense of time: the bullets that normally move so rapidly that they cannot be seen now move slowly enough to be not only witnessed but also touched [KD]. Ironically, the bullets seem to be “oscillating” -- a verb that probably more accurately applies to Farquhar’s own present movements, as he hangs suspended from the noose [KD].
XXV.3 Some of them touched him on the face and hands, then fell away, continuing their descent.
The description of how the bullets almost “touched” Farquhar makes them seem almost weirdly human and strangely gentle and comforting. The fact that the bullets touch him “on the face and hands” -- two of the most exposed and therefore most vulnerable parts of the human body -- makes their contact with him seem especially paradoxical, since they do no damage. In Farquhar’s fantasy, he is invincible in precisely those areas where he might seem most subject to harm [KD]. This sentence seems powerfully symbolic, as if Farquhar is almost literally
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brushing up against death [AF]. Ironically, it is Farquhar, of course, who at this moment may still be “[falling] away” and “continuing [his] descent” [KD].
XXV.4 One lodged between his collar and neck; it was uncomfortably warm and he snatched it out.
Farquhar’s perception that a bullet has “lodged between his collar and neck” seems, of course, highly appropriate in view of his real predicament, but notice how easily (in his fantasy, at least) he handles the threat [KD]. Notice the precision of Bierce’s phrasing: “snatched” is a much more effective word than “pulled” or “lifted,” since it implies a sudden, eager seizing rather than a more leisurely removal; it also implies a quick rather than steady grasp [RCE]. Farquhar’s imagined need (but also ability) to deal so abruptly with this danger implies both his desperation [RCE] and his fancied invincibility [KD].
XXVI.1 As he rose to the surface, gasping for breath, he saw that he had been a long time under water; he was perceptibly farther down stream nearer to safety.
Once more Bierce effectively uses repetition-with-a-difference: this is the second time we have witnessed Farquhar emerge from the water, “gasping for breath” (see XIX.15). Once more Farquhar seems miraculously to have cheated death. Bierce thus seems to be developing a pattern of repeated escapes -- a pattern he will abruptly break in the story’s final sentence [MC]. Bierce’s use here of such words as “saw” and “perceptibly” is, of course, subtly ironic, since Farquhar literally sees and perceives nothing [MC; KD]. The phrase “a long time” is ironic because, in reality, only a few seconds have passed. Indeed, the time involved is actually probably even shorter than that [KD; MC]. The word “perceptibly” is typical of Bierce’s ambiguous phrasing: from one perspective the word suggests a definite, observable fact; from another perspective it reminds us that everything Farquhar thinks he sees is merely the result of his subjective perception [MC]. By using the phrase “farther down stream nearer to safety,” Bierce continues to “bait” his first-time readers by implying that Farquhar may indeed be escaping. Meanwhile, the words “farther down” carry an ironic resonance for second-time readers of the tale [KD].
XXVI.2 The soldiers had almost finished reloading; the metal ramrods flashed all at once in the sunshine as they were drawn from the barrels, turned in the air, and thrust into their sockets.
Again the narrator seems calm and objective, and even the soldiers seem unhurried. They do not seem in any sort of rush, even though an escaping prisoner might be expected to generate vigorous action on the part of the captors he is
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eluding. From the beginning of the story Bierce has presented the soldiers as virtually emotionless; this apparent lack of feeling continues here, making them seem cold and calculating as they continue their efforts to end Farquhar’s life [KD]. The precision of the soldiers as they function as a single instrument of death is illustrated as they perform flawlessly and in unison. Their calculated movements effectively contrast with Farquhar’s frantic, uncontrolled actions [KD]; Paradoxically, Bierce here uses the especially striking image of “metal ramrods flash[ing] all at once in the sunshine” -- an image that might even seem spectacularly beautiful in other circumstances [MC; KD]. This sentence continues the impersonal tone of the narration, even while the harshness of the last four words (“thrust into their sockets”) implies a hard determination that is terrifying in men who seem so emotionally detached from what they are about to attempt [KD]. The word “thrust” implies the force involved, while the word “sockets” suggests a fixed, immovable purpose [RCE].
XXVI.3 The two sentinels fired again, independently and ineffectually.
Here again the military men are mentioned not as individuals but as anonymous representatives of a function or rank. Their actions are calculated, even if they are carried out “independently and “ineffectually.” Bierce’s coupling of these two words is ironic because, despite their similar sounds, the second term cancels out the first. Indeed, the word “ineffectually” signals what has now become part of a narrative pattern: all through Farquhar’s miraculous “escape,” the Union soldiers have displayed their incompetence: the rope used in the hanging broke; the “gray-eyed” sharpshooter misses, even though Farquhar is centered in his sights; the firing squad’s bullets fall harmlessly away; and now these sentinels are ineffectual. By establishing this pattern of failure by the Federal troops, Bierce not only implies Farquhar’s deepest hopes but also deceives his first-time reader, lending credence to the possibility of Farquhar’s ultimate escape just before establishing, in the very last sentence, just how extremely efficient and effective the Union troops have been [KD].
XXVII.1 The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder; he was now swimming vigorously with the current.
Ironically, Farquhar is now simply a “hunted man” and is described in much the same way that an escaping slave might also be described. Farquhar is given a chance to experience how it might feel to try to flee for freedom [DR2; SH]. Farquhar’s name is not used again until the final sentence of the story. To call him “hunted” reduces him, in a sense, to the same level as an unimportant animal pursued for sport [KD]. The shift in perspective to what Farquhar sees “over his shoulder” is significant: having provided seemingly objective descriptions of the soldiers’ actions, the narrator now returns to the heightened perceptions of Farquhar. Of course, everything that Farquhar “sees” here is an illusion [KD]. The use of the word “vigorously” is ironic because it implies that Farquhar is literally
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full of life and energy at precisely the moment when in reality his life is passing away. In addition, this phrase continues Farquhar’s illusion that he is in control; in his dream he is not exhausted or even especially desperate, as might be expected in someone who has just evaded death [KD]. The fact that he is swimming “with the current” makes him seem to be cooperating with nature, and perhaps the phrase also suggests that he has accepted his apparent fate and is eagerly following where this path will lead [KD]. The phrase also suggests that his escape will be much easier than if he were swimming against the current; once more, then, Bierce enhances the plausibility of the escape [RCE].
XXVII.2 His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning.
This sentence seems ironic for either of two reasons: (1) perhaps Farquhar’s arms and legs are not “really” moving at all, except in his imagination [EWA]; (2) perhaps his arms and legs are in fact moving frantically because of the twitching that sometimes precedes death [MC]. In either case, his “brain” obviously is indeed “energetic” [EWA; KD; DCH], even though it seems inaccurate to characterize his mental processes as “thought” in the strict sense of the term [MC]. Ironically, sentences like this one implicitly contrast the efficiency of Farquhar with the incompetence of the Union troops, who cannot seem to do anything effectively [KD]. The fact that Farquhar thinks with the rapidity of “lightning” suggests the enormous, overwhelming power of his thoughts [RCE].
XXVIII.1 The officer,” he reasoned, “will not make that martinet’s error a second time.
The verb “reasoned” seems especially ironic in this case, particularly since it suggests a leisurely process of calmly organized thought [MC; KD]. A desperate man does not “reason” [KD]. Note the shift from the emphasis on the “rapidity” of thought in the preceding sentence to the slower process implied here [KD]. The use of the word “martinet” classifies the leader of the Union troops (in Farquhar’s mind, at least) as a man who is so obsessed with mechanical procedures that he cannot react effectively when situations change. However, it should be remembered that at the beginning of the story the very formal procedures of the hanging were admired both by the narrator (II.10-11) and also by Farquhar himself (IV.7). Ultimately Farquhar’s mockery of the captain for being a “martinet” will seem profoundly ironic, since the captain will execute the hanging without in fact committing a single “error” [SC; KD].
