An Arrest, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and The Affair

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For this assignment I will be looking at three of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories, ‘An Arrest’, ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ and ‘The Affair at Coulters Notch’. In ‘An Arrest’ a man escapes from jail only to be captured and taken back to his cell by a ghost, In ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, a man is captured and is waiting to be hung on a bridge and as he is dying he imagines himself escaping only to die as he runs to embrace his wife.

The Affair at Coulters Notch’ is about a Southerner fighting for the North in the Civil War, the General of his army doesn’t like him and orders him to fire a gun at the enemy, but the target happens to be his own home and Coulter fires the gun without question and kills his family. All three stories are about death and two of them are about the American Civil war. Bierce experienced a lot of unhappiness in his own personal life and may be why many of his stories are about death and bloodshed. ‘An Arrest’ is typical of Bierce’s work in its approach, subject matter and brevity.

Bierce also fought in the civil war himself so he knows what the war was like and he is clearly against the idea of war in his writing. I think that the story with the best introduction would be ‘The Affair at Coulters Notch’. ‘An Arrest’ starts of with a very calm tone and doesn’t really grab your attention whereas ‘The Affair at Coulters Notch’ puts you straight into the action with dialogue. The two men are talking about where to place a gun and this gets you interested, and you want to read on to see what they do with the gun.

Because ‘An Arrest’ is quite a bit shorter than ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, Bierce uses a slow start so he can build up the suspense to a climax, he even uses the title of the story to do this, words like ‘An Occurrence’, ‘The Affair’ or ‘An Arrest’ don’t give much away are very general words, they also make it sound unimportant and in war death doesn’t always seem important. He doesn’t want us to be able to predict the storyline so he tries not to give too much away. Bierce also uses the plot very cleverly to build up the suspense and the complication in the stories.

He lets us think that Farquhar is going to be hanged in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge at first and then he makes us think Farquhar is escaping by showing us Farquhar’s dream of running to his family and at the end we find out it was all a dream and he is now dead. This provides a good twist to the end of the story and is a very interesting scene. In ‘An Arrest’ Bierce shows a good ability to create very interesting and tense scenes, he writes, “the night was pretty dark” and that Brower “had the folly to enter a forest”. A forest on a dark night is quite a spooky setting and this adds to the build up of tension and fear in the story.

When Brower emerges from the forest on to an old road he can see, indistinctly “the figure of a man, motionless in the gloom. ” The figure is ‘motionless’ and this stillness adds to the tension. Then the “embodiment of law lift an arm and point significantly toward and beyond him. ” Here, Bierce is not giving much detail and is leaving parts to our own imagination and we create fear in our own minds. A shadowy figure of a man is more frightening than when you can see some one clearly and Brower doesn’t know who he is dealing with, but despite not knowing who the man is Brower follows his order because he is in such fear.

Brower does dare to look at his captor once and sees that it is Burton Duff, the jailer that he knocked out, and Duff looks ‘as white as death’, I think that this is a small clue to the ending but not enough to give it away. Towards the end of the story the sentences become shorter and this speeds up the story and is building up to the climax, the story then ends very suddenly, with the last line saying, ‘On a table in the corridor lay the dead body of Burton Duff. ‘ This comes as a shock and we realize that it was his ghost that directed Brower to the jail.

Bierce portrays an anti-war theme in his stories, in ‘The Affair at Coulters Notch’ he tells a very horrific and tragic story of how a man kills his own family in his home for his army, Bierce knows first hand what war is like and he is trying to get across the message that things like this happen in war and we shouldn’t fight. The stories are told from a variety of narrative viewpoints, in ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, most of the story is told by a third person narrative but it switches to Farquhar himself telling the story through his eyes after he is throw off the bridge.

In ‘The Affair at Coulters Notch’ we do not get to see Coulters view because then we would know that the general is asking him to fire on his own house and this would ruin the story. Bierce uses characterization to build up the stories; he portrays Orrin Brower as a cool, calm and collected criminal in ‘An Arrest’ by telling us that “Brower was as courageous a criminal as ever lived” and that “he had coolly killed his brother in law” but shows us how scared Brower got when confronted by the mysterious figure.

In ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, Bierce makes Peyton Farquhar out to be a family man, “He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children” and he tells us that he was a civilian. He flees across country until he finally reaches home and as he approaches his open armed wife… the rope snaps tight and we realize that he had imagined the whole episode on his way down and that it only happened in Farquhar’s mind. Bierce is showing us how innocent men can die for no reason.

Bierce shows us how eager Farquhar is to see his family and this makes us hope he is going to escape and get to his family and this gets us involved in the story and enthralled by it. In “The Affair At Coulters Notch”, Bierce makes us dislike the General because the General is sarcastic about Coulter, he calls him “brave Coulter”, and he forces him to do something that Coulter doesn’t want to do, we don’t find out to the end how terrible the act is and this makes us dislike him even more.

The General makes Coulter think he has to fire the gun to prove his allegiance but he is really only doing it because he dislikes Coulter, this is a form of bullying. The General’s actions make us feel sorry for Captain Coulter and we grow to like him more when we realize how brave he was and what he had done for his army almost without question. From all the stories my favorite would be “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” because I think this is the best example of Ambrose Bierce’s writing skills.

He creates the character of Peyton Farquhar very well and provides a huge twist at the end of story; some people would have a dislike to the ending and would think that they have been cheated. I think that this was the point Bierce was trying to make. He no doubt felt cheated by life, and I suspect he was suggesting that most of us are cheated by life at some stage. We have these delusions that we will find happiness, love, and caring, and just as we seem to approach it, we find ourselves at the end of a rope.

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