“He had seen the world change; not just the events; although he had seen many of them and had watched the people, but he had seen the subtler change and he could remember how the people were at different times. He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would.”
Note: All page numbers are from The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, New York: Scribner (Simon & Schuster), 1997.
This quotation encapsulates the self-critical despair that characterizes Harry’s deathbed ruminations. He is frustrated with himself for being present in so many different places with so many different people at so many important times and failing to memorialize any of his experiences in writing. These experiences appear to include battles, political upheavals, love affairs, running a ranch, skiing, gambling, talking Dada with intellectuals, fishing, and drinking. According to Harry’s stream-of-consciousness descriptions, these events certainly appear diverse and interesting, at least to the average reader, and include the whole gamut of human emotions, from love to hatred to jealousy. It is this fact that Harry highlights in this quotation; he wants to write about “not just the events,” but about “how the people were at different times.” He observed and understood the people, their emotions and their motivations, and he wants to paint the portraits of these people in his writing.
It is notable that the element that makes this self-criticism so bitter is Harry’s absolute certainty of the greatness of his writing talent. If his talent were not so extraordinary, it would hardly matter the he had not written about his life, but because it is, “it was his duty” to use it, and the fact that he had not sharpened his regrets.
“Doesn’t do to talk too much about all this. Talk the whole thing away. No pleasure in anything if you mouth it up too much.”
This quotation is by Robert Wilson as he sits in the safari car with Francis Macomber and Margot immediately following Francis’s successful shooting of three buffalo. Macomber is elated and emboldened, and Wilson believes he has finally “come of age,” a process he has apparently observed many times in conjunction with the men he has taken on safari. As he discusses the pleasure and excitement of hunting and killing game with Macomber, he begins to feel uncomfortable about Macomber’s putting these emotions into words; they are a sort of sacred creed he lives with and for but never voices, and that very secrecy gives them their meaning. Here, he tries to silence Macomber on the subject of the hunter’s raison d’etre, especially as it is obvious Margot is threatened by her husband’s newfound passion.
The greater significance of this quotation is that it sums up, in three sentences, one of the most notable characteristics of Hemingway’s writing, namely, its economy with words. Hemingway believed, in accordance with his journalistic roots, that communicating one’s meaning through spare, stark prose that requires the reader to fill in things the author leaves unwritten is the height of literary skill, and this quotation by one of his characters could have come out of his own mouth and referred to his entire philosophy of writing.
“What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was all nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada.”
This quotation expresses the central philosophical idea of the story, the idea that life is meaningless whether people realize it or not. Hemingway adopts this idea from the philosophy of existential nihilism, which proposes that in a meaningless world, people must establish individual systems of beliefs and values and live by them in order to have an authentic existence. Hemingway’s middle-aged waiter, as this quotation shows, has realized the meaninglessness of his life and has established a place for himself with “light…and a certain cleanness and order.” In this refuge, he can face the rest of his life, if not confidently, then at least comfortably.
“The boy Paco had never known about any of this nor about what all these people would be doing on the next day and on other days to come. He had no idea how they really lived nor how they ended. He did not even realize they ended. He died, as the Spanish phrase has it, full of illusions. He had not had time in his life to lose any of them, nor even, at the end, to complete an act of contrition.”
On the surface, this paragraph reads like a summary of Paco’s tragedy. He was a young man full of dreams and hopes that were so all consuming that they blinded him to how the people around him lived, and he died before he could realize any of these dreams. He had barely experienced life before he died and all his potential went to waste.
Underneath this reading, however, is a strong implication that Paco’s early death was a blessing in disguise. He was able to live and die with his illusions and beliefs in his mind and a prayer on his lips rather than living out his life possibly as a bullfighter, as he hoped, and watching his illusions and beliefs be crushed by reality just as the inhabitants of the Pension Luarca had. These “second rate” members of the bullfighting profession included among their ranks a coward, an invalid, a has-been, a narcissist, and a pugilist.
If Paco had lived longer, had realized these people he lived amongst “ended,” and that their lives were far from the “romantic” visions he conjured for himself, his illusions would have gone the way of the cowardly bullfighter’s courage and it is debatable, Hemingway implies, that his life would have been worth living.
“I feel fine…There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”
These words are the last of the story and are spoken by Jig in answer to the American’s inquiry “Do you feel better?” She says them smiling, Hemingway makes clear, and it seems that she has become self-assured and has reached a decision about whether or not to have the abortion the man has been pressing on her. The question is, has she decided to have it or not?
This quotation implies she has decided against the abortion. At face value, indeed, it is difficult to come to any other conclusion. She feels fine as she is and does not see anything wrong with herself or anything that needs changing. She is pregnant and feels fine about having her baby.
The other conclusion it is possible to reach is that she feels fine because she has decided to have the abortion and thinks that everything will then be as it was between her and her partner. This conclusion is a bit of a stretch, especially because at the end of the story, it is the man who is carrying the couple’s bags all over the station and feels the need to drink another liqueur in the bar, away from verbal antagonists. Jig, on the other hand, is described as smiling. She has decided against him, and he knows it; he capitulates and takes some time away from her to compose himself before facing her and her newfound confidence.
“Little boys always know what they want to do.”
