War is a battle between nations. To engage in war means that people physically fight in combat and sacrificing their lives. The fact that war results in death causes individuals to have different perceptions and interpretations of war. One who actually battled in war will have a different perspective than one who has not. People also have different ideas about war. While some glorify the death and carnage of war, others romanticize war. An example can be seen in news programs when broadcasting the return of troops from battle. The different ideas and perceptions of war can also be observed in American literature, specifically in the short stories Editha and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Although both stories recount a life sacrificed in war, they both offer a unique interpretation of life and death, heroism, and the disillusions that come with its perception.
An author’s interpretation of war can be observed by understanding the climax of warfare during the era each story was written. The short story Editha was published in 1905 by William Dean Howell. The year 1905 was within a decade of the Spanish American War, a war that was debated among American’s about the direction of American government and imperialism (Baum). The main character, Editha, is a naive young woman with idealistic perceptions of love, war, and heroism. She romanticized the image of war through her love and courtship with her fiancé George, who she was eager to encourage into battle. However, she was so misguided by romanticism and idealism that she did not fathom nor consider the truth of death and sacrifice that entails war. On the contrary, author Ambrose Bierce interpreted war much differently in his story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Through the use of metaphors and sensory details, Bierce utilized the same sense of idealism and disillusion. The main character, Peyton Farquhar, is about to be executed, death by hanging from Owl Creek Bridge. He is being put to death by the Union Army for attempting to burn the bridge and aid Confederate Soldiers during the Civil War. Although he refused to take arms and become a soldier, he was noosed and dropped from the bridge for his actions and interference of war and combat. During the fall to his death, he was able to escape momentarily, breaking free and returning to his home and family. Although these two stories are different in terms of plot, writing style and technique, they both interpreted war utilizing perceptions of idealism and heroism.
During the first part of the story, George, the fiancé of Editha, is observed being pressured and encouraged into battle by the women he intends to marry. “A deeply moral man who once considered being a minister and is now a lawyer, George may also be deeply suspicious of the reasons for the war with Spain” (Baum). George explains that his father “came home with misgivings” after losing an arm in the Civil War and his mother “brought me up to think war a fool thing as well as a bad thing” (Howell). This upbringing causes him to be apprehensive towards war and combat. However, through idealism and heroism, first encouraged by Editha and then his peers, George changes his perception and interpretation of war and battle. Edita “created a situation in which George could … deserve her love and admiration” (Baum). Initially, George viewed war as “to break the peace of the world” (Howell). However, after the encouragements of Editha he states, “a man that hasn’t got his own respect intact wants the respect of all the other people he can corner” (Howell). As a result he romanticizes war, finding heroism in his enlistment through his love for Editha.
In the story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek, Farquhar chooses not to fight in the Civil War and his reasoning for this is unknown. Described as a “gentlemen”, Farquhar is a slave owner in the planting business and works in politics. Literary scholar, Strack, suggest that his background gave Farquhar even more reason to enlist in combat and battle. Instead, he chooses not to fight and as a result finds himself awaiting execution from the bridge he was attempting to burn. One might consider him a coward for not joining the Confederate Army, especially considering that he was tricked and encouraged to burn the bridge by the Union Army. Incidentally, it is Farquhar’s heroism that is the cause of his execution. “Farquhar thus adopts the stock portrait of the chivalrous southern soldier, the fearless patriot who, dwelling faithfully on wife and children, faces death and stoic endurance—and he rewards himself with a perilous escape” (Baybrook). A healthy man who did not enlist in the Army, he chooses his own battle seeking a heroic moment. “He chafed under the inglorious restraint, longing for the release of his energies, the larger life of the soldier, the opportunity for distinction” (Bierce). He wants to fight in war without sacrificing his life in battle; Farquhar is looking for an easy way out and instead finds himself facing death.
