An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

In the 1970’s I was enthralled by a television production of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”

The film was very faithful to the short story. A man is about to be hanged, but as he drops, the rope breaks, he falls into the creek below, and escapes. He is delirious with joy that such good fortune has come upon him and that he has been granted and extension to life, and freedom, to enjoy the simple things which surround him, the sunlight, air, leaves, water. But suddenly, we are back at the gallows, and we see a lifeless body hanging from the noose. We realize that the entire story was simply the condemned man’s imagination and wish fulfillment during the brief moment of his descent to the end of the rope.

To be certain, it is the surprise of the ending which comprises much of the power of the story. Were this story to begin with an exclamation that a man was condemned to death and was hanged, but in the moments before death, he experiences a fantasy, an illusion, which seems to endure for 30 minutes rather than one second, well… the surprise ending would be gone and the story would lose much of its charm.

The point of view is the condemned man’s subjective point of view, his fantasy, which for him and for us becomes a reality until we awaken to the fact that he actually dies and it is only a fantasy, a dream.

The plot relies on our ignorance of the true ending. Perhaps one might say that the theme is the wonder of each moment of existence, and how precious each moment becomes for us once we are truly conscious of how finite and limited and numbered our moments really are.

But, we must ask ourselves how it can be in any practical sense that anyone would know the prolonged fantasy of this man in the moment prior to his death. He certainly cannot narrate this for us as he falls, and he is even less capable of communicating anything once his neck has snapped. This simple fact makes it very obvious that it is solely the point of view of the victim, as far as the story is concerned, and it is purely the conjecture of the author as to what the victim might have experienced as far as we are concerned.

I suppose we might spend some time discussing the title of the story, “An OCCURENCE at Owl Creek Bridge.”

Everything that happens may be said to “occur.” If a fly falls into the farmer’s milk pail in the barn, it is an occurrence. If the farmer’s wife feeds the milk to her baby and the baby ingests the fly, it is an occurrence. If the farmer SAW the fly fall into the milk and chose to leave it there, it is an occurrence. If the farmer had the premeditated thought of playing a prank upon his wife by giving her milk with a fly in it, it is an occurrence. If the farmer’s prank backfires because then wife unknowingly feeds the milk to the baby and the baby becomes ill and dies, it is an occurrence. If the farmer confesses his secret guilt to a minister who secretly covets the farmer’s wife, and the minister arranges for the farmer’s wife to learn the truth, but the farmer’s wife, in her rage, smashes her husband’s head open with an axe, and is tried and hanged for murder, well, you get my point, these are all occurrences.

An insect falling into a bucket, as an occurrence by itself, is hardly worthy of note. The fate of the insect is too insignificant to be termed an occurrence. A Greek tragedy of epic proportions such as the farmer’s folly, combined with the minister’s lust and a wife’s murderous rage, is far too great to be called simply “an occurrence.” Hence, when we single out something with the word “occurrence” is something neither too small nor too great.

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