It seems that as long as man has interacted with its surroundings, the will to live and the coping of death has been a major factor in human psychology. This struggle is simply exemplified by Ambrose Bierce in the short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Peyton Farquhar, the protagonist of the story is full of internal conflict, the struggle between life and death. The will to live and the fear of death propels the reader to dive into Farquhar’s imagination using vivid imagery, emotional verisimilitude and the implications of his final moments as he copes with his imminent fate.
The central conflict develops as Bierce begins to describe the situation at hand. Farquhar is a traitor and is being hung at Owl Creek Bridge. As Bierce describes the situation, Farquhar is hung, however on his descent to death, the rope breaks. Farquhar falls into the river and his struggle to survive begins as he flees the scene while being shot at by union soldiers. As we find out at the end, Farquhar copes with his fear of death by imagining himself living, and essentially escaping.
Bierce’s portrayal of Farquhar’s imagination allows him to escape the reality of his situation, even if it is only for a few brief seconds. The author clearly illustrates the scene at hand saying; “Farquhar imagined swimming vigorously with the current in order to escape the gunshots of the soldiers to run back to his home to see his wife and children. Farquhar’s imagination illustrates the conflict of life and death because by imagining his escape he is essentially replacing reality in his mind, and therefore the situation doesn’t happen, this is how he copes with his immanent demise. In addition to this, the reader has yet to find out that he imagines this. Bierce writes in such a way that to the reader this is reality, strengthening the connection of reality in Farquhar’s mind as in the readers. However Bierce eludes to this imaginative anecdotal type scene saying, “had fallen asleep while walking, for now he sees another scene – perhaps he has merely recovered from a delirium.” The eluding fact of this scene shows that perhaps Farquhar is imagining it, being in a delirious state of mind would help him or anyone for that matter cope with the fear of death.
Vivid imagery and use of vernacular play an important role in describing the central conflict. Bierce describes emotional scenes that would resonate with anyone who could sympathize with Farquhar. Bierce uses phrases such as, “ pound upon the noose at his neck” to prevent himself from choking, and words like,” splendid”, “magnificent” and “superhuman” to describe Farquhar’s struggle to free himself from the noose. In addition Bierce uses a powerful word to describe Farquhar’s escape down the river, ”vigorous,” showing that Farquhar’s will to live far out weighs his willingness to submit to death.
Bierce also uses situations to connect the reader to the protagonist. When Farquhar makes it home to see his wife, the author uses powerful phrases like, “a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace” to express the elatedness of Farquhar. Similarly, mere sentences later Bierce writes “darkness and silence,” which is reality setting in that death is upon him, and that his imagination is not able to prolong his situation for forever. These polar opposite phrases contribute to describing the central conflict of the struggle between life and death. Using this technique is Bierce’s way of adding fuel the fire that is the central conflict.
The implications of death come to and end in the last paragraph where we are sent back to when Farquhar is about to be hanged. This reveals that it was his imagination. Bierce allows the reader to ponder the situation throughout the story, alluding to the fact that it is in fact Farquhar’s imagination, however the reader is never truly sure. The author then finally puts the final nail in the coffin when he describes the scene of Farquhar’s death. The author uses this technique to clearly illustrate the central conflict he works so hard to portray. The conflict is then finally resolved, Farquhar is dead, hanging above the river.
Bierce uses vivid imagery, emotional verisimilitude, and the implication of the situation at hand to fuel his central conflict of the story. The author sets up the conflict of life and death of Peyton Farquhar who is about to be hanged. He portrays the central conflict of life and death by allowing Farquhar to imagine himself surviving and not dying, however the conflict is resolved when Bierce allows reality to kick in and Farquhar subsequently is hung.