XXVIII.2 It is as easy to dodge a volley as a single shot.
Here as elsewhere, Bierce offers a sentence that can be interpreted in contradictory, but equally valid, ways. In one sense it seems inaccurate (and to defy common sense) to claim that a “volley” can be avoided as easily as “a single shot”:
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surely it would be more difficult (would it not?) to avoid one bullet than to avoid a whole shower of them? [DCH] On the other hand, perhaps Farquhar is reasoning that when one is sufficiently submerged beneath water, it makes little difference whether one is the target of a single bullet or of many [EWA]. The fact that this seemingly simple sentence can provoke two contrasting but equally valid responses is typical of the subtle complexity of Bierce’s story as a whole [RCE]. Clearly the sentence helps reinforce our sense that Farquhar at this point considers himself invincible [KD]. In a sense he is repeating the same mistake he made earlier, when he assumed he could easily sabotage the bridge [RCE].
XXVIII.3 He has probably already given the command to fire at will.
Does Farquhar now see the contest as, in part, a battle of wits between himself and the Union captain? [KD] Note how the simple word “probably” contributes to our sense of Farquhar’s credibility; he seems all the more reasonable because he is not completely certain [KD]. Note the oxymoronic quality of the phrase “the command to fire at will” (italics added) [KD].
XXVIII.4 “God help me, I cannot dodge them all!”
Ironically, Farquhar here foreshadows the inevitability of his own death: this sentence is one of the few literally accurate ones in the final section of the story. Paradoxically, only when Farquhar is dying does his dependence on a greater power enter his mind [KD; JS]. His crying out to “God” perhaps makes him seem less arrogant, more sympathetic, and more vulnerable than he has seemed up to this point [KD], although his exclamation may be more a cliche than a sincere prayer [AF]. However, whereas the story’s only earlier reference to God (VI.4) had seemed somewhat trite and formulaic, the present reference seems far more intense and sincere. Perhaps Farquhar is learning to appreciate God more deeply than he had previously done, just as he is also now learning to appreciate much else (family, nature, life) more than he had before [CS]. In any case, an ARCHETYPAL critic might note that Farquhar’s intense fear of death is one of the most primal of all human emotions [NB]. Ironically, of course, Farquhar in reality could not “dodge” such an intense volley of bullets if they were truly being fired at him, although he imagines that he does just that [CS].
XXIX.1 An appalling plash within two yards of him was followed by a loud, rushing sound, diminuendo, which seemed to travel back through the air to the fort and died in an explosion which stirred the very river to its deeps!
The phrase “appalling plash” not only uses alliteration effectively but also (especially in the second word) mimics the very sound it describes [MC2]. The description of the sound as both “loud” and as “diminuendo” (i.e., diminishing or dying) seems appropriate; in a sense this sound-effect epitomizes the larger
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sound-effect of the story as a whole, which moves from sudden sound to abrupt silence [MC2]. Here as elsewhere in the story (e.g., XX.7; XXXII.10), Bierce uses musical references to nicely ironic effect, since music is more commonly associated with harmony and beauty [MC2]. Ironically, it will be Farquhar himself who will very literally “die in an explosion” of loud sound as he reaches the end of his rope [MC2].
XXX.1. A rising sheet of water curved over him, fell down upon him, blinded him, strangled him!
Is the reference to the “rising sheet” that begins to cover Farquhar a subtle allusion to the sheets or shrouds usually used to cover the dead? [MC2; GH] If so, it seems especially ironic that this is a sheet “of water,” since water is most commonly associated with life and renewal [MC2]. Here the circular imagery that pervades the story is used with keen irony [LB]. Note the intensifying progression of images here [KC; TL], from the relatively benign (“curved over”) to the slightly more ominous (“fell down upon him”) to the seriously threatening (“blinded him”) to the potentially deadly (“strangled him”). In a sense, this one sentence epitomizes the progress of the entire narrative [TL], and a formalist would appreciate the way Bierce uses a series of verbs to create a complex impression of the water’s movement [JRC]. Bierce was careful to note repeatedly at the beginning of the tale that Farquhar’s eyes had not been covered as he stood on the bridge (I.1; III.4; IV.8), but now Farquhar does feel “blinded” -- even though, in one sense, he is perceiving his experiences more keenly now than he has ever perceived before [MC2]. The word “strangled” is, of course, especially appropriate to Farquhar’s real predicament [JRC; MC2].
XXX.2. The cannon had taken a hand in the game.
Like so many other sentences in this story, this one suddenly clarifies the meaning of ambiguous sentences that had preceded it. This pattern -- of mystification followed by abrupt knowledge -- is clearly relevant to the structure of the story as a whole [RCE]. The phrasing here seems ironically casual, and the word “game,” in particular, implies an amusing event of no real consequence. The reference to the “hand” of the cannon typifies the ways Bierce often personifies inanimate objects in this tale, as if to suggest Farquhar’s perception that even the non-living things that surround him have a definite and often malevolent purpose [MC2].
XXX.3. As he shook his head free from the commotion of the smitten water he heard the deflected shot humming through the air ahead, and in an instant it was cracking and smashing the branches in the forest beyond.
The reference to Farquhar as he allegedly “[shakes] his head free” will seem strongly ironic to a second-time reader: Farquhar may indeed be shaking his head at this moment, but he is by no means free of the noose encircling his neck
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[MC2]. The word “commotion” helps remind us how much the tone of the story has changed since section one, while Farquhar’s assumption that the shot has been “deflected” epitomizes his entire fantasy that he his deadly fate has somehow been bent or turned aside [MC2]. Ironically, the only “humming” Farquhar had earlier perceived had been the imagined sound of gnats (XX.7) [RCE]. The word “cracking” nicely imitates the sound it describes, and it also contrasts effectively with the earlier reference to “humming,” which also mimics the sound to which it refers [MC2].
XXXI.1 “They will not do that again,” he thought; “the next time they will use a charge of grape.
It seems appropriately ironic that the potentially deadly projectiles are here called “grape,” thus associating them (paradoxically) with pleasant and life-sustaining fruit. Typically, although Farquhar is a civilian, he fancies himself enough of a military expert not only to predict exactly what the troops will do next but also to use precise military language when describing their anticipated conduct. The calm tone in which he reasons with himself contrasts with the frantic circumstances he seems to be facing [RCE].
XXXI.2 I must keep my eye upon the gun; the smoke will apprise me ‑‑ the report arrives too late; it lags behind the missile. That is a good gun.”
The image of “smoke” rising is often associated with prayer, but it can also suggest ephemerality. The image also seems ironic since it had been Farquhar’s intention to burn down the bridge [MC2]. The notion that the sound of a gunshot “arrives too late” after the gun has been shot seems appropriate in this story, in which the significance of an event is not often realized until well after the event has occurred [MC2]. Of course, the idea that one might evade bullets simply by paying attention to the smoke of the firing guns seems absurd on reflection, but part of the genius of Bierce’s story is that, on first reading, we do not pause to reflect. We are so caught up in the excitement of the escape that Bierce dupes us as effectively as Farquhar dupes himself. The story is as much a lesson in our gullibility as in the gullibility of Farquhar [CS].
