Ernest Hemingway's economical short story "Old Man at the Bridge" first appeared in Ken Magazine (Volume 1, Number 4, May 19, 1938) prior to its later publication in the book The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories, also published in 1938. The Fifth Column is Hemingway's only full-length play and also includes all of his previously published short stories.
At just two pages in length, "The Old Man at the Bridge" is one of Hemingway's shortest tales. It is based upon an Easter Sunday stopover at the Ebro River during his coverage of the Spanish Civil War in April 1938. Although employed by the North American Newspaper Association (NANA), Hemingway apparently decided to submit it to Ken Magazine as a short story instead of using it as a news article.
As Hemingway observes the movement of vehicles and civilians fleeing across the pontoon bridge from an anticipated enemy attack, he notices a solitary old man sitting at the edge of the structure. Upon questioning him, Hemingway determines that the old man has just walked the twelve kilometers from his home village of San Carlos, but fatigue forces him to halt at the bridge, for he can go no further. The last man to leave the village, the old man's duty is to take care of the animals left behind. It is obvious that he takes his obligation seriously, for he worries more about the cat, two goats, and eight pigeons that were under his care than for his own safety. Sadly, he explains, he was forced to leave them behind. The cat will be able to take care of itself, he adds, but the goats and pigeons will have to fend for themselves. The correspondent suggests that the displaced man cross the bridge to the next crossroads, where he can catch a truck toward Barcelona, but the man explains that "I know no one in that direction." Although the correspondent is curious, he is not particularly helpful, and when the old man is unable to proceed, the journalist decides that "there was nothing to do about him." The enemy would cross the bridge soon, and death appears imminent for the old man.
The irony of the situation is not lost upon the correspondent, who realizes that the animals for which the old man is so concerned have a greater chance of survival than their caretaker during the next crucial twenty-four hours. Unable to walk and barely able to stand, the old man's luck has run out, and he, too, seems resigned to his fate at the bridge.
"Old Man at the Bridge," which Ernest Hemingway "cabled from Barcelona" to his publisher in April of 1938, most likely grew out of the author's experiences as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In this brief and spare story, Hemingway unleashes a multitude of contrasts: young and old, war and peace, the man-made and the natural.
The story details a chance encounter between a young soldier and an old Spaniard at a pontoon bridge. The old man's hometown of San Carlos is being evacuated because of artillery fire, and he sits at the roadside before the bridge crossing, too tired to walk. The soldier, while anticipating contact with the enemy, expresses concern about the man's safety and encourages him to continue moving. The old man, on the other hand, is not concerned about himself but worries about the animals he left behind. The old man's view of himself as a guardian of animals contrasts ironically with the soldier's identity as a killer of people.
The old man tells the soldier that he was forced to leave behind two goats, one cat, and four pairs of doves. The old man admits that "there is no need to be unquiet" about the welfare of a clever cat, and also confirms that he left the dove cage unlocked—the birds will certainly fly to safety. It is the fate of "the others"—the two goats—that he laments. The old man is very much like the goats he left in harm's way, since they have nowhere to go and cannot take care of themselves. Unlike the goats, however, this man is completely alone. Ultimately, both the goats and the old man are left to their fates because the soldier admits that "there was nothing to do" but leave the old man behind.
Finally, and almost parenthetically, the young soldier mentions that this encounter took place on Easter Sunday. The image of the risen Christ is not unlike the image of the old man's doves being released from their cage—both are symbols of hope and peace. The soldier, however, is not hopeful about the old man's fate—he bitterly remarks that "all the good luck that old man would ever have" was the fact that artillery planes were not flying that day and "the fact that cats know how to look after themselves." In this tale of contrasts, Hemingway portrays the natural world as morally and spiritually superior to the manufactured world of human beings because it does not destroy itself in war. As a keeper of animals, the old man, though he has no family and no political affiliations, is also morally and spiritually superior to the young soldier who leaves him behind.