Literary Criticism on “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”

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ENGL 102H, Spring, 2016 Readings for Exam 1: Short Fiction.

Dr. Harnett

  1. Literary Criticism on “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Excerpt from Stoicheff, Peter. "'Something Uncanny': The Dream Structure in Ambrose Bierce's 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'." Studies in Short Fiction 30.3 (Summer 1993): 349-357. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Joseph Palmisano. Vol. 72. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.

At the beginning of his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud surveys Maury's explanation of dreams as triggered by objective phenomena. Though he does not discount the importance of external stimuli as dream generators, Freud disputes their status as the unique source of dreams, and points out that the crucial questions of why "the dreaming mind misjudges the nature of the objective sensory stimulus" (22), and why a single stimulus like an alarm clock can generate varying dream responses on different occasions, remain unanswered. The external stimulus, he writes, is "the layman's" most familiar explanation of dreams, but scientific investigation must go further, to consider why "the stimulus influencing the senses during sleep does not appear in the dream at all in its true form, but is replaced by some other presentation which is in some way related to it" (21). In other words, the objective sensory stimulus "plays only a modest part as a dream source," and most likely "other factors determine the choice of the memory picture to be evoked" (23).

The remainder of The Interpretation of Dreams explores this speculation, eventually defining the dream as "the (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed, repressed) wish" (136), the result of a powerful "censor" that disfigures the inadmissible "latent content" of the dream (drawn from the individual's psychic life, not from external stimuli) into the more palatable "manifest content" that is the registered and remembered dream. Understanding the principles (what Freud famously calls "the dream-work") by which this disfigurement operates ("condensation," "displacement," and "representability" or "dramatization") permits a return to the latent content; and, more profoundly for Freud, it thereby exposes the otherwise hidden unconscious and the mysterious censors obscuring it.
At first glance, Farquhar's wish is not the kind that necessarily requires repression, for there is nothing inadmissible about the desire to escape death--unless that desire were deemed dishonorable, a qualification that clearly does have bearing on the situation in this story, whose protagonist longs for "the larger life of the soldier" (32). Thus the breathless rhetoric of heroism ("What splendid effort!--what magnificent, what superhuman strength! Ah, that was a fine endeavor!") with which Farquhar observes his own unfolding drama, is employed in an attempt to suppress the inadmissible cowardice of the desire to escape, and to render it in terms of gallantry, not defeat. In this manner, Bierce apparently moves beyond the "layman's knowledge" of external stimulus to explore how, in Freud's words, "other factors determine the choice of the memory picture ... evoked" in Farquhar's dream of escape. The external stimuli provided by hanging could generate many different types of dream narratives; yet Farquhar's includes many details that are not accounted for by those stimuli exclusively, but can be understood within Freud's model of the dream-work. The whole narrative of escape itself is an example of this. Though it is not the only possible narrative that such external stimuli might generate, it results from the specific conditions of Farquhar's own existence as a would-be soldier powerfully attracted by the prospect of victory against all odds. Improbable details of the narrative are not just Bierce's clues to the reader that it is not "occurring": they function importantly as "dream disfigurements" (Freud 135), appropriate and interpretable distortions of Farquhar's psychic life.
An example of the psychic factors determining the dream's structure exists in the second paragraph of the third section, where the description of Farquhar's dream of escape truly begins. The fact of unavoidable death is so powerfully suppressed here that it is revised not only into an escape from death but further, into a vivid dream of birth itself. As Farquhar tries to reach the surface of the inexplicably deep creek after the hanging rope has broken, his first task is to free himself from the cord that binds his hands behind his back. After he does so, he watches his hands, as if they were someone else's, as they "pounced upon the noose at his neck. They tore it away and thrust it fiercely aside, its undulations resembling those of a water-snake" (36). Farquhar may dream of his hands in this manner because the act of hanging intensifies and eventually obliterates sensation within the extremities (for we must still recall the external stimulus that lies behind Bierce's structuring of the dream), and thus they would seem to be separate from his own body.7 However, the imagery of the cord around the neck, and of its being removed by someone else, situates this phenomenon not merely in the dream episode of rising to the creek's surface, but in a dream of the experience of birth--a kind of dream-within-a-dream, and a painful one at that, for the external stimulus of suffocation by hanging is revised here to become the baby's sensation of the umbilical cord around its neck.8
This dream-within-a-dream extends to its logical culmination of birth, generated by the encompassing narrative's account of Farquhar rising to the surface of the creek: the "disobedient hands" of the infant "forced him to the surface" and he "felt his head emerge; his eyes were blinded by the sunlight; his chest expanded convulsively, and with a supreme and crowning agony his lungs engulfed a great draught of air, which instantly he expelled in a shriek!" (37) This subtext of birth suppressing the literal fact of death is perhaps the clearest example of the story's persistent distortion and conflation of time, compressing the poles of human temporal experience into a paradoxically simultaneous "occurrence."
One of its most suggestive details, considering the Freudian context of this reading, is the cord's violently being torn away, securing the baby's life and separating it from the mother at the same time. The removal is "succeeded by the direst pang that he had yet experienced" (37), prompting him to request ("Put it back, put it back!") that it be re-attached. The literal pain of death by hanging is temporarily revised here to become that of birth, itself a shocking experience (the "first and direst of all disasters" writes Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary), which Farquhar's dream displaces into a longing for the prenatal state, a desire commonly precipitated by crisis in the individual's life, as Freud argues.9
If Freud was the first clinician to recognize and articulate that there was more to the dream-work than Maury's distortion of external phenomena, he marvels that dreams were nevertheless "formed with perfect correctness" (81n) in some literature, and to some extent expressed within the mythic substructures of many primitive cultures.10 Bierce's delineation of the dream model here is an ideal example, making his story remarkable not so much because he dupes the reader in it, but because through the intuitive employment of Maury's and Freud's dream models he generates and sustains the uncanny impression of unconscious reality.