XXXII.1. Suddenly he felt himself whirled round and round ‑‑ spinning like a top.The word “[s]uddenly” provides an ironically urgent beginning to a passage that has no urgency. This passage will induce a feeling of time standing still as the protagonist dreams he has escaped the hangman’s noose. The three words “he felt himself” not only begin the dream passage but also focus the reader on Farquhar and his individual consciousness. The passage implies that we will now enter inside Farquhar’s awareness. Finally, the use of the word “felt” is ironic since Farquhar is no longer literally feeling; instead, he is dreaming or imagining or hallucinating
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[DR]. The fact that Farquhar is described as having “felt himself” implies a kind of dissociation of sensibility, a separation of mind and body that ultimately foreshadows his death [RCE]. The sense of being “whirled round and round” not only reinforces the circular imagery that runs throughout the story (and helps structure it) [LB], but it also suggests a sense of timelessness that will permeate this entire section of the tale. The concept of being “whirled round and round” stands in interesting contrast to the to the seemingly slow passage of time as this section of the story continues. “[W]hirl[ing]” connotes the idea of speed, yet the addition of the words “round and round” implies that Farquhar is going nowhere -- that time is (or will be) standing still [DR]. Although the phrase “spinning like a top” may lead the reader to think that Farquhar is spinning around in the water, in reality he is spinning circles at the end of a rope. This is just one of many instances in this section of the story in which the same words can fit two contrasting scenarios. For a first-time reader of the story, such passages have one meaning; for a reader who confronts the story for a second time, such passages take on an altogether different significance. Bierce’s efficient, effective use of such phrasing would delight a FORMALIST critic, who takes pleasure in any use of double meaning and irony [JG2; DR]. The reference to “spinning like a top” is ironic, since the experience Farquhar is now undergoing is anything but child’s play. At the same time, this kind of phrasing is similar to phrasing elsewhere in Section III that likens his life-and-death struggle to a “game” (see, e.g., XXX.2). Like the piece of “dancing driftwood” mentioned earlier (IV.10) [RCE], Farquhar now seems completely at the mercy of external forces [EG].
XXXII.2. The water, the banks, the forests, the now distant bridge, fort and men ‑‑ all were commingled and blurred.
Farquhar sees details all around him -- the same details he saw from above, although now they are seen from his supposed view below. We know from earlier passages that these details do exist, so Bierce encourages us to believe that Farquhar now really sees them again from a different vantage point. Such details would obviously be “commingled and blurred” if a hanged (swinging) man were viewing them, but they would also be “commingled and blurred” if they were seen from the perspective of someone being swirled around in water. Also, images in dreams sometimes appear “commingled or blurred.” Once again, then, Bierce describes details in a way that makes sense from several distinct points of view. A FORMALIST critic would admire to complex unity of such efficient phrasing [DR]. Meanwhile, both a FORMALIST and a READER-RESPONSE critic might admire the syntax of this sentence: the unorganized rush of nouns in the first half forces the reader to share the disordered experience the sentence describes. Only in the second half of the sentence does its syntactical structure become clear [RCE].
XXXII.3. Objects were represented by their colors only; circular horizontal streaks of color ‑‑ that was all he saw.Again, a hanged man, swinging, would see this view. The phrase “circular horizontal streaks” confuses the reader at first; it doesn’t fit our normal experience
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of reality. It is like an image from a dream, but we don’t pay any special attention to this “dreamy” quality as first-time readers. Repeated use of the word “color” implies a sense of life, or at least of some hope for life. Could Farquhar’s dream of life and freedom from the Northern soldiers be related to the South’s (futile) dream of freedom from the North? Perhaps both PSYCHOANALYTIC and HISTORICAL critics would say “yes” [DR]. Note how the reference to “circular horizontal streaks” fits into the story’s obsessive use of circular imagery [LB]. The words “that was all he saw” are used to close a sentence full of color and of hope for life. These words (especially “all”) imply that Farquhar is consumed with the thought of life. A repeat reader of the story, of course, realizes that in fact Farquhar actually sees nothing [DR].
XXXII.4. He had been caught in a vortex and was being whirled on with a velocity of advance and gyration that made him giddy and sick.
Farquhar has been “caught” repeatedly throughout this story: he was caught by his desire for adventure and heroism; he was caught by the Northern soldiers; he is caught by the noose; and now he is caught up in his dream of living and escaping [DR]. By using such words as “vortex,” “whirled,” and “gyration,” Bierce continually implies the connection between the dream and the grim reality of a hanged man who is swinging in mid-air. Interestingly, the dream of whirling seems to make Farquhar feel “giddy and sick,” while in reality he is probably feeling “giddy and sick” as life drains from his body [DR]. Here as elsewhere, Bierce emphasizes circular imagery [LB]. a formalist critic would argue that the pervasive use of such imagery helps unify the story [RCE]. As a person who has been through a year of medical school in the military, have studied optometry and ophthalmology in schools and clinics, and have received certification to assist an ophthalmologist, I perceive, in Bierce’s description of the sensations Farquhar is experiencing, the signs and symptoms of certain traumatic occurrences, such as retinal detachment, hypertensive retinopathy, migraine prodrone, and a traumatic asphyxia. All of these conditions results from lack of proper blood flow. Sentences such as this one, therefore, may allude to realistic physical responses to Farquhar’s death by hanging. When a human being suffocates by hanging, his vision will experience flashes, halos, curtain-like effects, and of course blurring. All of these responses are caused by insufficient blood-flow, which cuts off oxygen to the organs of the eye [MO].
XXXII.5. In a few moments he was flung upon the gravel at the foot of the left bank of the stream ‑‑ the southern bank ‑‑ and behind a projecting point which concealed him from his enemies.
The reference to “a few moments” is effectively vague and non-specific, especially in a story so much concerned with the subjective experience of time [DR]. The reference to Farquhar being “flung upon the gravel” is effectively ambigu-
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ous: for a first-time reader, Farquhar seems to have reached safety; he seems to be on solid ground, and a new beginning seems near. For a second-time reader, however, this phrasing may suggest that Farquhar has been swinging long enough for the swinging to have stopped -- thus suggesting that the end is near. Bierce thus implies hope during a first reading while suggesting hopelessness during a second [DR]. A FORMALIST critic would admire the irony of such ambiguous phrasing [RCE]. Even when we read this moment as suggesting hope, we cannot be entirely at peace since we know that Farquhar is still in danger. Bierce thus effectively toys with our emotions while also making us want to continue reading [DR2]. The fact that Farquhar imagines reaching “the southern bank” implies his desire to live again as a citizen of the South; it is no accident that his fantasy leads him toward this particular side of the stream [GH; DR]. Ironically, although his dream-state “conceal[s] him from his enemies,” in reality he is the total focus of their attention; he is completely in their sight [DR].
XXXII.6. The sudden arrest of his motion, the abrasion of one of his hands on the gravel, restored him, and he wept with delight.
