Monday, March 26, 2018

My Favourite Short Stories Revisited – Old Man At The Bridge by Ernest Hemingway

My Favorite Fiction Short Stories Revisited by Vikram Karve

Review of OLD MAN AT THE BRIDGE By Ernest Hemingway

The writing style of Ernest Hemingway is often described by the term Iceberg Theory. 

At first sight his stories seem like just an exchange of dialogues with minimal explanations. 

The meaning of the story is not immediately evident, because the crux of the story lies below the surface, just as most of the mass of a real iceberg similarly lies beneath the surface of the sea.

Hemingway elaborated on the Iceberg Theory thus:

If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. 

There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows. 

Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. 

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. 

The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

One of the finest examples of the Iceberg Theory is the short story OLD MAN AT THE BRIDGE in which Ernest Hemingway demonstrates his superb narrative skills. 

He takes a seemingly ordinary event and by the art of story-telling transforms it into a powerful story about the tragedy of war. 

This simple story succeeds in capturing those pedestrian yet profound aspects of war that people often forget.

Old Man at the Bridge is one of Hemingway's shortest stories. 

First published in 1938 it is a sensitive story about refugees displaced by the Spanish Civil War and even though it is a quick read, the story is an insightful commentary on the effects of war on innocents and how war disrupts lives, of both people and animals.

OLD MAN AT THE BRIDGE is freely available to read on the internet. I am giving a link to the story below and also posting the story (from the link mentioned) below for your convenience to read.

Old Man At The Bridge
Ernest Hemingway

An old man with steel rimmed spectacles and very dusty clothes sat by the side of the road. There was a pontoon bridge across the river and carts, trucks, and men, women and children were crossing it. The mule-drawn carts staggered up the steep bank from the bridge with soldiers helping push against the spokes of the wheels. The trucks ground up and away heading out of it all and the peasants plodded along in the ankle deep dust. But the old man sat there without moving. He was too tired to go any farther. 

It was my business to cross the bridge, explore the bridgehead beyond and find out to what point the enemy had advanced. I did this and returned over the bridge. There were not so many carts now and very few people on foot, but the old man was still there.
"Where do you come from?" I asked him.
"From San Carlos," he said, and smiled. 

That was his native town and so it gave him pleasure to mention it and he smiled.
"I was taking care of animals," he explained. "Oh," I said, not quite understanding.
"Yes," he said, "I stayed, you see, taking care of animals. I was the last one to leave the town of San Carlos."  

He did not look like a shepherd nor a herdsman and I looked at his black dusty clothes and his grey dusty face and his steel rimmed spectacles and said, "What animals were they?" 

"Various animals," he said, and shook his head. "I had to leave them." 

I was watching the bridge and the African looking country of the Ebro Delta and wondering how long now it would be before we would see the enemy, and listening all the while for the first noises that would signal that ever mysterious event called contact, and the old man still sat there. 

"What animals were they?" I asked.
"There were three animals altogether," he explained. "There were two goats and a cat and then there were four pairs of pigeons." 

"And you had to leave them?" I asked. 

"Yes. Because of the artillery. The captain told me to go because of the artillery." 

"And you have no family?" I asked, watching the far end of the bridge where a few last carts were hurrying down the slope of the bank. 

"No," he said, "only the animals I stated. The cat, of course, will be all right. A cat can look out for itself, but I cannot think what will become of the others." 

"What politics have you?" I asked. 

"I am without politics," he said. "I am seventy-six years old. I have come twelve kilometres now and I think now I can go no further."

"This is not a good place to stop," I said. "If you can make it, there are trucks up the road where it forks for Tortosa." 

"I will wait a while," he said, "and then I will go. Where do the trucks go?"
"Towards Barcelona," I told him. 

"I know no one in that direction," he said, "but thank you very much. Thank you again very much." 

He looked at me very blankly and tiredly, then said, having to share his worry with some one, "The cat will be all right, I am sure. There is no need to be unquiet about the cat. But the others. Now what do you think about the others?" 

"Why they'll probably come through it all right." 

"You think so?" 

"Why not," I said, watching the far bank where now there were no carts. 

"But what will they do under the artillery when I was told to leave because of the artillery?" 

"Did you leave the dove cage unlocked?" I asked. "Yes." 

"Then they'll fly." 

"Yes, certainly they'll fly. But the others. It's better not to think about the others," he said.
"If you are rested I would go," I urged. "Get up and try to walk now." 

"Thank you," he said and got to his feet, swayed from side to side and then sat down backwards in the dust. 

"I was taking care of animals," he said dully, but no longer to me. "I was only taking care of animals." 

There was nothing to do about him. It was Easter Sunday and the Fascists were advancing toward the Ebro. It was a grey overcast day with a low ceiling so their planes were not up. That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that old man would ever have.


Hemingway succinctly captures those aspects of war that people often forget. 

The author reminds us human life is not the only life disrupted by war. 

All living beings, in fact the entire nature, is adversely affected by war. 

The old man symbolizes the victims of war. 

He talks about the animals under his care who he was forced to leave behind to fend for themselves. 

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 story OLD MAN AT  THE BRIDGE succinctly encapsulates the tragedy  of all those voiceless innocent men, women and children who are the victims of wars they neither support nor understand.

Ernest Hemingway is one of my favourite authors and so many of his inimitable short stories are my favourites. 

I will certainly tell you about them, and my other favourite fiction short stories, in my blog.

Happy Reading

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This Story is a work of fiction. Events, Places, Settings and Incidents narrated in the story are a figment of my imagination. The characters do not exist and are purely imaginary. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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