The Old Man at the Bridge Analysis by Ernest Hemingway

It is a common assumption that Hemmingway wrote this short story from his own experiences as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. The author was a journalist for the North American Newspaper Association and this record was a part of that report which he later decided to publish as a story. The shortness of the story can be attributed to the fact that it was originally written in the format of a newspaper article. Nevertheless, Hemingway had always written with specific details and abrupt beginnings and endings. The old man at the bridge is a classic representation of that.


Critics have always found the basic plotline of this story to be highly intriguing and thought provoking. The unprecedented violence of war had forced an old man of seventy-six years to flee his native town, leaving behind his home and animals that were apparently his only source of companionship and comfort. He was all alone in the world with nowhere to go and nobody to go to, just sitting by a dusty old bridge trying to contemplate what will happen to his animals. The unjustness of the world and its general cruelty has been highlighted by Hemingway in this story. The narration talks about having faith and about moving on with the tides of time but it also illustrates the uselessness of religion and moral practices in the face of War. There is a subtle hint of bitter irony in the story as the narrator speaks to the old man, urges him to escape but fails to actually help him. In the same way, the old man can be seen in the light of the Good Shepherd as he cares for his flock but ultimately fails to protect them. It’s like assuming the role of a saviour through ornamental words but becoming powerless to do anything fruitful in the face of adversity. Here, the saviour blames the old man’s luck for his situation and leaves him to the chances of fate.

The Old Man at the Bridge Character Sketch

It can be said that the story revolves around the character of an old man who is also the central protagonist. He has escaped from his hometown to avoid the ruthless violence of the Spanish Civil War. We can discern from his conversation with the narrator that this sudden incident has deeply affected his composure and in his nervous state of mind he could only focus upon the safety of his animals that he left behind. He is tired from the journey but also very confused because the reality of his own safety has not yet dawned upon him. He has no sense of his present situation and his thoughts keep going back to how the cat, goat and birds shall escape.

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The narrator of the story who is also a soldier of the Spanish Republicans, notices the old man sitting alone on the bridge and walks up to talk to him. This sets him aside from the other soldiers who are simply busy carrying out their orders through unseeing, inhumane eyes. This soldier too has a sense of urgency in his mannerisms as he has to gauge the extent of the enemy’s advances but sets aside his duties to speak to the old man. However, his kindness is short-lived and futile as he moves on when he discovers that the old man is too tired to walk any further.

The Old Man at the Bridge Summary Themes

The typical Hemingway themes of impending calamity, perplexed darkness and loss in faith, invades the entire story making it a bleak recollection of one destitute old man’s misery. Among the thousands of war casualties, which include entire families of men, women and children, this old man’s story is almost negligible.

Reflecting the author’s general style of writing, the considerate narrator of the story, who takes on the role of a protector, seems to be more preoccupied with the old man’s fate than the old man himself. It’s like, with the war coming and with the nerves on end, the old man could think of only his animals who depended upon him, while the soldier thought of his vulnerable old native whom he was supposed to escort to safety. The feeling of natural responsibility and care which exists between the biblical shepherd and his herd has been explored in this story. In fact, we can even trace certain spiritual aspects from the Holy books in this story. Just like God’s words are meant to give only wisdom and guidance to humankind, the narrator’s words could also only encourage the old man to cross over the bridge before calamity strikes. God never physically helps his subjects in distress but can only show them the path. Similarly, the narrator gives hope and words of comfort to the old man but did not actually help him to get up and walk towards the waiting trucks. Just like God, the soldier could not give his complete attention to the problems of only one subject (the old man) when he had so many others to protect.

The Old Man at the Bridge by Ernest Hemingway: Conclusion

The prose is written in true Hemingway style with complete disregard to form and elaboration of any kind. It begins with a description of an old man, sitting idly on a bridge when people all around are rushing about. The initial passage illustrates a war-like situation as the Fascist forces are advancing towards a town called Ebro. The contrast between the rushing crowds who are all trying to move forward and get away from the place as soon as they can and the lone old man sitting all by himself strikes the reader as absurd. This level of detachment and vulnerability displayed by the old man as the deadly war approaches is the actual intent of this story.


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