Creative Play and the Temporality of the Reading Experience

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) by Ambrose Bierce is of interest for those who wish to consider the temporality of the reading experience. What is meant by connecting temporality with the reading experience you may ask? The answer lies in the inevitability of linear time as a reader works through the pages of a text; however, just because time is moving forward for the reader, this does not mean that comprehension of the text will always unfold in a linear, uniform manner. The creative play sometimes exerted by an author can cause disruptions in the interpretive process, forcing readers to reevaluate their understanding of a story, and compromising the notion of a linear, forward-moving comprehension of a text.

Owl Creek

Part one of Bierce’s short story, for example, is pure description of a scene. Amid the description, death is suddenly personified, signalling to the reader that the thematic material is much in line with the descriptive activity, that a man is about to be hanged: “Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect…” Interpretation at this point is virtually automatic and simple.

When it is learned that the “sergeant stepped aside,” this is an elliptical way of saying that the man occupying the focal point of description, the man in the hangman’s noose, has been hung, suggesting that he is effectively dead. The moment not only functions to advance the plot, but because it is an action, it creates the effect that time is moving forward, situating the reader’s understanding.

Part two goes directly into describing an individual who was a citizen and planter of the Confederate South, Peyton Farquhar. That the man who was hung was a planter, as is Peyton, the conclusion is that the two are one in the same. The narrative tells us that Peyton is the type of person who was willing to serve the South as a civilian, and a scene unfolds in which this nature is played on by a Union soldier in disguise. In narrative terms, the scene is a moment in the past and yet, for the reader, it does not disrupt the forward flow of the narration; it simply provides information that contributes to the comprehension of the plot.

In part three the interpretive scheme is altered. According to Bierce’s creative play as a writer, Peyton is, in fact, not dead; he only “lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened—ages later, it seemed to him…” From this information it would seem that the temporality of the reading experience is still relatively in tact in a linear form. Though the reader has to make an interpretive adjustment, the sequence still follows, that the sergeant moved from the plank so that Peyton was hung, yet the hanging apparently did not kill him. However, Bierce’s continued use of creative play further complicates the reading experience. Matters as they ensue for Peyton involve things that “seemed” and “appeared” to occur. Such language produces equivocation, forcing the reader to think more carefully about the events as they unfold.

When it is learned that “the rope had broken and he had fallen into the stream,” the semblance of linear reading comprehension resumes stability. As the reader learns of Peyton struggling to reach for air and finally coming to gain his senses, this stability is only slightly weakened when his senses “record of things never before perceived.” Bierce’s creative play fuses reliability with suggestion to provoke the need for investment into his story, by posing the hypothetical question: Why is Peyton perceiving things like never before? The question lingers as we learn that the soldiers are firing their guns. Narrative stability is retained amid the suspense that is Peyton’s chance for escape; one interpretive scheme at this point could merely be, that Peyton’s brush with death and following excitement is causing a sensory overload for him. This is to suggest that for the reader, the temporality of the reading experience is still grounded in a steady interpretation of the plot: Peyton Farquhar is a civilian planter of the south during the era of the American Civil War, who was framed by the Union into thinking he could be of service to the Confederacy. He was caught and subsequently hanged, and this is potentially the story of his lucky break. What remains to be seen is how the situation will end.

The narrative follows Peyton as he escapes gun and cannon fire by water until he reaches safety. His walk through the forest leads him inevitably to his home, though the reader might be curious by the fact that Peyton is baffled, because of his difficulty with the memory of his homeland. The narrative ultimately stretches the credulity of the reader as Peyton, who walks in skepticism of the lightness of his footsteps, encounters his wife who is ready to embrace him in somewhat of a melodramatic manner. As he reaches for her, he experiences a blow to the neck and visualizes a “blinding white light.”

In the final lines of the narration the reader is told point blank, that Peyton is still hanging from his neck at the bridge. With this information the temporality of the reading experience becomes utterly compromised. What was thought was not as it appeared, forcing the reader to go back over the narrative and retrace the steps of the plot, provided the reader is invested in learning how it transformed as it did. The culmination of Bierce’s creative tactics, in this manner, have rendered it necessary for the reader to participate in a proactive way; Bierce’s use of varying linguistic and rhetorical strategies created the illusion that a simple narrative was unfolding when in fact, the matter was actually a bit more complicated.