Although the word “arrest” here is used to mean “stopping,” it is an ironic use of language since Farquhar has, in fact, already been suddenly “arrested” (in the legal sense) by the Northern soldiers. In fact, the “arrest” was so sudden that the reader never knows whether Farquhar even committed the act for which he is now being hanged [DR; DR2]. The reference to the “arrest of his motion” works in several ways: it implies a literal cessation of movement, but it also suggests that not only is the end of his dream near, but that so is the end of his life [DR]. Paradoxically, because the word “abrasion” seems too realistic to be part of a dream, the use of this word actually helps ensure that the reader continues to accept the dream as real. The word also relates (sharply) to the physical reality that Farquhar actually will have abrasions on his neck from the hanging [DR]. Farquhar, in reality, has his “hands” tied behind his back, bound together as one hand. The fact that Farquhar’s “hands” are mentioned so frequently during his hallucination may reflect his intense desire to have his hands freed from bondage [DR]. Ironically, Farquhar is not truly “restored” by the “sudden arrest” of his motion; instead, the sudden stopping foreshadows his ultimate demise [DR]. By juxtaposing the words “wept” and “delight,” Bierce juxtaposes a word associated with sadness and a word associated with happiness, just as the reader will soon see the happiness of Farquhar’s dream contrasted with the sadness of reality. Perhaps Farquhar, in reality, is literally weeping because of sadness but, in his hallucination, imagines his tears to be tears of “delight” [DR].
XXXII.7. He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it.
Does this passage perhaps foreshadow, ironically, Farquhar’s eventual burial? [DR] It certainly seems ironic that he “audibly” blesses the sand, since a hanged
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man definitely cannot speak [DR]. The fact that Farquhar dreams of speaking -- and even of hearing himself speak -- implies his intense desire to do both [RCE]. Perhaps the phrasing here implies that Farquhar is delaying the instant death that would result from a suddenly broken neck. The hand and finger imagery in this sentence may suggest that Farquhar may be breaking the impact of his fall by putting his hands through the slack of the rope and thereby delaying the suffocation process [MO].
XXXII.8. It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble.
Farquhar’s perception of the sand as comparable to “diamonds, rubies, [end] emeralds” implies the sheer intensity of his fantasies [DR]. A MARXIST critic would probably note this passage for its emphasis on material wealth. Farquhar, a slave-owning land-owner while alive, here associates peace and contentment with the possession of rare jewels and diamonds. In this passage, then, true happiness is equated with immense wealth, at least in the mind of Peyton Farquhar. A MARXIST would immediately notice the important role property plays in this man’s life; he spends part of his last few seconds of life reflecting on it [BB].
XXXII.9. The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms.
Farquhar’s perception of the trees as “giant garden plants” might be seen by an ARCHETYPAL critic as associating the trees with symbols of growth, rebirth, and life [DR]. It is almost as if Farquhar has returned to a kind of Eden, a state of earthly perfection of the sort that might have existed before the Fall [SG]. The flourishing trees contrast with the “stockade of vertical tree trunks” described earlier [II.3]. The latter represented death not only because they were dead themselves but because they were part of the enemy fortifications [DR]. In contrast, the image of the trees here as “plants” in a “garden” associates them with beauty, harmony, and peace -- connotations reinforced by the word “order” [RCE]. The fact that Farquhar is said to have “noted” the order of the plants implies that he has plenty of time, whereas in fact is time is extremely limited [DR]. The “definite order” he perceives is a welcome respite from all the chaos he has just been experiencing, but the “order” is a perception rather than an empirical, physical reality [CS]. The reference to the “blooms” suggests another ARCHETYPAL (but ironic) reference to life and vitality [DR], and the word also injects more imaginary beauty into Farquhar’s ugly predicament [RCE]. Meanwhile, the word “inhaled” may ironically imply that Farquhar, in reality, is desperately gasping for breath [RCE].
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XXXII.10. A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of Æolian harps.
The word “strange” hints that something is not quite right in this fantasy land [DR]. This word, combined with the reference to the “roseate light,” may begin to suggest that Farquhar is hallucinating; or it may allude to conventional notions of the afterlife; or it may imply Farquhar’s deluded optimism about the future; or it may carry all these connotations at once [AF; DR]. Many of the details here seem to allude to Christian notions of heaven [TJ; CS]. On the one hand such phrasing seems fantastic, but on the other hand it seems realistic: this is exactly how a desperate escapee might perceive his first experience of renewed freedom [JC]. Could the phrasing also, perhaps, imply that Farquhar is literally beginning to see things through bloody, bloodied eyes? In any case, the reference to “light” is ironic since it immediately precedes Farquhar’s final plunge into darkness, and indeed the idea of “roseate light” by itself implies an enveloping darkness [RCE]. The reference to “harps” calls up (ironically) another conventional notion of heaven [DR], while the reference to the presumably beautiful “music” adds another ironic element to this intensely ugly, brutal situation [RCE].
XXXII.11. He had no wish to perfect his escape ‑‑ was content to remain in that enchanting spot until retaken.
The statement that Farquhar “had no wish to perfect his escape” is, of course, highly ironic, since this entire hallucination derives from his intense wish to escape. Farquhar will be “retaken” -- by death and by reality -- soon enough [DR].
XXXIII.1 A whiz and rattle of grapeshot among the branches high above his head roused him from his dream.
A FORMALIST would appreciate the onomatopoeic effects of the words “whiz” and “rattle,” which mimic the very sounds they describe [RCE]. A TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic would explain what “grapeshot” referred to [JG]. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “[s]mall cast-iron balls, strongly connected together, so as to form a charge for cannon” [RCE]. The imagery of dead metal cutting through (and presumably damaging) living trees might interest an ARCHETYPAL critic as well as a THEMATIC critic, who might see such imagery as typifying the larger contrast between life and death in the story as a whole [RCE].
XXXIII.2 The baffled cannoneer had fired him a random farewell.
The word “farewell” suggests that Farquhar (or at least the narrator [DR2]) is now able to perceive his situation from an ironic perspective [SB]. Perhaps Bierce
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is even alluding here to the practice of firing a salute over the grave of a departed fellow-soldier, although a TRADITIONAL HISTORICAL critic would want to investigate whether such a ceremony was common practice during the era in which Bierce sets his tale [JG].
XXXIII.3 He sprang to his feet, rushed up the sloping bank, and plunged into the forest.
The verb “plunged” is interesting for its suggestion of Peyton’s earlier fall into the water. During Peyton’s fantasy of escape, his time is entirely spent in either the water or the forest, both of which (an ARCHETYAPL critic might note) are often symbols of the subconscious mind [PD].
XXXIV.1 All that day he traveled, laying his course by the rounding sun.
The reference to the “rounding sun” helps emphasize the circular imagery that is elsewhere so prominent in the story [LB; LT]. It also helps reinforce the circular structure of the whole story, which ends where it began [LT]. The reference to the “rounding sun” also once more emphasizes the crucial theme of time -- just before all time, for Farquhar, is about to stop [CS].
XXXIV.2 The forest seemed interminable; nowhere did he discover a break in it, not even a woodman’s road.
Ironically, the forest will not seem “interminable” for much longer: the end of this perception, like the end of the story, will come all too quickly [RCE].
XXXIV.3 He had not known that he lived in so wild a region.
Ironically, Farquhar had not truly comprehended the region he lives in, even though he has lived there all his life. Perhaps this sentence, therefore, reinforces our sense that he has lived a relatively sheltered life on his plantation, unaware of what has really been going on around him [MR2]. Of course, in another sense the “region” Farquhar now traverses may only seem so “wild” because it is a figment of his imagination. Whether we accept or reject his perception of its “wild[ness],” then, the statement seems ironic [RCE]. Farquhar’s tendency to perceive the region as “wild” fits with his desire to see himself as heroic [MA]. ARCHETYPAL critics might note how Farquhar’s situation here plays on the common human fear of being lost in a wilderness, while PSYCHOANALYTIC critics might see the wilderness as a symbol of Farquhar’s own terrified subconscious: it is his mind, rather than the landscape itself, that is now “wild” [MA; JG; SS]. A DECONSTRUCTOR might argue that Farquhar, ironically, has not truly realized his
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own danger until he has escaped from that very danger. One paradox of this passage is the way it undermines the standard associations of freedom with safety, and of captivity with danger [MA].
