Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Old Man at the Bridge by Hemingway- Rajarata University of Sri Lanka- Internal Degree Program-Year -3 Semester-1 23.02.2011 : Notes

The short story “Old man at the Brigde” written by Ernest Hemingway, published 1938, is about a conversation between a soldier and an old man who had to leave his hometown during the Spanish Civil War. The story conveys the subsequent problems for helpless victims, especially old people.
The action takes places at a pontoon brigde near the Ebro Delta on Easter Sunday during the civil war. The day is described as “a gray overcast day with low ceilling”(line 66) and all the refugees of that area are crossing the bridge.
The story is written in the first person and narrated by a nameless soldier whose duty it is to observe the advancing of the enemy. As Ernest Hemingway was in Spain during the civil war as well, it is quite possible that he assimilated his experiences of this horrible time in this story.
After the soldier has explored the region, he sees an old man and starts a conversation with the trivial question “Where do you come from?”(11). At the beginning he seems uninterested in the old man and answers with simple statements like “Oh.”(16), but this changes in the course of the conservation.
The seventy-six-year old man, who wears “steel rimmed spectacles”(1) and “black dusty clothes”(19), comes from San Carlos and you feel that this is very important to him because when he talks about his hometown “it gave him pleasure to mention it”(14). The most crucial part of the old man’s life are his animals. He owns two goats, a cat and some pigeons which he had to leave behind because of the artillery. The repetition of the sentence “I was (just) taking care of animals”(15,17,63,64) underlines the importance of this duty. He is without politics and has no family, so his whole life circles around only his animals and his hometown. Now he has had to leave all this and it does not surprise as he says “I can go no farther”(48), after he walked about 12 kilometres. The old man just has no vitality left, he is described as “blank”(45) and “tired”(45) and his meaning of life has been taken away from him by the civil war and the flight. Even after the soldier advises him to flee as long as it is possible, the old man does not move. The reader notices that he is very grateful the soldier talks to him “But thank you very much. Thank you again very much”(43/44). Perhaps it is the first contact and conversation to another person for a long time and he is happy that someone is interested in him and his worries. First the soldier does not really want to know the old man’s story, but after he heard it he begins to feel pity “There was nothig to do about him.”(65).
In this short story Ernest Hemingway uses a lot of metaphors and symbols. One of the symbols is the bridge, which represents uncertainty and dangers. Those are the feelings most of the people have during wartime. In contrast to this stands the fact that the story takes place on Easter Sunday, a holiday that stands for hope and and the faith in God. The feelings of the refugees probably stand in the same contrast. On the one hand they feel very frightened and worried, but on the other hand they do not want to lose hope. The animals also stand for different qualities. The pigeons, for example, represent peace and harmony and the fact that they fly away, away from the war, maybe is a reference to the refugees who flee from the war to a safer place. The cat being a symbol of independence, does not need anybody to survive, but the goat is often used as a sacrificial animal and this probably represents the old man and his situation. Like a goat which is sacrificed, the old man’s fate is sealed.
I really like this short story, because Ernest Hemingway manages to touch the reader’s heart by telling a sad and moving story, despite its extreme shortness. (J.W., 11c, Dec. 2008)

The whole story is about death

Ernest Hemingway´s story “The old man at the bridge“ is about death and war. It takes place during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. The story is told by a soldier who is a scout. He has to watch the bridge where refugees flee from the advance of the Fascist army. Then he sees an old man at the bridge. He starts a talk with the man. At the beginning the solider is not really interested in the things the man tells him. The old man came from San Carlos and was the last one who left the town because of his animals. Although the solider asks some superficial and inconsequential questions he is more interested in watching the other side of the bridge and thinks about how long it would be until they were able to see the ememy. After a while the solider begins to feel pity for the old man, who was a caretaker of animals and is more concerned for the safety of his animals than for his own safety. The man has already walked twelve kilometers and now, he tells the soldier, he is too tired to go on. He just wants to sit there. The solider does not understand the worries of the seventy-six-year-old about his animals, but then when he says that he has no family or relatives and his animals mean everything to him he seems to become more interested in the things the man says.
The animals are two goats, a cat and a few doves. These animals are used as symbols. The man tells the soldier that he is not worried about the cat, because it can care for itself. After the soldier asks if he left the cage of the doves unlocked the man is sure that the doves will fly away. But he mentions again and again that it would be better not to think about the others. “The others“ are the two goats. Cats are very independent animals. So the cat represents the free will and freedom of thought. The chance for the cat of the old man is to run away. That shows the reader that nobody can control your thoughts even if you are forced to do something, your thoughts are free. And you have a free will. For example, the old man in the story was driven out of his hometown, but he has got still a free will and he is able to go where he wants to.The doves represent peace. It is clear that the story takes place during a war, because the chance of the doves to stay alive is to fly away. The meaning of the two goats is not so easy to see. The goat represents unreasonableness and aggressiveness but also adaptability and that is the really important meaning. It is not mentioned what happened or what maybe would happen to the two goals, and if they are able to care for themselves or have to die. This means that the people have no possibility to stop the war and they have to accept it. They have to live with this, and also with the problems which appear in the war and so the people have to try to make the best of it. Another symbol in the story is the bridge on which the two men meet. It shows that some big things change but that there is still a connection between these two things. In this case it is the old life of the man that lies now behind him and the new life where many things will change because of the war.

