Ambrose Bierce’s short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is an excellent choice for those of you who want to read a book featured in Lost but are short on time. At only eight pages, you should be able to whip through this bad boy in less than twenty minutes.
We see An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge in the season 2 episode The Long Con. John Locke is alphabetizing the books in the Hatch to pass time. Although it is only one of many books on the bookshelf, the camera lingers on this short story’s cover in particular as Locke flips through it.
The short story is broken into three parts. Part I opens with a Southern farmer and a group of Union soldiers on Owl Creek Bridge. The farmer is about to be hanged and his thoughts drift to his wife and children. Driven by a desire to see them again, he begins to formulate an escape plan. He will throw off the noose and jump off the bridge into the water below. He figures that the soldiers will be surprised by this, giving him enough time to swim downstream before they are able to chase him. However, before he can do any of this, the soldiers remove the bridge plank and the noose tightens as the farmer drops down.
Part II is a flashback. We learn that the farmer is named Peyton Fahrquhar. Fahrquhar lives in the South and sympathizes with the Confederate cause. One day, a Confederate soldier comes to his farm and tells him that Union soldiers in the area have been repairing the railroad tracks over Owl Creek Bridge. Fahrquhar suggests that he and the Confederate soldier sabotage the Union soldiers by burning the bridge down. The Confederate soldier then reveals himself to be a Union scout in disguise and Fahrquhar is sentenced to hanging at Owl Creek Bridge for attempted sabotage.
We return to the bridge in Part III. As the rope pulls taut around Fahrquhar’s neck, it suddenly snaps, and he falls to the water below. Stunned, Fahrquhar barely realizes that he has loosened the rope and started swimming. The soldiers are firing at him, so he frantically swims downstream and ends up on shore out of the reach of the soldier’s bullets. On land, Fahrquhar begins the exhausting 30-mile trip back to his farm through dense woods. Tired and hungry, he begins hallucinating and at one point the woods become filled with noisers and he hears whispers in an unknown tongue. Finally, he makes it back home to his home and family.
As his wife runs towards him, he feels the rope tighten around his neck, sees a bright white light, and everything fades to black. Peyton’s journey in Part III turns out to be a hallucination in the final few seconds before his death.
I love the placement of this book in season 2. At the time, many believed that the Oceanic survivors were dead the whole time. Then this book appears in an episode aptly titled The Long Con. Were Damon and Carlton just conning us with this whole story? Was the entire storyline merely a last-second hallucination before the passengers died when the plane hit the ocean? Was the “snapping” of the plane in midair the same as the snapping of Fahrquhar’s rope? Of course that didn’t turn out to be the case, but it’s pretty awesome that the Lost creators have such a self-aware sense of humor about the various theories and critiques of their writing.
I think this book was mostly put in this episode to mess with viewers and give a subtle hint towards the “They’re all dead” theory that Lost creators dealt more extensively with five episodes later in the Hurley-centric Dave episode. The one other note that Lost fans will notice in that recap is the whispers. In the last second before his death, Fahrquhar hears whispers in an unknown tongue. In Lost we learn that the whispers were the voices of the dead that couldn’t leave the island. The Owl Creek Bridge whisperers could have been the exact same whispers – perhaps it was the dead calling out to Fahrquhar to join them.
This short story was a quick, entertaining read. Although many critics dismiss the story as gimmicky, there’s no doubt that it was well-written. As for Lost, I think the book was mostly a red herring. Yet it was a very well-placed red herring and symbolic of the fun fans have had dissecting what really happened on the island.