XXXIV.4 There was something uncanny in the revelation.
The most relevant meaning of “uncanny” listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is “[p]artaking of a supernatural character, mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar.” The OED reports that this meaning became common during the middle of the nineteenth century. However, perhaps Bierce and his readers would have heard other connotations in this word, including “[d]angerous, unsafe,” “[u]npleasantly severe or hard,” “[un]nreliable, not to be trusted,” “[c]areless, incautious,” and even “[m]ischievous, malicious.” Given all these associations linking the word “uncanny” with unreliability, it seems (typically) paradoxical that Bierce should link this adjective with the noun “revelation.” An “uncanny . . . revelation” is hardly a revelation at all; it is almost a contradiction of terms [RCE].
XXXV.1 By nightfall he was fatigued, footsore, famishing.
Ironically, the only previous use of the word “nightfall” had been in reference to the Federal scout as he passed away from Farquhar’s home (XVII.3) [RCE]. The word “nightfall” (rather than simply the word “night”) is appropriate in many ways. Farquhar is, in reality, entering a kind of darkness and night he has never before experienced, and from which he will never emerge; “nightfall” suggests finality, the end of light, and the end of Farquhar’s life. The tone of the story is literally darkening, and it is Peyton himself, and not simply night, that has fallen [OT-K; CM]. Ironically, of course, at this point Bierce’s first-time reader is also “in the dark” [CM]. A FORMALIST would appreciate the powerful use of alliteration in the phrase “fatigued, footsore, famishing,” especially since the repetition of “f” sounds mimics the sound of a person who is out of breath [EG; ATH]. At the same time, a HORATIAN critic would commend Bierce for not pushing the alliteration too far -- by extending it, say, for another three words [MM]. Peyton feels “fatigued” both mentally and physically -- a common experience with which almost any reader can identify and sympathize (as an ARCHETYPAL critic might note) [MM]. The reference to his feeling “footsore” seems all the more ironic since we later learn that his feet have never touched ground [MC; OT-K; CM]. Meanwhile, the word “famishing” is appropriate in several senses: in his fantasy, Peyton feels physically hungry, while that very fantasy also implies his hunger for life and freedom. Bierce’s alliteration gives the whole phrase powerful impact, as is obvious when one imagines how else the same ideas might have been communicated (for example: “he was tired and hungry, and his feet hurt”) [OT-K]. Note how the absence of “and” before “famishing” violates normal English grammar and thus gives the sentence an almost hurried, breathless quality [RCE].
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XXXV.2 The thought of his wife and children urged him on.
The word “thought” seems especially ironic since Farquhar is not thinking rationally at this point but is merely fantasizing. On the other hand, this whole third section of the story takes place nowhere other than in Farquhar’s mind; it is not “really” happening and thus is nothing other than a figment of his “thought” [OT-K]. The reference to Farquhar’s “wife and children” implies how drastically his priorities have changed: earlier he had been obsessed with obtaining military glory, but now his focus is entirely on returning to his family [OT-K]. This is the first time during the entire “dream” that Farquhar thinks of his family. He has survived his perilous journey down the creek and can now think about actually getting home. It seems all the more ironic that he dies so quickly so soon after his attention turns to his family. Of course, the reference to his family also makes his death seem more tragic and gives that death greater emotional impact when it does come, since we realize that not only Farquhar alone is affected by his demise [CM]. A FEMINIST critic might note that the “wife” plays a relatively small part in this tale; at most, she is a reward or prize if his escape is successful [DT].
XXXV.3 At last he found a road which led him in what he knew to be the right direction.
The phrase “[a]t last” is, of course, particularly ironic in this context, since Farquhar’s journey will soon be over in a different sense than he assumes [KO; OT-K]. The references to “road” and “direction” are ironic because Farquhar is at this point going nowhere; for him, all significant motion has ceased [OT-K; CM]. Similarly ironic is the claim that Farquhar “knew” the path this road would take, since his certainty here, as in much of the rest of this section, is bogus [CM; KO]. Peyton’s sense of certainty here, however, is entirely consistent with his self-assured character as it is depicted elsewhere in the tale, especially in section two [MM; KO]. The reference to the “right” direction seems especially pointed, since the only direction in which Farquhar is headed is toward his death [KO]. However, perhaps in one sense Farquhar is indeed moving in the “right direction” [LS].
XXV.4 It was as wide and straight as a city street, yet it seemed untraveled.
The reference to the seemingly “straight” path contrasts with the circular imagery that has earlier been so prominent in the story. Ironically, however, this reference to straightness occurs just before the story comes full circle [LB]. The fact that the road seems both “wide” and “straight” implies freedom and ease of movement; in truth, however, Peyton present possesses neither of these things [OT-K]. The reference to the “city street” only helps emphasize Peyton’s current isolation [OT-K]. Since the word “untraveled” implies the absence of human life or habitation, it seems especially appropriate to Farquhar’s “real” predicament
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[OT-K]. On the one hand, the fact that the road seems “untraveled” may imply lack of obstruction and thus ease of passage; on the other hand, the emptiness of this road may also suggest danger [JRC]. This road seems “untraveled” partly because Farquhar himself has never before traveled the road to death, and yet such phrasing is also paradoxical because the road to death has been traveled countless times by many others [CM; JM].
XXXV.5 No fields bordered it, no dwelling anywhere.
The openness emphasized here contrasts with the confinement and repression from which Peyton imagines (falsely) he has escaped [NP]. At the same time, the absence of “fields” (normally homes for plants) or of any “dwelling” (a place of human habitation) appropriately suggests an absence of life [OT-K] or of human order [RCE]. By using such imagery Bierce effectively suggests Peyton’s loneliness both before and during his execution [OT-K]. Note the absence of a verb in the final clause of this sentence. The fragmentation of Bierce’s syntax mimics the fragmentation of Farquhar’s perceptions [RCE].
XXXV.6 Not so much as the barking of a dog suggested human habitation.
Mention of “a dog” seems appropriate for several reasons. Because dogs are traditionally considered animals who are especially friendly to humans, the absence of a dog here helps reinforce our sense of Farquhar’s fundamental isolation [MM]. The “barking” dog mentioned here is traditionally a symbol of protection and defense -- of a boundary that is clearly marked and patrolled. It seems ironic, then, that Farquhar hears no such barking, even though he is about to cross the most significant boundary of his existence. Normally the “barking of a dog” might suggest some threat or danger, but Farquhar would paradoxically welcome such a sound since it would provide some evidence of at least some kind of companionship [RCE].
XXXV.7 The black bodies of the trees formed a straight wall on both sides, terminating on the horizon in a point, like a diagram in a lesson in perspective.
