Linguistic and Narrative Cohesion in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
The reader's bewilderment at the end of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is less a result of Peyton Farquhar's death than the timely coordination of this man's violent execution with the reader's sudden realization that instead of a detached objective reading he has been cajoled into a subjective experience (Ames 53). The reader is able to cross over into the consciousness of the protagonist at the moment when experience ends because of the story's cohesion and coherence. A focused examination of specific passages and themes in each of the story's sections demonstrates how Bierce satisfies the ...view middle of the document...
Because the reader's linguistic and thematic expectations are being met, the desire to make the dream a reality is strong and the reader becomes so immersed in the story that he forgets that content is a function of technique. As a consequence, the account in the third segment seems reasonable, even though it is presented by an unreliable narrator.
The reader is conditioned from the start as the narrator offers concrete, matter-of-fact details that are logically constructed yet do not record connected actions. These sentences contain known-new contracts that build the reader's perception of the setting and interest in the antecedent action:
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 (Charters, Introduction 74).
In the first sentence the reader is made acquainted to a man standing on a bridge looking down at the water below him. This subject is related to the subject of the second sentence, The man's hands, which is in a known-new contract with the predicate were behind his back. A parallel structure within the sentence furthers the cohesion of Bierce's style: The man's hands behind his back is a main clause thematically parallel to its irregular participial phrase the wrists bound with a cord. The subject of the third sentence, A rope, contracts thematically with the cord of the previous sentence, and a known-new contract follows with the subject-predicate in the next sentence: It refers to the rope, and was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head is a predicate providing more information about It.
The narrator's limited perspective is precisely defined by these known-new contracts. Returning to the condemned man in the third paragraph, for example, the narrator tells the reader that "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 dress . . ." (74). These lines contract the subject-predicates in the first and third paragraphs. They also provide evidence to support the subject of a larger contract between the narrator and the reader's opinion of his reliability. The word apparently and the phrase if one might judge from his habit suggest that the narrator is being careful to report the story without his personal opinion. Further, the narrator uses the past-tense in the first section to provide an understood historical known that is made to contract with the present-tense of section two. The reader can then experience the activity of section two as believable because it is in present-tense and because the reader is conditioned to contract this psychological reality with objective reality (Linkin 141). The matter-of-fact, past-tense narration of the first segment is also in...