An Analysis of the Theme of Hemingway’s “Old Man at the Bridge”
The theme is one of the most interesting elements of fiction, including a short story. It refers to the central idea or meaning that the author wants to convey to the readers. Some stories convey a single theme, but some other stories have several themes. Since short stories are related to human life, Alternbend and Lewis (1966, p. 78) define theme as “The general vision of life or the more explicit proposition about human experience that literature conveys”. In relation to this, one of the easiest ways to determine the theme of a short story is by asking ourselves, “What does the story say about life? The theme of fiction is generally presented through the other elements of fiction, particularly the plot and characterization.
This article is a venture to analyze the theme of Hemingway’s Old Man at the Bridge. This story is interesting to analyze due to two reasons. First, it is based on Hemingway’s experience as a foreign correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Alliance (Muller, 2019). Second, although it is a simple and very short story—only around 760 words in length—it manages to powerfully depict war’s devastating effects on the lives of the soldiers in the front and the innocent people caught up in the war.
Old Man at the Bridge begins by describing how many refugees are fleeing from the fighting in the Spanish Civil War. While many people are hurrying to cross a bridge with their families and belongings in trucks, carts, and on foot, an old man who is so exhausted to proceed that he sits alongside the bridge. A soldier of the Republican (left-wing) side crosses the bridge to check how far the Fascist (right-wing Nationalists) army has advanced behind the refugees. When the soldier returns, he finds almost all of the evacuees are gone, but the old man has not moved. He approaches him to try to urge him to keep moving toward safety. Through their conversation, it is revealed that the old man came from San Carlos. He has no family. He was the last person to flee from his native town because he is worried that some animals (some goats, pigeons, and a cat) he has considered as his family will suffer if he leaves them. The old man also says that he and left. However, the artillery aimed by the Fascist at San Carlos forced him to flee. After walking for twelve kilometers, he thinks he can go no further. After trying to convince him it is not a safe place to stop, the narrator urges him to try to get up and walk. But the old man cannot walk and sits back down and the narrator leaves him.
The major theme of Old Man at the Bridge concerns with the tragedy of war. It conveys the idea that wars cause catastrophic effects to the lives of both the soldiers fought on the fronts and the ordinary people. This theme is conveyed through the plot and characterization that are supported by the point of view.
This story employs a chronological plot. It starts when the old man sits on the ground because he is so exhausted to proceed to cross the bridge. To ask him to keep moving toward safety, a soldier, who is the narrator in this short story, greets him and they have a conversation for a while. Through their dialogue, the author reveals that the old man has no family but had lived peacefully looking after some animals, in a rural village called San Carlos. During the conversation, the old man keeps on expressing his concern over the fate of the animals after he left them. The story ends when the soldier leaves the old man alone because there was “nothing to do about him.
Through the plot, Hemingway reveals that the war has forced the old man to flee from his ordinary and peaceful life in his hometown. He is not political and takes no side in the war. He even knows nothing about why the war breaks. However, nobody is deemed to be neutral in the civil war. Thus, civilians like him cannot avoid themselves from getting suffering in some way or form. As shown in the opening paragraph, countless hordes of refugees whose lives have been destroyed, have to make their way over the bridge to go to safe places. The old man’s condition is even worse because, unlike the other evacuees who manage to cross the bridge and advance proceed to go to safer places, he cannot go further due to his fatigue. He can only sit at the bridge while the enemy’s troops are approaching.
The theme is also presented through the two characters in the story, i.e. the old man and the soldiers. The old man is the major character because he is central to the plot development. Most of the actions, dialogues, and inner thinking are related to him. He has just fled his hometown to escape the devastating violence of the war. Throughout the story, he just sits on the ground at the bridge, exhausted after walking for twelve kilometers, and feels he cannot go further. When the narrator asks him to keep on moving for a safer place, he discloses that he was reluctant to leave his hometown because the animals he used to take care of might not survive without him. It was also revealed that he has no family, doesn’t know anyone in Barcelona (where the fleeing masses are heading). He also has no politics and thus has no stake in the war. The only world he knows is only his hometown. When the soldier asked where he came from, he mentions San Carlos happily. But now the town is destroyed by artillery. This is used by Hemingway to show that wars really devastate common people's lives.
The idea that wars cause devastating effects on common people is supported by describing that since the old man lives alone, he focused on taking care of his animals. Initially, he seemed to value his own life more than the animals because when various artilleries were fired towards his hometown, he decided to evacuate and left the animals. But when he has arrived at the bridge and is separated from the animals he has no great reason to live. These animals are his only possessions and source of happiness. But now they are robbed from him.
In addition, the old man is not given any name. To a higher extent, by making him anonymous Hemingway means to accentuate that everything that happens to the old man can also happen to every other people. In other words, the horrible effects of wars could happen to any common people.
In the story, although the soldier is the narrator, he does not make any clear statements about himself. He is a minor character, and thus, his presence merely serves to complement the old man’s existence and support to move the plot development. The only obvious statement about him is that he is a soldier for the Republican (left-wing) and whose duty is to determine the extent of the Fascist (right-wing)’s troop advance. The fact that he is a soldier exposes that he is among the people who volunteer to take sides in the war. Therefore, unlike the old man, he is consciously involved in the war and realizes the consequences of his voluntary involvement.
To a certain extent, the soldier is kind-hearted. Seeing that the old man does not move from the bridge, he meets him and tries to urge him to flee to safety. However, he has no deep empathy to the old man. Through their dialogues, it is obvious that he does not try to emphatically understand the old man’s feelings and motivation. He often responds inattentively or indifferently, particularly when the old man repeatedly states his concern for his animals. He indeed tries to encourage the old man to flee, but as he thinks Fascist’s troop is getting near and the old man cannot walk, he quickly decides to go, leaving the old man alone. This reveals that his interest to have the old man safe only through speaking and listening. He does no action to help him. In this sense, the war has driven him to devalue life. In other words, his humanity has been decreased. He does not perform even the simplest acts to solve the old man, say, for instance by carrying him on his back. Isn’t such life-devaluation tendency is also a devastating effect of war?
Like the old man, the soldier is not given a name. This anonymity is used by Hemingway to accentuate that everything happens to the narrator can also happen to every other soldier.
Hemingway’s Old Man at the Bridge is a very short story that reveals the theme that wars cause devastating effects on the lives of the soldiers in the front and the innocent people caught up in the war. Hemingway shows lives in this context do not only cover material aspects but also the values of humanity. The theme is presented through the plot and characterization. Both the old man and the narrator are not given a name. This is used by Hemingway to accentuate that the horrible effect of war can happen to any common person and soldier.
Alternbend, L. and Lewis, L.L. (1966). A handbook for the study of fiction. London: Collier Macmillan Ltd.
Hemingway, E. (1939). Old Man at the Bridge. Retrieved from https://biblioklept.org/2012/07/06/read-the-old-man-at-the-bridge-a-short-story-by-ernest-hemingway/
Muller, G.H. (2019). Hemingway and the Spanish civil war: The distant sound of battle. Gewerbestrasse: Palgrave Macmillan