The reference to the color “black” helps foreshadow Peyton’s death, as does the idea of a “terminating . . . point” [AF; NP; OT-K; CM] as well as the idea of a “horizon” [JG2]. The word “black” also implies the hopelessness of his present situation [AF; OT-K; CM]; his own neck will soon seem encircled by “black” (XXXVI.2) [CM]. The odd reference to the “bodies” of the trees perhaps suggests that Farquhar is really perceiving, although in a distorted way, the bodies of the assembled enemy troops [O-TK]. Or is he perhaps think, subconsciously, of the surrounding, threatening “black bodies” of angry slaves? [CB; MM] Very
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shortly it will be Farquhar’s own “body” that will be the central focus of Bierce’s narrative [CM]. Similarly, the image of the figurative “wall on both sides” mirrors Peyton’s actual position of being flanked by enemies on either side of the bridge [NP]. The fact that the wall is supposedly “straight” suggests its solidity and strength [OT-K]. Even the word “horizon” suggests a limit; ultimately it stems from a Latin word referring to a city’s boundary. The reference to the “lesson in perspective” is apt, since such a lesson is precisely the kind that Bierce’s story itself provides [AF; MM; NP], both the Farquhar and to the reader [JG2]. The absence of color, the looming imagery of the possibly dead trees, and the diminishing horizon all convey a sense of suffocation and inescapable doom [AF]. Likewise, words such as “diagram” and “lesson” imply the formality and rigidity of the execution Farquhar is experiencing [OT-K]. Once again, the reference to the “straight wall” contrasts with the circular imagery that has earlier been so prominent in the story. Ironically, however, this reference to straightness occurs just before the story comes full circle. However, as an archetypal critic might note, the two straight walls closing in on either side might suggest that the circular imagery is coming back to the fore [LB]. The notion of a road that leads only in one direction and which ends in a sharp point seems particularly appropriate as a foreshadowing of death [CS].
XXXV.8 Overhead, as he looked up through this rift in the wood, shone great golden stars looking unfamiliar and grouped in strange constellations.“Overhead,” of course, is the direction from which Farquhar has just descended; it is the direction of life and vitality and thus is appropriately sprinkled with lights [OT-K]. Ironically, Farquhar is probably literally looking up into a “rift in the wood” -- that is, a gap in the wooden bridge from which he has just descended [OT-K; CM; KO]. Perhaps the “great golden stars” symbolize life, or perhaps they symbolize an element of constancy and eternity, in contrast to Farquhar’s own ephemerality. Perhaps Farquhar’s glimpse of the stars also provides another of the story’s lessons in perspective, since even though they seem “great” to him, they nonetheless appear far smaller than they actually are [CM]. His perception of them as “golden” implies both their beauty and how much he now values details to which he may not have paid much attention earlier [SS]. The words “unfamiliar” and “strange” imply how unique is the true experience Farquhar is presently undergoing [OT-K]. Perhaps Bierce is suggesting once more that Farquhar’s perceptions have become confused and disoriented, or perhaps he is implying that Farquhar is trying (but failing) to discern some pattern of order or harmony in his presently confusing experiences [CM]. Does Farquhar’s supposed glimpse of the “stars” and “constellations” implicitly suggest that his fate is already determined, as if by astrological certainty? [AF] The fact that the “constellations” seem strange to him helps imply how lost he feels. He cannot, literally, be so far from his home that he would not be able to recognize the constellations, so the description of them as “strange” suggests that he is lost in a far more significant sense [SS]. Metaphorically, his sense of being lost reflects his powerless condition [SS].
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XXXV.9 He was sure they were arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance.
The sentence seems ironic since, for much of this section of the story, Farquhar has seemed “sure” that things have been “arranged in some order” which has worked to his benefit [SH2]. Farquhar’s sense of being “sure” here is paradoxical, not only because it contrasts with the uncertainty mentioned in the immediately preceding sentence, but also because the only thing he feels “sure” of here is a “secret” he cannot comprehend [AF]. He can be literally “sure” of nothing at this moment [OT-K]; he can only feel “sure” of his growing uncertainty and sense of threat -- that some “secret” is being kept from him [AF]. Farquhar’s perception of “order” may allude, again, to the ordered ranks of his assembled enemies [OT-K]. Alternatively, this entire sentence may be a private joke on Bierce’s part, since the whole story, in a sense, is “arranged in some order which had a secret and malign significance” -- an order which is as unclear to the reader, at this point, as it is to Farquhar. This entire sentence thus helps contribute to the story’s sense of mystery and suspense [AF]. Perhaps Farquhar even subconsciously fears that God, the creator of the stars and sky, has “arranged” his fate in such a way as to play a cruel trick on him. However, it is in fact Bierce -- the creator of this story -- who has really made such arrangements [CB].
XXXV.10 The wood on either side was full of singular noises, among which ‑‑ once, twice, and again ‑‑ he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue.
The reference to the “wood on either side” again suggests that Farquhar feels hemmed in and surrounded by obstacles [OT-K]. The word “noises” implies sounds that make no sense -- sounds that are unpleasant or undesirable; they are “singular” because they are noises unlike any Farquhar has ever before experienced [OT-K]. The term “noises” here contrasts with the earlier reference to pleasant-sounding “music” (XX.7) [FD]. The reference to “whispers” -- especially to three different whispers -- may suggest to a first-time reader that Farquhar has been secretly pursued and is about to be recaptured [TC]. Bierce’s combination of the words “distinctly” and “unknown” in a single sentence is typical of his use of ambiguity throughout the tale: “distinctly” suggests the precision of Farquhar’s perceptions, but “unknown” undercuts that sense of precision [KO].
XXXVI.1 His neck was in pain and lifting his hand to it he found it horribly swollen.
Ironically, the fact that his “neck [is] in pain” is the only thing keeping him remotely in touch with reality, but it is the even greater pain still to come that will remove him from his present reality into another realm of being. Just as the neck connects the head to the rest of the body, this line connects the beginning of the story to the end. The pain draws both the character and the reader back to the real
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events which are about to conclude. The word “lifting” suggests Farquhar’s physical weakness just before he dies, as though his hand is so heavy that it requires extra effort for him to move it [SD]. The sensation that Farquhar interprets as a “horribly swollen” neck may simply be the feel of the noose itself [CB].
XXXVI.2 He knew that it had a circle of black where the rope had bruised it.
Once more Bierce uses the image of a “circle” to strong ironic effect [LB]. Perhaps the reference to the “circle of black” implies the tension between life and death, with “circle” suggesting life and “black” suggesting death [AF; NP]. Perhaps the reference to Farquhar’s own skin now turning “black” is an ironic reminder of his former status as a slave-holder [SG]. The extremely close juxtaposition of the two words may mirror the violence of death by hanging, in which one moment a person lives, and then, as at the snap of a finger, that person ceases to exist [NP]. Although the “circle” is often a symbol of harmony, here it is a sign of constriction. Because a circle has no beginning and no end, it contrasts with the reality of this man’s life (and of human life in general). At the same time, the “circle” image also relates to the design of the story as a whole, which is itself circular in structure. In a sense, the entire story is a “circle of black” [SD]. Meanwhile, “black” is an appropriate color since it suggests both the unconscious [SD] as well as the absence of all color; the imagery thus contrasts effectively with all the highly vivid colors Farquhar imagined seeing after his supposed plunge into the water [RCE].
XXXVI.3 His eyes felt congested; he could no longer close them.The fact that his “eyes felt congested” suggests sleep, and is appropriate here because Farquhar is about to enter the final sleep of death. Congested eyes are often difficult to open, but here (ironically) they are difficult to close. Peyton’s inability to shut his eyes may indicate his subconscious desire to return to the world of the living for as long as possible. It seems ironic that just when he imagines that his eyes are open, they are probably actually closed and that he will soon no longer be able to open them ever again [SD]. A HISTORICAL critic would want to investigate the actual, precise physiological effects of hanging on the human body in order to discover how many of the sensations Farquhar is now experiencing are appropriate to this means of death [SG]. The fact that Farquhar cannot seem to close his eyes, for instance, may imply that he is very close to death, since an inability to control the muscles governing the eye-lids is often a symptom of death [MC]. It seems both ironic and appropriate that Farquhar may die with his eyes wide open but seeing nothing, since, in a sense, all that he has just “seen” in this final section of the story was literally nothing [RCE].
