Old Man at the Bridge by Ernest Hemingway
In Old Man at the Bridge by Ernest Hemingway we have the theme of struggle, pride, commitment, selflessness, change, paralysis and acceptance. Taken from his The Complete Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed soldier and after reading the story the reader realises that Hemingway may be exploring the theme of struggle. The old man cannot move. He is unable to follow the lead of those who are crossing the bridge. It is as though his journey may be over without reaching any destination. The reader suspecting that the old man who has already walked twelve kilometres has made his last stand. Which is ironic considering that the old man is sitting down for most if not all of the story. He is beaten or defeated by the worry he has for his animals, the fact that he is in his seventies and the ongoing war (Spanish Civil War). The old man’s concern about his animals when he is talking to the narrator is also interesting as despite being forced to abandon them. He remains committed to each animal. His own safety does not appear to bother him as much as the safety of the animals which may suggest that the old man is selfless.
The bridge itself may also be symbolically important as Hemingway may be using it to not only symbolise a path to safety but to also suggest that in life there will come a time when a person is not able to cross every bridge that they come to. Which is very much the case for the old man. As mentioned he is defeated or beaten by the war. A war that he himself has played no part in. Which may be important as Hemingway may be suggesting that the old man is independent of others. Something that is also noticeable by the fact that out of all the characters mentioned in the story. The old man is the only one who is not moving. He stands out independent of others. It doesn’t help that the old man is also alone. Something that becomes clearer to the reader when the old man tells the narrator that he knows no one in Barcelona. It is also interesting that when the old man mentions his home town there is a sense of pride in his voice. He is proud of where he comes from despite the circumstances he finds himself in.
It is also noticeable that there is no change in the old man’s physical position in the story. At the beginning of the story he is sitting down and at the end of the story he is also sitting down. In the same spot. His one attempt to stand up leads to him having to sit down again. Though the old man may be proud this may be all the fight that the he has in him. Though he wants no part in the war he knows that the war is a part of him. His life is in the hands of others. In reality the old man no longer has control of his destiny. Any chance he has of escaping the Fascists is by crossing the bridge. Something that the old man will not do. It may simply be a case that the old man realises that where he is sitting is where he will die. Due to his age and his commitment to his roots the old man may feel as though he has no other option but to stay where he is. It is as though the old man is paralysed and unable to move. There is nothing the narrator can do to help the old man change his mind.
The end of the story is also interesting particularly the narrator’s acceptance of the position the old man finds himself in. Both the narrator and the old man are on different paths but both accept the path they are on. It is clear to the reader that the narrator is younger than the old man. So he has yet to be beaten. Also the fact that he is a soldier symbolically suggests he is prepared to fight. Something that the old man will not or cannot do. The fact that the old man twice mentions what his occupation was ‘I was only taking care of animals’ might also be important as it suggests that the old man again wants no part in the war. He wants the simplicity that he had prior to the war to return. He was obviously happier then so it is only natural that the old man would long for a return to happiness and simplicity. However it becomes clear to the reader by way of the narrator’s final statement that there will be no return to happiness for the old man. He will not be that lucky. The old man has been beaten by the circumstances of the time. His journey has come to an end.