This quotation is by Sam, the cook at Henry’s lunchroom, about Nick Adams when Nick decides to go warn Ole Andreson that the killers are in town looking to murder him. The quotation carries heavy irony with it because it is this decision to warn Andreson that marks Nick as a man, not a boy, and shows that he is more courageous than both Sam and George, the diner’s manager, because he is the only one who will risk his life to save Andreson’s.
The probable explanation of Sam’s reference to Nick as a “little boy” is that Sam believes Nick’s decision is foolish; he had warned Nick to stay out of it. Acts of courage can often be viewed as acts of foolishness, and what Sam views as foolhardy Hemingway seems to view as admirable.
“But this was a long time ago, and then we did not any of us know how it was going to be afterward. We only knew then that there was always the war, but that we were not going to it anymore.”
This quotation, expressed by Nick, indicates the veterans’ ignorance of how their war experiences will affect them in the long term. All they are aware of, at the time of the story, is that they are out of the fighting by virtue of being wounded, and that they are receiving treatment, which they are told will help them physically recover. Their feelings of depression, isolation, dislocation, and even despair are left untreated and will affect them for years to come.
In addition, this quotation has a slight note of regret that can be understood specifically in relation to Nick. He feels inferior to his fellow medal recipients because they did something to earn their medals and he did not; he never got the chance to prove his courage in battle, and the fact that he is “not going to [the war] anymore” means that he may never get this chance.
“He was evidently holding tight onto himself about something.”
This quotation records the narrator’s impression of Schatz’s demeanor when he returns from his hunting trip. It is a very literal take on the idea of self-control; Schatz is holding onto himself in order control his emotions and to keep them from spilling out. He is holding onto himself because he cannot or will not let himself hold onto his father, who he believes has callously abandoned him for the greater part of the day for a hunting trip. His father, it seems to Schatz, has abandoned him and does not care about Schatz’s impending death; the father expects Schatz to conduct himself with the stoicism and self-sufficiency befitting the situation, and that is what Schatz is trying to do.
When Schatz’s fears are relieved, however, Hemingway is careful to tell us that Schatz’s hold on himself relaxes so much that he allows himself to cry over little things that he normally would not cry over.
“On the other hand his father had the finest pair of eyes he had ever seen and Nick had loved him very much and for a long time. Now, knowing how it had all been, even remembering the earliest times before things had gone badly was not good remembering. If he wrote it he could get rid of it."
This quotation shows Nick’s deep ambivalence towards his father’s memory. Though he protests he loved his father, his subsequent words belie that filial feeling. He wants to get rid of all memories of his father because they are not good. They are clearly painful and unpleasant to him even at 38 years old. There is a façade of love and admiration for his father that Nick keeps up sometimes for himself and certainly for his son, but deep underneath that façade of happy families Nick feels a current of resentment that approaches hatred. This current is discernible throughout “Fathers and Sons,” and though, as in this quotation, Nick starts out pretending that his relationship with his father was a normal, productive one and stoically crushing his traumatic childhood experiences under a protestation of love, he concludes by admitting he would rather not think about his father because his memories are just too unpleasant.
“‘Did you leave the dove cage unlocked?’" I asked.
‘Then they’ll fly.’
‘Yes, certainly, they’ll fly.’”
This exchange begins with the narrator. It marks the point at which the old man’s birds are referred to as doves instead of pigeons. Hemingway’s substitution of “doves,” symbols of peace, for the more commonplace “pigeons” evokes a positive feeling, and is the high point of an otherwise depressing and fatalistic story. The fact that the birds not only will probably survive, but that they will survive as doves in the middle of wartime, gives the story its only highlight. It is yet another bit of luck for the old man, in spite of the narrator’s assertion that his only lucky breaks are that the enemy planes are not flying and that cats are self-sufficient.
“The little devil, he thought, I wonder if he lied to me.”
The major is the one whose thoughts are recorded in this sentence. It is after he has presented Pinin with his “simple enquiry” and received a negative response. He dismisses the boy with a recommendation that he stay on as the major’s servant and then begins to wonder whether Pinin was not as straightforward as he thought.
Evidence for Pinin as a liar includes the fact that he never writes to a girl he says he is in love with even when there is a war on. In addition, Pinin is flushed and awkward both when he is in the major’s room and as he leaves it; this could be a sign that he is lying to his commanding officer.
Evidence for Pinin as truthful includes the fact that the major’s first impression of Pinin’s negative response to the simple enquiry is that Pinin is “a good boy” and therefore truthful.
“She was cold and miserable and everything felt gone.”
This quotation describes Liz’s feelings after she discovers Jim is not going to wake up after having sex with her. Aside from the fact that it is a damp, cold fall evening, this sentence conveys Liz’s disillusionment with love and sex. Her virginity has been taken and the man who has taken it, so long the object of her complete and utter obsession, refuses to wake up.
She is disillusioned, not only with love and sex, but with Jim. Her only thoughts up until this point in the story have been about Jim. The phrase “everything felt gone” shows that the one thing that has occupied her mind for months, perhaps years, has been destroyed. Jim no longer holds the place in her mind and heart that he used to.
Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
A complete look at the themes in Hemmingway's short-stories is available right here at Gradesaver. The themes for "The Old Man at the Bridge" are included. Simply follow the direct link provided below.