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XXXVI.4 His tongue was swollen with thirst; he relieved its fever by thrusting it forward from between his teeth into the cold air.
An ARCHETYPAL critic might note that “thirst” is one of the most basic of all human sensations; any human, therefore, would be able to relate to Farquhar’s feelings here [DL2]. In Farquhar’s imagination, his “thirst” is the result of his fantasized running towards home. In reality, however, he is thirsting for air since the noose is restricting his ability to breathe [SD]. Farquhar is still somewhat conscious since he feels his tongue being forced out of his mouth by the noose beginning to constrict more tightly around his neck. The swollen and feverish state of his tongue is probably the result of the extraordinarily high blood pressure in his head since the circulation is cut off by the noose [LD; ZM]. Ironically, earlier he had feared he would drown; now he is desperate for water [ZM]. Perhaps the “cold air” is a symbolic allusion to the death that now surrounds him [ZM].
XXXVI.5 How softly the turf had carpeted the untraveled avenue ‑‑ he could no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet!
Although the “soft[ness]” is soothing to Farquhar, the sensation is also ironic, since in reality his hanging has probably created a feeling of numbness in his lower extremities. Meanwhile, the reference to the “untraveled avenue” is ironic because the “avenue” on which he supposedly walks can be nothing but “untraveled” since it is entirely a figment of his imagination. The fact that he can “no longer feel the roadway beneath his feet” is significant, since a person’s feet, symbolically, link him or her directly to the realities of (literal) earth. In this sense, Peyton’s loss of feeling in his feet represents the fact that he has now lost touch with reality [SD]. In another sense, however, Farquhar’s feeling that he has now literally lost touch with the hard reality of the road is, paradoxically, a clue to the real nature of his predicament: there is, in fact, nothing solid beneath his feet at this moment [AF; ATH]. A FORMALIST critic would appreciate the fact that this sentence, like so much else in this section of the story, has a double significance, since this fact illustrates the complex unity of the story’s design [AF]. Both literally and figuratively, Farquhar at this point is “walking on air”: he is full of a kind of elation even at the very moment that he is physically suspended from the bridge [AF].
XXXVII.1 Doubtless, despite his suffering, he had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene ‑‑ perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium.
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walking” [CS2], he will soon be “asleep” in a truer, more permanent sense than he now imagines [SD; LS]. Ironically, his illusion of being “asleep” here is one of the few remaining sensations indicating that he is still alive. Sleep is usually considered refreshing, restorative, and desirable, but the sleep Farquhar now imagines is simply the prelude to death [RCE]. Perhaps, by using the word “asleep,” Bierce is cleverly signaling to the second-time reader that Farquhar’s whole experience in this section has been a kind of dream [NP]. Similarly, the act of “walking” is often associated with health, vigor, and progress toward a goal, but here the “walking” is entirely illusory and deceptive [SD]. The sensation of “walking” may merely reflect the flailing of his legs as he is being hanged [RCE]. Note how the sudden shift to present tense (in the verb “sees”) implies that both Farquhar and the reader have entered a new phrase of the narrative and a new kind of experience [RCE]. Bierce’s use of the word “perhaps” is typical of the way he not only keeps the tone of the narrative ambiguous but also makes the reader an active participant in constructing the story; the reader is never allowed to sit back and remain passive. Both HORATIAN and READER-RESPONSE critics might be interested in the methods by which Bierce actively involves the reader in telling the story by making the reader engage in active thought [MC]. Farquhar’s sense here of a sudden new and unexpected perception (“another scene”) foreshadows, ironically, the experience the reader will have at the very end of the tale; it is we, rather than Farquhar, who will in a sense “recover . . . from a delirium” [NP].
XXXVII.2. He stands at the gate of his own home.
The “gate” may symbolize Farquhar’s attempt to re-enter his life, especially since he supposedly is at the gate of his “own home.” Ironically, however, the gate may also represent his passage into the next life. The words “gate” and especially “home” may both allude to conventional Christian ideas of heaven. Farquhar, in short, may be symbolically approaching something more than his earthly dwelling place [SD; JH; CS]. Whether or not this is the case, Bierce’s use of the word “home” (rather than, say, “house” or “residence”) carries all sorts of emotional connotations, especially connotations associated with family life, that would be missing from other possible nouns he might have used. His choice of “home,” then, is typical of the subtle, assured phrasing he uses throughout the tale [MC], especially since Farquhar is now about as symbolically far from “home” as he will ever be [NP]. The fact that the house is identified as “his own” home not only reinforces the emotional connection Farquhar feels to the place but might also interest a FEMINIST critic, who might note that no reference is made to the house as belonging, at least in part, to Farquhar’s wife [MC]. Farquhar’s return to “his own home” represents his symbolic return to security and authority [MC]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might argue that most humans can relate to the basic impulse to return to a secure “home” of one’s own [RH; MK].
XXXVII.3. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine.
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Perhaps this sentence suggests Farquhar’s subconscious desire for peace, permanence, and stability after all the upheavals he has recently experienced [SD]. The reference to “morning sunshine” is ironic, since Farquhar is now just about to enter the eternal darkness of death [NP]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might argue that “morning sunshine” would have a strong basic appeal and be a positive symbol to most humans, a fact that would heighten the irony of such phrasing [HF; MK]. Meanwhile, a formalist might note the irony that on a literal, realistic level, the entire story has taken place during “morning sunshine”: all of Farquhar’s numerous other perceptions have been mere figments of his imagination [RCE].
XXXVII.4. He must have traveled the entire night.
The fact that the journey supposedly lasts “the entire night” adds to the feeling of exhaustion, while the reference to “night” is another image of darkness that alludes to Farquhar’s impending death [SD].
XXXVII.5. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him.Perhaps the references here to the “gate” and the “wide white walk” again suggest conventional Christian ideas of heaven. At the same time, the fact that Farquhar “pushes” the gate open perhaps signifies his struggle to repel death and force his way back into life. The color “white” can (ironically) symbolize a state of extreme consciousness (in contrast to all the earlier references to “black,” with their connections with the unconscious). The fact that the path here is imagined as “wide” contrasts nicely with the earlier sense of constriction emphasized in XXXV.7. At the same time, perhaps there is a subtle, ironic allusion to Matthew 7.13, which explains that “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction” [SH; JH; CS2]. Such an allusion would be appropriate since it comes just before Farquhar’s own destruction is described. In this connection, is the reference to the “flutter of female garments” perhaps a subtle allusion to conventional Christian notions of angels? [SD; GMH] A LONGINIAN critic might see such imagery as an introduction of lofty, elevated language into the story just before its ironically brutal conclusion [SH]. On the other hand, a FEMINIST critic might be troubled by the stereotypical depiction of Farquhar’s wife here as a dutiful, dependent wife who greets her husband as he returns home [AF; GMH; KM]. Such a critic would note how the language here robs Mrs. Farquhar of any individual personality but instead reduces her to a mere role and costume [KM]. Farquhar’s view of his wife as “fresh and cool and sweet” might strike a FEMINIST critic as typical of the ways men commodify women -- treating them as objects whose main function is to satisfy male desires and appeal to male fantasies [DL2; SG; CS2]. In one sense this vision of his wife is a complete fantasy, but a FEMINIST might note that in another sense Farquhar and other men of his time had the power to enforce their fantasies on women, whom they expected to appear “fresh
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and cool and sweet” in order to satisfy male desires [MC]. The importance of this fantasy of feminine delicacy and subservience is suggested by the fact that it is literally the last thing Farquhar imagines before he dies [TB]. The fact that Farquhar owns a house with a “veranda” would be one more indication, to a MARXIST critic, of his privileged social status -- a status that is about to end quite abruptly [TB]. Meanwhile, a FORMALIST would appreciate many subtle details of the phrasing here, including the alliteration of “wide white walk” and the way each sensual adjective is separately emphasized by the “ands” of “fresh and cool and sweet” [CS2].
