The advent of the two World Wars created a scenario that was unfathomable and unimaginable by the common people. It brought out the ugliest truths about human kind and what the life of others meant to the powerful few. Ernest Hemingway was born in the year 1899 in Illinois. He was a war veteran who served at the front in the First World War and also lived to tell his tales and write about his distraught experiences through prose and poetry. The man was once himself a great sportsman and believed in the heroic. However, his views of the world and in particular his concept of the “heroic” changed after having served in the war. This disillusionment of the self, helped him become a great writer later on. The hardships faced by him in the wars has been reflected in his writings and ideas too. He wrote his prose without any usage of decorative words or flowery diction, in fact, his most acclaimed literary pieces were often straightforward, with sparse dialogue and a muted tone. His propensity to write with such restrain has been admired and applauded by many important critics.
The short story, Old Man at the Bridge was first published in the year 1938 and is considered to be one of the shortest prose Hemingway wrote in his literary career. The tale is based on his experiences of the Spanish Civil War in April, 1938. This piece was first selected to be printed as a newspaper article, but Hemingway decided to publish it as a story in a short-lived political magazine, called the Ken Magazine.
The Old Man at the Bridge Setting and Plot
Enough has already been said and discussed about the after-effects of the War upon human civilization and the environment but somehow all the literature ever written, never quiet do justice to the atrocities that actually happened. We are a generation who is all aware of the bloodshed and carnage that the Wars led to, but who shall discuss about the mental discrepancies it gave birth to among its numerous victims? Literature is replete with such instances of alienation and existential issues that the Wars were responsible for, and the story of The old man at the bridge is one of them.
The Old Man at the Bridge Summary by Ernest Hemingway
The story is compelling from the very start, as the readers are introduced to the character of an old man sitting alongside a pathway with his clothes covered in dust. There are people of all ages shuffling around him with carts and trucks. Men, women and children, all seemed to be moving across the bridge and a few soldiers were helping the people push their carts up the banks of the river. The solitary old man, too tired to move, sits silently on a side of the road watching the passer byes. Here, our narrator makes an entry and tries to assess the progress of the enemy forces. By the time he completes his patrolling most of the citizens have been evacuated from that area, except for that old man who hasn’t moved at all. He walks over the bridge and picks up a conversation with the old man. As they talk, the soldier comes to know that the old man was from the city of San Carlos where he was apparently engaged in the caring of certain animals.Upon further questioning, the old man mentions that there was a cat, a couple of goats and some pigeons under his care and that he was worried how they were going to fare with the invasion coming. The narrator gradually engages the old man in a personal conversation and asks him about his family. To this the old man replies that he has no family and depends only on the animals for companionship. He then proceeds to share his thoughts about their safety. According to him, the cat can take care of itself and will be alright but the others can get into trouble.
Then the narrator goes on to question him about his political views, to which the old man says that he has no opinion about politics. After a small pause,he adds that he is already seventy-six years old and he has walked twelve long kilometres,as if to insinuate that old age and pain can cure a man of all his worldly opinions.The narrator tells the old man that the bridge is not a good place for rest and urges him to cross the bridge with the others where he might stay safe from the war, but the tired old man responds that he cannot move any further. The soldier suggests that he could go up to Barcelona on one of the trucks and the old man thanks for this suggestion but is still pensive and unsure about it because he knows nobody in Barcelona.
Even while the soldier continues to urge the old man to move to safety, the hapless man could only think about his poor animals and relentlessly asks the narrator if he thinks his animals will survive the war. With a determination to help him in some way, the soldier then asks him if he left the bird cage open before coming away to which the old man affirms that he had indeed left the bird cage open, so the birds can at least fly away to safety. Just like the birds, the evacuees had also been given a scope to escape but the helpless creatures like the old man and the goat were left to the chances of fate.
When confronted with such a dilemma, where danger is imminent and escape is difficult, the old man said, thinking about his animals, “It’s better not to think about the others.” Still worried about the old man, the kind soldier asked him to stand and walk but he could stand only momentarily before he fell back again. After this failed attempt, the old man could only manage to utter again, like a plea, that he was simply taking care of the animals. At this the narrator gave up and decided that there was nothing he could do to help him at this moment. He then, observes that the German fascists were headed towards the Ebro River, which cannot be crossed because it was an Easter Sunday. The fascists had very little chance of flying their planes to cross as the sky was overcast with heavy clouds. It struck him that the weather and the cat being able to take care of itself were the only luck that the old man could have had that fateful day.