Short Stories - Mercer Island School District

Short Stories
(after Huck Finn, before Gatsby =
Naturalism, Realism, Female Voices)
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Ambrose Bierce ~ 1842 - 1913
Study Questions/Essays (C.G)
Do you sympathize with Farquhar? Explain your answer.
Read a short biography of author Bierce. Then explain to what extent Bierce drew upon his own
experiences when he wrote "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."
Did the Union forces have a right to hang Farquhar without first trying him in a court of law?
Write and essay that compares and contrasts "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" with Edgar Allan
Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." (Click here for the Poe study guide.) Point out the similarities and
differences in the methods the authors use to tell their stories.
Write an essay that comments on the impact of the sight and sound imagery in the story. Click here
for background information.
Bierce tells almost all of the story in the past tense. However, he writes Sentences 2 through 8 of
the second-to-last paragraph of the story in the present tense. Why?
The last sentence of Part III, Paragraph 19, states: "The wood on either side was full of singular
noises, among which–once, twice, and again–he distinctly heard whispers in an unknown tongue."
Are these the voices of slaves, whose subhuman existence he could never understand because it
was like a foreign language to him? Or do the voices represent someone, or something, else?
Bierce points out in his narration that the Owl Creek bridge runs from north to south (or from south
to north). Since Peyton Farquhar, a slaveowner, is to be hanged from the bridge, does it thus
symbolize the central issue dividing the North and the South?
Were there antislavery movements in the South? Were there proslavery movements in the North?
Write an essay that informs the reader about both questions.
• Learning Goals:
• Students will demonstrate their understanding of:
• how authors develop suspense through arrangement,
foreshadowing, allusion, rising action, and the
manipulation of readers’ perceptions of the protagonist;
• how readers can discern an author’s point of view by
examining motifs: diction, imagery and plot elements;
• how authors can manipulate time;
• how authors can use imagery along with plot elements as
means of foreshadowing;
• why archaic word connotations should not be overlooked;
• how to identify key words in writing prompts.
In Groups of Three-Four
• What do you think Bierce was trying to say
with this story?
• Go back through the story. Describe how the it
reads differently the second time. Discuss
whether or not there were “signs” in the
General Grant’s Reference to Owl Creek
the Battle of Shiloh (southern Tennessee, April 1862), General Ulysses S. Grant
marched his Union forces south into Mississippi on his way to Vicksburg, a
strategically important Mississippi River city. At Corinth–a northeastern Mississippi
town just south of the Tennessee border and just east of the Alabama border–
Grant and General William Starke Rosecrans repulsed a Confederate attack while
solidifying control of the town, an important railroad center. In Chapter 26 of his
memoirs of 1885 and 1886, Grant refers to Corinth and Owl Creek. (In his short
story, Bierce also refers to the Battle of Corinth–and, of course, to Owl Creek.)
Here is the passage written by Grant:
Preparations were at once made upon the arrival of the new commander for an
advance on Corinth. Owl Creek, on our right, was bridged, and expeditions were
sent to the north-west and west to ascertain if our position was being threatened
from those quarters; the roads towards Corinth were corduroyed and new ones
made; lateral roads were also constructed, so that in case of necessity troops
marching by different routes could reinforce each other. All commanders were
cautioned against bringing on an engagement and informed in so many words that
it would be better to retreat than to fight. By the 30th of April all preparations
were complete; the country west to the Mobile and Ohio railroad had been
reconnoitred, as well as the road to Corinth as far as Monterey twelve miles from
Pittsburg. Everywhere small bodies of the enemy had been encountered, but they
were observers and not in force to fight battles.
Whether the Mississippi Owl Creek is the same Owl Creek over which the railroad
bridge passes in northern Alabama is uncertain. However, because Corinth is only
a short distance from the Alabama border, it may well be that Owl Creek ran east
from Mississippi into Alabama.
Time Period: Civil War – turn of the century (+/1860 – 1890)
Definition: A faithful representation of reality
Inspiration: A renewed interest in scientific
method, a systematic study of documenting
history, and an influence of rational philosophy
Literary Context: Reaction against Romanticism
Time Period: +/- 1880s – 1940s
Definition: seeking to depict life as accurately as
possible, without artificial distortions of
emotion, idealism, and literary convention.
Inspiration: Realism + Darwin, Marx, Freud;
growth of U.S. population and urban dwelling;
Unchecked Capitalism; Photography
Literary Context: Overlaps with, and is an
outgrowth of Realism
Matthew Brady’s images
Matthew Brady Photographs
Naturalism Specifically
• Humanity is a higher order animal whose character and
behavior are, as M. H. Abrams summarizes, entirely
determined by two kinds of forces, hereditary and
environment (these refer to nature, social and economic
• Human beings do not have souls or any mode of
participating in a religious or spiritual world beyond the
biological realm of nature (any such attempts are acts of
self-delusion and wish-fulfillment. )
• The individual's compulsive instincts toward sexuality,
hunger, and accumulation of goods are inherited via
genetic compulsion and the social and economic forces
surrounding his or her upbringing.
Annotative Groups for
“The Open Boat”
Group one = The Captain
Group two = The Oiler
Group three = The Cook
Group four = The Correspondent
Group five = Color usage
Group six = The sea
Group seven = Brotherhood
Group eight = Point of View of Author shifts
Naturalism defined by others
Unlike realism, which focuses on literary
technique, naturalism implies a philosophical
position: for naturalistic writers, since human
beings are, in Emile Zola's phrase, "human
beasts," characters can be studied through their
relationships to their surroundings.
Naturalism defined by others
• Eric Sundquist comments, "Reveling in the
extraordinary, the excessive, and the
grotesque in order to reveal the immutable
bestiality of Man in Nature, naturalism
dramatizes the loss of individuality at a
physiological level by making a Calvinism
without God its determining order and violent
death its utopia" (13).
Charlotte Perkins Quote (#2)
It is the duty of youth to bring fresh
new powers to bear on Social
progress. Each generation of young
people should be to the world like a
vast reserve force to a tired army.
They should life the world forward.
That is what they are for.
Charlotte Perkins Quote
• It is not that women are really smallerminded, weaker-minded, more timid and
vacillating, but that whosoever, man or woman,
lives always in a small, dark place, is always
guarded, protected, directed and restrained, will
become inevitably narrowed and weakened by
it. The woman is narrowed by the home and the
man is narrowed by the woman.