XXXVII. 6. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity.
A FEMINIST critic would note how Farquhar imagines his wife standing obediently at “the bottom of the steps,” as if she were some kind of house pet awaiting her master’s return. Mrs. Farquhar asks no questions about his absence but instead simple waits for him to take her in his arms. Farquhar clearly sees her as a kind of trophy he has won -- a reward for his supposedly successful escape. Her role, in his imagination, is to look beautiful and be completely passive [JC; AF; MK]. Is it safe to assume that Farquhar never consulted his wife about his foolish heroic plans? Would she have been able (or even willing) to oppose them even if he had consulted her, especially given the subordinate position of women at the time? [JC]
XXXVII. 7. Ah, how beautiful she is!A FEMINIST might note that Farquhar, instead of responding to his wife as a full human being, instead focuses simply on her physical attractiveness. Even at this crucial moment, his tendency is to see her as an object to be possessed [JC]. In one sense Farquhar’s wife symbolizes everything he finds appealing and attractive in his life; his desire to grasp her partly represents his desire to hold onto his existence [MC]. A PSYCHOANALYTIC critic might argue that here, as throughout section three, Farquhar is in the grip of fantasies generated by his irrational id. Indeed, in a sense Farquhar never really is forced to acknowledge that his fantasies are merely fictional; he dies without ever discovering or realizing the “truth,” although Bierce’s readers do experience such a revelation. In a sense it is the readers, rather than Farquhar, who are brought up short by the end of the tale [TB]. An ARCHETYPAL critic might argue that Farquhar’s natural human fear of death is so strong, and that his natural human desire for security is so powerful, that his fantasy of survival over-powers any “rational” understanding of his situation. Such a critic might contend that this story shows the enormous power of consoling myths [TB].
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XXXVII.8. He springs forward with extended arms.
Note how the words “springs” and “extended” suggest both his physical energy and his emotional fervor [MC]. Ironically, Farquhar’s arms cannot literally be “extended” at this moment since they are presumably still tied behind his back, nor can he literally “spring . . . forward” since his main motion at this point is down (and perhaps around). Thus the movements he imagines here are partly movements he might wish to make but cannot achieve [RCE]. A FORMALIST critic, interested in the complex unity of any text, would appreciate the skill with which Bierce has been able to build and sustain suspense in this story right up until its final moments. Such suspense suggests Bierce’s mastery of narrative craft [MFL].
XXXVII.9. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon ‑‑ then all is darkness and silence!
The image of the “blinding white light” that “blazes all about him” provides one last example of the circular imagery that Bierce uses so powerfully and ironically in this tale [LB], even as it also echoes and brings to a culmination all the story’s earlier references to “light” [MC]. The imagery here is almost an example of synaesthesia or the combination of sensations: it is as if Farquhar can almost hear the “sound” of “light” [TR]. Similarly, the reference here to “the shock of a cannon” reminds us, ironically, of the earlier cannon fire (XXX.2) Farquhar had miraculously seemed to escape. Now, however, his luck apparently changes [MC].
XXXVIII.1. Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
This is only the third time that the full name “Peyton Farquhar” is used in the story. The first time the full name was used was at the very beginning of the second section (VIII.1), when the name had helped introduce us to a fuller sense of the identity of the previously anonymous man. The second time the full name had been used, ironically, was at the very beginning of section three (XVIII.1), as Farquhar began his abrupt fall from the bridge. Now, appropriately enough, the last time the full name is used is when Farquhar’s entire existence comes to a sudden end. The use of his name here reminds us of his full identity just as that identity ends [MC]. The abruptness of the story’s ending contrasts effectively with the considerable detail of the entire preceding narrative. The abrupt end of the vivid description coincides, appropriately, with the abrupt ending of Farquhar’s thoughts, and the narrative now returns to the distanced, objective style with which it began [KO]. It also returns to the past tense (with the verb “was”)
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after having briefly wandered into the present tense just moments earlier. The sudden shift back to past helps emphasize the sudden shock of the ending [RCE]. Not only does Farquhar’s life suddenly end, but so do any romantic illusions we might have shared of his escape: Bierce brings both the reader and the protagonist up short [JC]. The fact that Peyton’s body swings “gently” contrasts with the harshness of his execution [ATH; NP]; ironically, the adverb “gently” is itself a bit shocking in this context and thus typifies Bierce’s skillful use of language [CS2]. There is some additional irony in the fact that Peyton has always imagined himself as a gentleman who upholds the values of a genteel culture [NP]. Although in some cultures the “owl” represents wisdom, in others it symbolizes darkness and death. Perhaps Bierce chose the setting of “Owl Creek bridge” to suggest the movement toward darkness and death [SD], as well as toward a kind of wisdom -- at least for the reader [RCE]. In any case, a FORMALIST critic, interested in the complex unity of a work, would appreciate the fact that this story returns at its very end to its very beginning by emphasizing once more its focus on the “bridge” itself [MG]. When the story opened, Farquhar had been standing on the bridge; as the story closes, he is now swinging “beneath” it. In the second section of the story, we learned that Farquhar hoped to destroy the bridge, but now we see that the bridge has destroyed Farquhar [LM2]. An ARISTOTELIAN critic would admire the skill with which Bierce unifies the story by bringing it to such a neatly ironic conclusion [MC]. The image of Farquhar swinging “beneath” makes him seem almost the pendulum of a clock. This imagery thus not only reminds us of the earlier emphasis on the ticking of his watch but also implies, one last time, the important theme of time [ED; TS]. In this final sentence of the story, we abruptly discover that Farquhar has been living a fantasy. Is this fact also relevant, perhaps, to his whole antebellum way of life? Was the whole existence of the Confederacy, and the social system on which it was based, a kind of existence that was doomed to end? In other words, is the destruction of Farquhar’s illusions relevant to the destroyed illusions of the culture he represents? [BB2]. A PLATONIC critic, concerned with the importance of accurately representing truth, might be disturbed by Bierce’s demonstration, in this tale, of how easy it is to make readers accept a fiction and believe in something that is untrue [TB; SW]. At the same time, a PLATONIC critic might appreciate the fact that in the story’s final sentence Bierce shatters all illusions and literally yanks us back to reality, forcing us to confront the truth [RH]. Meanwhile, an ARISTOTELIAN critic might appreciate the skill with which Bierce here employs many of the resources of the genre of short fiction: he wastes no words and achieves a powerful effect within a very limited space. In this work, at least, he demonstrates his mastery of the genre [TB]. A READER-RESPONSE critic might note that while some readers would find the ending of this story quite satisfying and deeply ironic, others might dismiss it as a mere literary trick. One’s response to this moment in the narrative, and indeed to the whole narrative itself, would thus depend less on any “objective” features of the story than on one’s own “subjective” reactions [TB].