by Michael Hall
Read the short story
Ambrose Bierce’s, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, is a story in which the protagonist’s sense of time is distorted in relation to that of the readers due to the trauma of the extreme circumstances he is experiencing. Bierce uses the literary technique of situational irony, which is when there is a contradiction between what the characters and also the readers expect to happen in a story, or believe is true, and what actually does happen or is shown to be true. It is not until the end of the story that both the protagonist and the reader realize that Peyton did not escape the execution, but in truth was falling to his death. The objective point of view of the third-person narration, which happened to be a limited omniscient account, which means that the narrator only knew the mind of one character, also made it easier for the reader to fall into this trap as we are seeing the story only in relation to him.
By using the Psychological Criticism method of literary criticism, we find that Bierce intends to show the reader that time is subjective and relative to the observer, especially during times of extreme suffering and pain. We easily fall into this trap as the third act actually takes place in only the few seconds of his free fall. The first clues to this time distortion occur in the first act when we see Peyton refer to the “swift water” beneath him as a “sluggish stream” (150-51). Relative to us the water would be swift, but Peyton on the other hand sees things a bit differently. Shortly thereafter, we see this distortion with the chimes of his watch in which the sounds’ “recurrence was regular,” but at the same time the silence in between the chimes “grew progressively longer” (151). At this point, the reader needs to understand that the narrator’s sense of time is unreliable in relation to the way the reader views time.