The Old Man at the Bridge, with its theme of war, violence, duty, kindness and the trauma of displacement is a short story wherein a tale of human suffering is laid out succinctly in a short yet powerful narrative by Ernest Hemingway. The first-hand experience of Hemingway in the two World Wars enabled him to get an up-close and personal view of the horrors of the war and its debilitating effect on individuals. This tilt in Hemingway’s writing is reflected in several of his works which include For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms and On War among others. It must be remembered that Hemingway’s works was very influential in drawing attention to the trauma the soldiers suffered from during and after the wars. In this particular story, Hemingway focuses on the plight of innocent people whose homes are converted into a battlefield without their consent, when all they are doing is “taking care of animals”.
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The Old Man at the Bridge | Summary and Analysis
The theme of stagnation and lack of agency makes its presence strongly felt in the first paragraph of the story through its imagery of the dusty landscape. This is also highlighted through the use of words like ‘stagger‘, ‘plodded‘ etc which convey a sense of difficulty in movement. Not only does it reflect the manner in which people are stuck physically in a particular place but also represents countless lives stuck in the hell-hole of war violence.
Making use of the first person narrative, Hemingway, in one masterstroke, underlines the theme of loss of agency by linking the literal and the figurative :
“It was my business to cross the bridge; explore the bridgehead beyond and find out to what point the enemy had advanced. I did this and returned over the bridge. There were not so many carts now and very few people on foot, but the old man was still there.”
The people spoken of in the first paragraph of the story have already crossed the bridge. This soldier (who is narrator of the story) has already returned after having crossed the bridge. But an man is still there where he had erstwhile been. The old man tells the soldier how they were made to vacate his hometown due to the war and how he had to leave his animals behind which included a cat, pigeons and two goats.
On a closer look, one finds that out of the animals the old man talks about, the cats and dogs are free to escape but the goats are stuck, unable to move, very much like the old man himself. This confluence of the literal and the figurative meanings of the story is manifested in the inaction of the old man throughout the story. Much about this, later.
“Where do you come from?” I asked him
“From San Carlos” he said and smiled. That was his native town so it give him pleasure to mention it and he smiled.
This story isn’t as simple as it appears to be, quite like the abovementioned ‘smile’ of the old man. At first sight, it may seem that the soldier is in charge of the situation. In fact, he projects himself to be in charge and even wield some authority over the old man- to the extent of interpreting all his actions (including his smile). However, for all we know, he is just as lost and clueless and is stuck in the position where he has to face the advancing Fascists (it is sheer irony that the advance of the Fascists takes place on Easter Sunday, supposed to be a day of peace). Furthermore, very often in the story, we find a sense of miscommunication between the two men. The soldier often uses the phrase “not quite understanding” and often, the words spoken by either characters are seldom directed at each other. Therefore, when the narrator says that it is the pleasure that makes the old man smile while mentioning San Carlos, we need not necessarily accept it at face value. The reason behind the man’s smile may either be what the soldier presumes it to be or alternatively, it could be a confused expression resulting from the trauma of displacement. For all we know, not all smiles translate to happiness.
When the soldier is “watching the bridge and the African looking country of the Ebro Delta” and “listening for awhile for the first noises that would signal that ever-mysterious event called contact” we understand that he has been provided a word (“contact”) with which to understand his situation. However, the old man’s life has been torn apart by a nameless reality, one which he can neither understand nor articulate.
We are told that the old man had to leave behind “two goats, a cat and four pairs of pigeons”.
“And you had to leave them?” I asked
“Yes. Because of the artillery. The captain told me to go because of the artillery.”
This seemingly disinterested line becomes significant in its import. In times of war or any hostile atmosphere for that matter, many innocent lives are very easily and conveniently labeled as “collateral damage” – people who are deeply affected by a situation in which they are not even participating through their own volition.
Events like war refuse to recognize and acknowledge the humanity of the individuals – with all their hopes, aspirations, desires, and their way of life. Indeed, the very fabric of their being is shredded by its inhumane logic. Moreover, one doesn’t need a reason to be sucked up in its whirlpool of violence. One simply is.
“What politics have you?” I asked him.
“I am without politics.” he said
Truly, one doesn’t always need to pick up a side to get hammered by the other. The Left and the Right often march left and right over defenceless bodies that refuse to pick a side. A situation such as this doesn’t spare anyone, not even an old man in his seventies who has walked for twelve kilometres and cannot walk any farther.
The uprooting of people from their homes not only brings with itself the loss of a physical space but also the tragedy of separation from the familiar faces surrounding oneself. For home isn’t merely comprised of the place we live in but also of the people whom we know and love. Therefore, the gravity of the old man’s reply, faced with the prospect of having to go to Barcelona : ” I know no one in that direction” is truly an unfathomable one.
As mentioned earlier, the fate of the animals in this story is significant not only on a literal level but also on a symbolic plane. The cat can take care of itself as it has the agency to fend for itself. The birds can fly and escape like the people who cross the bridge in the first paragraph of the story. However, the goats are helplessly trapped in a situation they did not choose. They are stuck and cannot move any farther very much like the old man. The strong theme of stagnation and lack of agency becomes very stark when we try to draw a parallel between the animals and the people inhabiting this story of desolation.
Extending this relationship, we can apply it to another character of the story – the narrator himself. At first, it may seem that he is in control of the situation and he knows what he is doing. However, with the progression of the story it becomes clear that he is just as lost as the old man. He’s stuck in the same situation. Wearing a uniform (and possibly carrying arms) doesn’t change anything. He is a goat as well. They are both goats. Notice, there are literally two goats in the story.
One can also try to establish a link between the old man’s words “I was only taking care of the animals” and the fact that the soldier is taking care of (or so he’d like to think) the old man, even if it be through his mere presence. Or perhaps, the two are equally vulnerable.
The subconscious identification of the soldier with the old man finds its expression in the final lines of the former:
It was Easter Sunday and the Fascists were advancing towards the Ebro. It was a grey overcast day with a low ceiling so their plans were not up. That and the fact that the cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that the old man would have.”
It is true that the cats concern the old man but the ‘good luck’ in the enemy planes not being up isn’t the good luck of the old man alone but rather, and more importantly, of the soldier. This identification with the other, together with the rich symbolism makes this short story a powerful tale of human suffering and loss.