Sunday, February 28, 2010

In a Flash

Have you ever heard the expression "when someone dies they will see their life flash before their eyes"? An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is another take on such an idea. Written by Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a short story about a farmer named named Mr. Farquhar who owned slaves and was therefore a politician. He believed in the Southern cause. One day a soldier came to his doorstep asking for water. While there the soldier told him about an encampment of soldiers from the north. Luring Mr. Farquhar to Owl Creek Bridge with the idea that it could be easily burned down, he is captured and to be hung.

The story picks up with Peyton Farquhar about to be hung and utilizing a flashback tells the tale. Peyton is characterized as a planter of roughly thirty five years of age. He had strong features, "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-fitted frock coat. He worse a mustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark grey and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in hemp." It is then said that even gentlemen are not excluded from a hanging. From the description alone, this is not the man you expect to see hung. He is handsome and strong, young, and set in his positions; and yet he is about to die.

Bierce believed that telling a story as close to death as possible allowed for an intimate look into a character. Shan-Yu (also known as Xiang Yu) was a great Chinese general. He fought many wars and was successful in wiping out the Qin Dynasty in China. He wrote many teaching on war; one of them teaches that a person's true self is revealed while in pain, at the edge of death. This idea, while it applied to war, also applied to writings. Bierce felt that a person can be fully explored in that moment before death. Peyton Farquhar is explored as a man. In life he may have been a strong man fighting for his rights, but in death he sought only life; to see his family.

We are given a scene in which Peyton falls into the creek bellow, his rope has snapped. He struggles and grasps for air and almost gives in to the cold comfort. In the water, he loses all intellectual faculties and is left only with feeling. It is first described that "feeling was torment." Then everything fades to black as he begins to feel the slow comfort of his death. Water is kept out of his lungs by the noose around his neck. As he began to rise in the water again he begins to think "to be hanged and drowned, ... that is not so bad" as be began to give into the comfort. It was not Peyton who saved himself, it was his instincts. Without being aware of it, he realizes, due to a sharp pain in his wrist, that he is forcing off the rope off of his hands. Upon removing the noose, all of his senses scream to "put it back, put it back!" Peyton Farquhar was alive, but not by his minds command. This image of a man fighting with himself over life and death shows that the desire for life, the will to live, is more than a person's conscious decision, but something that is innate.

Peyton's entire run, he continues to question his escape. When the first shot goes off, he believes he can see the eye of the sniper through his scope. The man has grey eyes, which Peyton describes as the eyes of a man who does not miss. He brushes this thought aside and continues to swim down stream. Finally he is caught in a vortex and is flung to shore; everything begins to blur until he is once again stabilized by land. He then begins the arduous trek back to his home where he sees his daughter and wife, but just before he has taken hold, Peyton Farquhar returns from his flash and dies at the noose.

Peyton was a man who only wished to return to his family again, to feel their sweet embrace; and this is the possibility that flashes before his eyes at his death. What kind of man does this make him? Is he human for desiring? Is he wrong to not wish their wellbeing over his own?