The setting is a spot in the countryside during the Spanish Civil War. An old man with spectacles sits exhausted by the side of the road near a pontoon bridge that crosses a river. Peasant refugees and Republican soldiers laden with munitions and supplies flee the advancing Fascist army.
The narrator, who says that his mission is to cross the bridge and find out how far the enemy has advanced, does so and finds the old man who was sitting by the bridge when he crossed toward the enemy still sitting there when he crosses back. He begins talking to the old man and elicits the information that his hometown is San Carlos; he was the last person to leave the town, as he was anxious on behalf of some animals he had charge of.
The narrator, nervously awaiting the advent of the Fascist army and the ensuing battle between the armies, asks the old man about the animals. The old man says he had charge of two goats, a cat, and four pairs of pigeons. He says a major told him to leave the town and the animals because of artillery fire. He says he has no family.
He then begins to express concern about what will happen to the animals. He says the cat will be all right because cats can look after themselves, but he doesn’t know what will happen to the other animals.
The narrator, more concerned for the old man’s safety than that of the animals, inquires what the old man’s politics are, and the old man replies he has none. He is 76, has come 12 kilometers and is too tired to go any further. The narrator tells him to walk up the road and catch a ride on a truck to Barcelona.
The old man thanks him, but continues to express concern over the fate of the animals he left behind. The narrator reassures him, saying the animals will be fine. The doves will fly away, the narrator says, but the old man continues to worry about the goats. The narrator tells him it is better not to think about it, and that he should get up and walk to the trucks.
The old man tries to get up and walk, but he is too tired and sinks back down. The narrator thinks, in closing, that the old man’s only luck is that cats can look after themselves and that the day is overcast so the Fascists aren’t able to launch their planes.
“Old Man at the Bridge” was inspired by Hemingway’s travels as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. In fact, the story was originally composed as a news dispatch from the Amposta Bridge over the Ebro River on Easter Sunday in 1938 as the Fascists were set to overrun the region. Hemingway was writing for the North American Newspaper Association but decided to submit this snippet of writing as a short story to a magazine instead of as a journalistic article, which accounts, to a certain extent, for its short length.
For all of its unorthodox origins, the story deals with familiar Hemingway themes of depression, resignation, and impending death. The old man is the heroic fatalist or fatalistic hero of the story, resigned to his fate as a casualty of the war. He is too old and tired to move, he says, and demonstrates, to the narrator, and the narrator reflects that he is sure to be killed once the Fascists advance to the bridge across the Ebro. His life is prolonged by the fact that the day is overcast and the Fascists cannot launch their planes, and his mind is eased by the fact that cats can look after themselves, but aside from that, the narrator says nothing can be done for him and his death seems certain.
As occurs elsewhere in Hemingway’s writings, specifically in “The Killers,” the narrator of the story seems more affected by the inevitability of the man’s probable fate than by the old man. Just as the old man worries about the goats he left behind, and the narrator tells him it’s best not to think about them, the narrator worries about the old man he will have to leave behind, but is obviously not able to stop thinking about him.
Nevertheless, one lingering question occurs to the reader as the story closes and the narrator bemoans the old man’s impending death. Why doesn’t the narrator help the old man at least part of the way to the trucks bound for Barcelona? Surely everyone, including the narrator and the old man, is going in the same direction. Surely it would not be a great imposition for the narrator to help a 76-year-old man who had already walked 12 kilometers along at least part of the way to safety. Are the old man’s fatalism and the narrator’s despair justified? Since this story began as a news dispatch recounting an encounter Hemingway actually had, this question takes on more than academic significance.
There is one symbol of hope in the story. At the beginning of the narrator’s conversation with the old man, the birds the old man was looking after were referred to as “pigeons,” but by the end of the story, they become “doves,” symbols of peace in wartime. The narrator makes this switch as he asks, “Did you leave the dove cage unlocked?” It is unclear whether this is a slip of the tongue, because the narrator is clearly distracted by the impending arrival of the enemy, or if Hemingway is attempting to give the image of the birds flying away an even more positive tint by referring to them as symbols of peace.