Both characters sought after heroism associated with war. However, it is the need for heroism that caused George and Farquhar to fall victim to war. George died to prove himself heroic for love, while Farquhar attempts heroism without joining forces in battle. Despite these similarities, the two men are vastly different. Farquhar sought heroism and found himself, instead, an anti-hero. To be considered a hero in war, one must first join the Army and Farquhar did not do this. Another reason Farquhar is an anti-hero is because he did not meet his objective- to burn the bridge and assist the Confederate Army. The irony of this revelation is seen when he observes, “a piece of dancing driftwood” that is caught in the current below his feet where he is due to hang. The driftwood is symbolic in his defeat and is also the turning point of the story. It is in this driftwood that Farquhar attempts to be heroic once again. Farquhar becomes disillusioned in fantasy about escape from his death and home with his wife. On the other hand in Editha, George is without a family and joins the war for love. He joins not for love of his country but for love of his fiancé. Patriotism, romanticism, and chivalry were popular during the turn of the 20th century. Editha believed in the liberty and virtues of America and approved of any battle enlisted by the county, “she had believed in war from the beginning” (Howell). Although George had previous perceptions about the Spanish American War, he fought in combat for the sake of heroism. Heroism in both these stories is a fundamental and intricate part of war. However, neither Farquhar nor Editha are realistic, considering the consequences of war- death.
Idealism can be observed in both stories; Editha idealizes war and heroism, while Farquhar idealizes a possible escape. Both characters are misguided by their imagination and perceptions. Farquhar, upon looking at the wood adrift in the river, begins to imagine himself surviving his execution. “Unconceptual metaphors…are subtly incorporated, causing metaphorical time to make in two spatial directions, both across the bridge as the protagonist moves on his life journey toward his impending death and down the river into an imagined future” (Strack). However, idealism is what attracts the audience. Unlike in Editha, Farquhar is viewed less as a protagonist and more as a victim and the reader wants to make him a hero despite his stupidity and arrogance. On the other hand, in Editha, the audience is dumbfounded by the main characters naivety. She is described as being “blinded [by] idealism and nationalism” (Baum). Editha idealizes America and view the country as an extension of herself stating, “there is no honor above America with me”. For George to prove his honor and loyalty to her, he must participate in war and fight for the honor and integrity of the country. She is not only caught in the moment of romance and heroism she is disillusioned about the truth of war. She does not associate war with death, only wanting to view George as a hero and not as a martyr. Editha remains steadfast in this idealism despite her mother considering it “wicked” and George thinking it “bad”.
Editha and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge demonstrates that different thoughts, perceptions, and interpretations of war. War will always remain an important matter in society. It should not be taken lightly as people continue to sacrifice their lives for their country. Editha caused George to sacrifice his life for a war that was questionable. This was observed as the story was, “particularly successful as a largely monological or didactic narrative of Editha, a 3rd person participating narrator” (Baum). The dialogue suggests a conversation or discussion about war, nature, and society, implying the thoughts and questions that arose from the public about the Spanish American War. In An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, the author utilizes metaphors to tell the story of Farquhar, the bridge symbolizing the transition between life and death and the river symbolizing his journey or escape. The metaphors represented throughout the story demonstrate the literary style of Bierce, how he is able to make an anti-hero from a “character of a civilian who was at heart a solider” (Bierce). It is suggested that Bierce too questioned war, combat, and power as scholars called the story, “Bierce’s most concentrated realism, unmaking the vain glory and personal arrogance of a romantic culture” (Baum). Both Farquhar and George found themselves dead as a result of war, while both entered for the sake of heroism. Each writer depicted a story about war, creating characters that showcase the authors’ ideas and perceptions. However, each story did not escape the references of a hero and although uniquely different, both stories end with a life lost.
Baum, R. (2004). Editha. In S. Deats, L. Lenker & M. Perry (Eds.), War and Words: Horror and Heroism in the Literature of Warfare Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=v-mkw-NBGbAC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0
Baybrook, L. (2005). Dancing driftwood in “an occurrence on owl creek bridge”. The ABP Journal, 1(1), Retrieved from http://www.ambrosebierce.org/journal1baybrook.html
Bierce, A. (1984). An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, ed. Ernest J. Hopkins. Retrieved from http://fiction.eserver.org/short/occurrence_at_owl_creek.html
Howell, W. D. (1905). Editha. New York, NY: New York Harper and Brother. Retrieved from http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/howells/editha.htm
Strack, D. (2007). When the path of life crosses the river of time: Multivalent bridge metaphor in literary context. In Department of Comparative Culture. Retrieved from https://www.kitakyu-u.ac.jp/_lib/monograph/human/files/bh007201ds.pdf