  1. Literary Criticism on “First Confession” by Frank O’Connor.

O'Brien, George. "First Confession: Overview." Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Ed. Noelle Watson. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Literature Resource Center. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.
Frank O'Connor was the best-known Irish short story writer of his generation. Widely published, he has been credited generally with providing a version of post-independence Ireland that sustains a sense of his fellow countrymen's charming if foible-ridden behavior. While O'Connor certainly concentrated on the various complexities of human behavior, and while his work has almost invariably an Irish setting, the standard view of his work can be misleading. In particular, the significance of a somewhat maverick element in his stories, and this element's relationship to the stories' broad cultural background, is frequently overlooked. Even in such a typical O'Connor story as "First Confession," first published in 1944 and collected in Traveller's Samples (1951), the disarming mannishness of Jackie tends to be regarded by critics as sufficient to the artistic occasion.
"First Confession" is a typical O'Connor story for a number of reasons. It belongs to the cycle of stories of childhood upon which his international reputation as a writer of short fiction is based. This cycle, components of which are to be found throughout O'Connor's career, include such familiar works as "My Oedipus Complex," "The Drunkard," and "Christmas Morning." These stories draw on the author's impoverished background, and their invariably youthful narrators are all fully sensitive to the various deficiencies of their family situation, even if they are not always able to understand its origins or confront its implications. The references to money in "First Confession," and the likelihood that Gran's presence in the household is necessary for economic reasons, though these are beyond the narrator's grasp, is an instance of these stories' method and orientation. "First Confession" is also typical in its use of the tone of a child's perception for gently ironic and satirical purposes. And the story's style and structure combine the open and the tentative to reproduce with winning fidelity the child's moral world.
The existence and delineation of this world is the subject of "First Confession," confession being a medium through which the existence of right and wrong is acknowledged. It is important for O'Connor's standpoint in the story that the occasion in question is Jackie's first confession, and that the confession itself be an informal, guilt-free, exercise in innocence and its inevitable limits. Jackie is clearly in need of such an exercise, given the crudeness with which he specifies his own moral nature, expressed in his response to Gran and Nora. These responses are grounded in such primitive emotions as fear, greed, violence, and a general, incomprehending hostility to whatever disturbs him. It is impossible for Jackie to identify Gran as a person from a different environment than his own, with different codes and practices. O'Connor is careful not to sentimentalize Gran's peasant practices, a gesture of some cultural relevance to Irish readers at the time the story first appeared. But he is also careful to allow her behavior to be asserted in its own right. The harmlessness and lack of malevolence in her activities is the basis on which it remains immune from judgement, and why, in the confession itself, the priest endorses this immunity.
Gran is the pretext for Jackie's realisation that the world changes. The possibility of moral individuation exists through forming an adequate judgment of, and relationship to, a changing world. This possibility is made available in institutional form through the Church. However, the quality of the Church's contribution is critical, as O'Connor makes clear by providing such a clear contrast between Mrs. Ryan and the young confessor. Mrs. Ryan's view of sin is purely eschatalogical, a view which in its crude rhetoric and vulgar financial underpinnings resembles Jackie's primitive and self-interested morality. Yet, Mrs. Ryan's orthodoxy cannot be dismissed as an old woman's apocalyptic rambling. Despite differences in articulation, the crime-and-punishment view of sinner and sinning also informs Nora's outlook.
This connection, in addition to hinting at the structural pattern of "First Confession," with its reliance on kinship, affiliation, and allegiance, also has the effect of making Jackie appear singular. And his singularity is underlined by his attempt to hide behind a toothache and thereby avoid confessing, as well as by the perhaps unnecessary knockabout comedy of his activities in the confessional. Yet it is to Jackie's singularity that the priest responds. Jackie's confession does not consist of a formulaic recitation of childish peccadilloes but in "a rush" of confiding his human troubles. The magnitude of these troubles is ironically perceived through the means by which Jackie proposes to eliminate them. It is the priest's role to restore some sense of proportion, some degree of active evaluation and judgement, between objective conditions and subjective reactions to them, between self and world. The priest is required to be an agent in the human world, rather than an executive of eternity, such as Mrs. Ryan.
The implications of that requirement smuggle into "First Confession" a resonance that reaches far beyond young Jackie. His experiences, precisely because they are authorised by his own nascent moral intelligence in which his individuality is encoded, are paradoxically not merely valuable for him. Jackie is not yet in a position to appreciate or utilise the value of his experiences. His story, however, has an exemplary value, which can be characterised in two ways. The first is that Jackie's insistence on his entitlement to his own story, underlined by the first-person narration of "First Confession," as well as by the confessional aspect of first-person narration, is a manifestation of his individuality. The second is that the story represents the Church as a potential ratifier of that individuality. In the morally restrictive, clergy-dominated Ireland in which O'Connor wrote "First Confession," such findings have a far greater importance than any underwritten by the story's superficial, if undeniable, charm.

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