The old man says that he is too tired to go on. He stands in front of the bridge, thus still clinging to his old life with his animals that he does not want to leave behind. But in fact he will have to. And at the end of the story it seems to be clear that the old man does not intend to cross the bridge and to go on. So you can see that the whole story is about death. And in the end it is also clear for the narrator – the soldier – and the old man that death is imminent. (K.S., 11c, Dec. 2008)

Hemingway´s narrative skills have a great impact

In the short story "Old Man at the Bridge" by Ernest Hemingway the author narrates a fictional situation taking place during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway (1899 - 1961) was a famous American novelist, short-story writer and journalist. In 1937 he travelled to Spain in order to report about the Spanish Civil War for some American newspapers. One year before parts of the Spanish army had attempted a revolution against the government. They were supported by the German and Italian fascist regimes. The war was between Catholics and atheists, between army, communists and anarchists, between landowners and peasants, between nationalists and republicans and separated family members from each other, friends and neighbours. The war was performed with unknown cruelty and witnessed by an unknown simultaneousness of the mass media. Hemingway was on the side of the republicans, reported from their point of view and was inspired by what he experienced to write forty-nine short stories. After almost three years the rebels succeeded. 500.000 people were killed. The dictatorship by General Francisco Franco began.

The short story "Old Man at the Bridge" is one of "The First Forty-Nine Stories”, written in 1938. Through his narrative skills Hemingway manages to give the reader the impression that he himself is part of the scene or the encounter might have really happened like in the story. The situation is that Spanish people flee from Fascist artillery over a bridge across the river Ebro. Men, women, children are crossing the bridge, but the old man sits beside it. Hemingway describes it with simple, realistic details which incorporate the reader into the scene immediately. The narrator involves the old man in a conversation and asks where he comes from. The old man tells him that he was taking care of animals in his native town, but is worried now whether they might survive the artillery attack. The old man wears steel rimmed spectacles, which do not fit to a shepherd or herdsman. The man is seventy-six years old, he cannot walk any further, he is too weak and does not stop worrying about the animals he left behind. The narrator asks him about the animals and finds out that the man has left a cat, four pairs of pigeons and two goats. He comforts the old man by mentioning that the cat and the birds will be fine and will take care of themselves.

Even if the story is full of dialogues, attempts to comfort, offerings of help, it is a sad story. The old man might have had a life of intellectual interests, might have been a teacher or a union activist. At the end of his life, he is neither worried about his dreams or goals or any political opinions nor about his life or health, but about a few animals for which he felt responsible. He must leave behind the pigeons, the symbol of peace and hope, and the cat, symbol of seven lives. Only the goats, like the old man himself, are lost. Life shrinks to one point of sorrow, which is endured with composure. There are no unnecessary or sentimental words. The first person narrator helps the reader to identify with the scene of threat and hopelessness. The plot is without climax or inner development. In my opinion Hemingway was very successful to touch the reader´s heart with just a few words. (L.J., 11c, Dec. 2008)

The old man symbolizes the victims of war

The short story “Old Man at the Bridge” takes place during the Spanish Civil War. It displays Hemingway’s own experience in war. The story deals with a soldier who comes in contact with an old man at a bridge where people are crossing to flee from the Spanish Civil War. The scout discovers the old man and in the end he realizes the old man cannot move anymore and will probably die at the bridge.
The first person narrator, who is not described in detail, tells the story. That gives the impression that you are involved in this situation. The narrator carefully describes the situation with commentaries, so that a clear picture of the old man is developed.
The main character of the story is a 76-year-old man. The narrator realizes that the refugee is a man without politics. At the beginning he thinks that the man just wants to rest, but later he realizes the old man is not able to move on and is going to die at the bridge. He was forced to leave his farm where he had lived and to leave his animals behind. The man repeats “I was taking care of animals, I was only taking care of animals” a few times. This makes clear that he symbolizes the men, women and children who had to leave their home and their normal life as victims of a war with which they have nothing to do.
The old man also talks about the animals he has. He has a cat which can probably flee. She is a symbol of the survivor because she has nine lives. He has pigeons which can fly away, so they can also flee. They are a symbol of peace. But the old man is neither like the cat nor the pigeons because he cannot flee like them. He is like the third animal he owns, the goat. He cannot escape and is a victim of the war like the goat. The narrator apprehends that “there is nothing to do about him”, the situation of this old man is hopeless. So he is going to die on Easter Sunday, which is very ironic, because that is the day of the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection. (A.W., Dec. 2008)

Sources: www.gs.cidsnet.de/.../hemingway_oldmanatthebridge.htm-23.02.2011
D.N. ALOYSIUS -23.02.2011

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